BOSTON — Kyrie Irving is back in the news and for those around these parts, that’s always going to get a collective, «what kind of nonsense is he talking now?» reaction.
But these days, with the former Celtic lending his voice to the cause for increased awareness of the social injustices stemming from the death of George Floyd, Kyrie is doing and for the most part, saying all the right things.
It’s great that he has made himself an integral part of the conversation, but (there always seems to be a ‘but …’ with Kyrie, I know) conflating the laundry list of societal issues with the league’s return-to-play plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic, is not the way to go.
We’re not going to delve back in the archives and spend a ton of time rehashing the issues he had with LeBron James in Cleveland or how things blew up for him and the Celtics during his brief stint in Boston which raised questions about his ability to lead.
That has nothing to do with this.
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What Kyrie Irving is talking about now, what so many NBA players are speaking out on, is so much bigger.
The nation is talking about systemic racism; an unbalanced judicial system that doles out punishment in disproportionate doses towards Blacks, the kind of issue that no one who is Black – not even multi-millionaire NBA players – is completely immune to.
That’s why the fact that Irving is so concerned about those issues fading to the background with the NBA season resuming, are legit topics players should be discussing.
But to push for players to not return so that the attention will be on the protests and the issues surrounding the protests, is wrong.
Because guess what?
The minute a significant number of top-shelf players or all players decide to not participate in the return which is tentatively set for a July 30 reboot, folks won’t be talking about the protesters in Atlanta or Minneapolis or any other city.
All the talk will then be about the NBA players not returning to play, a divided players union which spells an uncertain future for the league at a time when there’s so much uncertainty across the entire sports landscape.
Pointing out how the return will take many eyes off of crusade, I think Kyrie is selling short the impact of his fellow NBA players on keeping the need-for-change narrative sweeping this country, alive and well.
A decision to return puts the focus on the games and the players; players who have been outspoken for weeks who will now have an even bigger platform to discuss those issues ON THEIR TERMS.
There will be the usual t-shirts and hats that will have some pointed messaging for those watching their post-game interviews to express their feelings and support for those still protesting.
During those interviews, players will have the opportunity to shift the conversations towards what’s happening outside their basketball bubble which gives the conversation a new, bigger runway to work with and thus amplify the message to an even greater, wider audience.
Do you seriously think that Jaylen Brown will drop 20 points in a Celtics win and then afterward, not say anything about the systemic change he and so many of his fellow NBA players have been publicly speaking out about for weeks?
That, more than sitting out games, is what can level-up the discussion beyond where it is now.
And for Irving, who isn’t expected to play after undergoing surgery on his shoulder in March, he can still do his part in keeping the conversation going while others return to play by simply taking a more public, engaging role in the conversation as it relates to the subject of social injustice sparked by the death of George Floyd last month.
Whether that’s actually protesting or spending more time talking about it publicly, the conversation can still go on while games are being played.
Now the concerns expressed by some players about COVID-19 and whether they are comfortable in returning, I get that.
These players are not just talking about their own life, but potentially those around them beyond their teammates.
So the trepidation along those lines is understandable.
But to conflate those fears with the messaging of protesters, is wrong.
When it comes to the coronavirus, there is an across-the-globe effort to find a cure and eradicate this disease with a limited focus on the symptoms.
Because as we know, you kill the disease you kill its symptoms.
It’s a completely different matter when it comes to racism which is at the absolute root of the issues America finds itself grappling with how to best handle.
It is a disease of our society where there is no cure to speak of, with the efforts for decades to eliminate it being inconsistent and erratic, at best.
That’s why it’s so important for players to use their voice, their platforms at every instance to continue these frank discussions we’re having as a country, as much as possible.
Because returning to play while keeping this current movement going forward, should not be an either/or proposition.
«I love Kyrie’s passion towards helping this movement,» Houston Rockets guard Austin Rivers added. «It’s admirable and inspiring. I’m with it … but not at the cost of the whole NBA and players’ careers. We can do both. We can play and we can help change the way black lives are lived. I think we have [to]! But canceling and boycotting [a] return doesn’t do that in my opinion. Guys want to play and provide and help change!!!!»
And while returning to play will generate attention to the actual games being played, there’s plenty of room for that spotlight to shine both on their play and the issues of social injustice that mean so much to Irving and so many of his NBA brethren.
Racial injustice, NBA’s return-to-play plan are two separate issues originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston