Over the last few years, prominent professional basketball players have become increasingly outspoken surrounding social issues such as police brutality and voting access. The NBA has also taken steps as an organization to become more socially conscious. A big part of this initiative has been the creation of the National Basketball Association Social Justice Coalition.

Blavity spoke exclusively with the coalition’s executive director, James Cadogan, about the history and actions of the coalition and what we should expect from the organization and the league going forward.

Drawing on a long history of NBA activism

“The Social Justice Coalition was founded in the fall of 2020 in order to actually give institutional voice and resources” to the activism of the league and its players, Cadogan explained. Such activism, he added, has been “a hallmark of the NBA family for 75 years. Players have used their platform to stand up for what they believe in from the time of Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson straight through today.”

Cadogan also noted the importance of tackling racial issues for a league that is populated by mostly Black players. “Racial justice is at the heart of what we do.”

Bringing together players, coaches and owners for concerted action

While there has been a long tradition of individual players engaging in activism, Cadogan explained two functions that the Social Justice Coalition performs.  “What the coalition is intended to do is provide a structured vehicle to help sharpen that voice in public policy and political discussions on our issues.”

Second, “in 2020 in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and too many other Black folks to name,” the coalition was a way to bring together “not just player voices but also coach, owner voices and executives from the league office and the players’ association” to all act in a coordinated fashion.

Focus on justice, policing and voting

Cadogan explained the policy areas that are the main focus of the coalition’s activities. “Our three issues are criminal justice, policing reform and voting rights.” For each area, the coalition has worked “to raise awareness, to educate and to take direct action.”

This has meant supporting legislation like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, all of which have stalled in Congress. Cadogan also explained that the coalition is supporting the Equal Act — legislation aimed at eliminating sentencing differences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine — which appears to have gained enough support to pass Congress.

Encouraging national and local action

“The criminal justice frame that we want to focus on is broad,” Cadogan told Blavity, explaining that the coalition will continue to focus on national legislation while also encouraging teams to take action at the local level. “We want it to be tailored market by market to represent what players want to see happen” on issues ranging from “probation and parole to prosecution reform to sentencing reform.” Cadogan highlighted the work of individuals within the league, including Miami Heat Assistant Coach Caron Butler’s work on juvenile justice, as well as state-level activism by teams such as the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks.

Magnifying the voices for justice in the league

Cadogan explained that the Social Justice Coalition was devoted to helping more players and teams engage in social justice work. “The more players we have, coaches we have and executives we have who are using their brands and power to shed a light on issues that a lot of people have been working on for a long time but that haven’t gotten the attention that they deserve,” the more impact the league can have.

Fulfilling the legacy of Bill Russell

Cadogan again evoked the example of Bill Russell, who passed away in July, in inspiring the Social Justice Coalition. Russell “used his platform at a time when it wasn’t popular and when he had fewer tools at his disposal, but he did everything he could to make our country a fairer and more just place, and our job now is to live up to the legacy that he left behind, the legacy that so many others have contributed to in the NBA community.”

With its activism surrounding Election Day and more, the National Basketball Association Social Justice Coalition aims to continue that legacy in a coordinated and powerful way.