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The NBA’s Florida conundrum

Black players see what is happening in the state and must find a way to express their disapproval

DENVER — As the NBA’s postseason continues, the Finals’ move to Florida comes at a time when that state has become ground zero for a legislative assault on diversity, equity and inclusion. There is a push from the governor’s mansion to erase Black history from the curriculum of public institutions.

A league built on Black players must find a way to express its disapproval.

In May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that, among other things, will prevent Florida colleges from using federal or state funding on diversity and inclusion programs. He signed a bill in April 2022 banning critical race theory from being taught in schools. Incredibly, since 2021, more than 500 books have been banned in 21 Florida school districts. DeSantis and the Florida legislature have declared war on diversity and inclusion.

Players are paying attention.

Before Game 2, I spoke with forward Jeff Green of the Denver Nuggets and forward Udonis Haslem of the Miami Heat. Green has lived in Florida for nine years. Haslem was born and raised in Florida.

After Florida passed a law that allows Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a government-issued permit in the wake of yet another mass shooting, Green said, he and his wife said they had had enough.

“Me and my wife were like, ‘We’re getting out of here,’ ” Green said. “But then we thought, you know what, I’m not going to let him run me out of my home, my comfort zone where I live. I think it’s a matter of speaking up and combating his voice.

“If anything, you combat it. Figure out a way to smartly strategize on how you can approach it. How could you just erase Black history from schools?”

Forward Jeff Green of the Denver Nuggets attends the 2023 NBA Finals practice and media availability day on June 3 at the Ball Arena in Denver. He said he wants to become fluent in complex issues before speaking out.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Green, 36, was born in Cheverly, Maryland, and attended Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. He played college basketball at Georgetown.

“Going through high school, I never took an African American studies class until I got to Georgetown,” Green said. He said he remembered thinking, “ ‘Wow, this is stuff that I should have learned in middle school.’ ”

Green and his wife, who is Colombian, have three children. He said he wants his daughters to learn about the history of racism in the United States. “They are biracial but they are part of me,” he said. “They will experience at some point the negativity of what he [DeSantis] brings toward African Americans.”

Green said that before speaking out, he wants to become fluent in complex issues. For example, Green said he thought the legislation that bans certain books would only impact public high schools and below. The legislation actually impacts all institutions receiving state funds. “There so much to tackle. I need to know what he has actually been doing,” he said, referring to the Florida governor. “It’s about educating yourself on the issues and going from there. Then when it’s time to speak up, you have the facts to back up what you’re saying.”

Haslem grew up in Miami, attended Miami Senior High School and played at the University of Florida. I asked him how he felt about what is happening in his home state.

“Well, first and foremost, I’m going to ask people out there to stop Florida-shaming us,” Haslem said. “Everybody ain’t down with what’s going on in Florida. Haslem said he did not want people to think all Floridians approved of what DeSantis was doing. “We’re not. I’m not down with it. I’m not happy about it.”

He added: “I happen to live there, and I was born there. It’s not my fault. So please stop Florida-shaming us, people. We’re not happy about what this man is doing,” he said referring to the governor. “Diversity and inclusion and taking [away the books]. We’re not happy about that. I sit at home on the couch with my wife and raise hell.

“It’s very disappointing and I’m the father of three, three Black men,” he said. “Three boys that are coming up and I would love for them to learn in school about what the hell is really going on and what happened. But that’s out of my control. All I can do is get my a– up and vote. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to continue to encourage everybody around me. That’s all I can do.”

Black pro athletes were galvanized by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement in 2020.

More than a decade ago, LeBron James, then with the Heat, used the slaying of Trayvon Martin to galvanize a Miami Heat players’ protest in 2012.

Donald Spivey, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Miami, recalls James’ impact. “It was LeBron James who pulled the Heat together and had them do the hoodie protest that they did,” Spivey recalled. “That kind of dramatic impact, they were protesting the wrongs that were done, and everybody knows that LeBron James was the force behind bringing these players together.”

Those were different times. There were obvious villains, obvious goals, and a clear enemy. Attacks by the likes of DeSantis and politicians like him are subtle, behind-the-scenes legislative maneuvers.

“The consequences are just as devastating as Trayvon Martin,” Spivey said. “This is an all-out effort to limit, Black history, which is a history of racism, which is a history of violence, which is a history of murder, which is a history of slavery.”

Public school students in DeSantis’ Florida will be taught a sanitized version of American history. “You’re not supposed to mention race and racism and lynchings, and thus you’re not supposed to talk about white privilege,” Spivey said. “You’re not supposed to talk about the things that have made America and which continue to slap Black folks and people of color in the face on a daily basis.

“If you read these bills, they are actually saying that you’re not supposed to talk about these things. It’s a frontal attack on diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

But the maneuvers require players to study, strategize and read between the lines. What’s happening in Florida is almost too subtle to be galvanizing.

“It’s much more cerebral,” Spivey said. “You’ve got to be looking at what’s going on, and you’ve got to be conscious about what’s going on. For some, this can be more subtle because it’s not somebody putting a gun and shooting you. It’s much more long-term. But it’s not subtle to me. What they’re really trying to crack down on is hiring more Black folks, hiring more people of color. That’s what the real goal is.”

What can a league like the NBA do to show its opposition to the Florida initiatives? Spivey said historians and chairs of history departments have come together in Florida, trying to find a way to resist. There have been protests at Florida International University and the University of Miami.

“We’ve had an actual on-campus protest demonstration,” Spivey said. “We call it a teach-in, where a number of faculty people spoke, and several hundred students came out.”

Perhaps the NBA, which hosts community events during the playoffs and All-Star Week, can host a series of teach-ins throughout the season. Maybe the league can feature the 500 books banned in Florida.

At the very least, the league can issue a statement reinforcing its support of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We’re being attacked,” Spivey said. “Whether it’s subtle — some people will call it subtle —we’re under attack, we’re under assault and I just don’t say for Black people, for anybody who really does believe in democracy.”

With franchises in Orlando and Miami, the NBA may not want to pick a fight with a Florida governor who has eyes on the White House. But a league with such a significant Black labor force that publicly champions diversity, equity and inclusion cannot remain silent.

As Eldridge Cleaver famously said decades ago: You’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.