Ballin’ Out

I don’t know how many where-were-you moments 2020 feels the need to collect in its prolific career, but we’re not at a saturation point yet. When my wife told me the NBA playoffs shut down due to player boycotts, I initiated my four-step nu-uh, nu-uh, no way, no way sequence. (She had to confirm the news after each tic as if there were any reason for her to make this up.)

In the incredulous tone of Jim Mora… playoffs? This felt momentous to me.

Now in my fourth calendar decade as an NBA fan a la Vince Carter, I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s as Twilight Zone as best-of-seven in a Mickey Mouse bubble or Kobe dying in a helicopter crash.

This makes kneeling during the anthem look like a save-the-whales flyer taped to a sidewalk at Berkeley. Yawn. The platitudes plastered on floors and jerseys are nice to see and maybe contribute marginally to morale. In marketing, this would be top-of-the-funnel awareness.

But moving down the funnel to consideration and conversion — the action people want— requires big-boy moves. Baller moves. Especially in our beautiful and terrible capitalist America, I tend to think just about everything simply comes down to money.

If Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk were told their stock prices depended on police reform and then given the keys, they would go buck wild running it like their businesses — customer obsession, ruthless efficiency, data-driven decisions, testing and iteration, bias toward action, unequivocal expectations, perform or get fired. Things would look different in a hurry.

The analogy to the private sector isn’t apples to apples, but my point is to focus more on money. Even with police brutality rightly under a microscope, I have my reservations about where to channel the swelling frustration, anger and resources.

In my opinion, which I am willing to update with more listening and reading, the unprecedented spotlight right now should shine squarely on economic investment in Black communities. Money put in the right places will have more impact than raging against law enforcement every time a video goes viral.

There are lots of cities in the US of A, lots of police, lots of troubled people, lots of 911 calls, lots of guns. There will be more videos no matter which party is in power.

This is uncomfortable to say because it’s something white supremacists bastardize for their agenda, but the reality is the chances of a Black person being killed by a racist cop versus another Black person aren’t even on the same scale. Actual toddlers are dying from routine gun violence, and no one seems to care: no athlete tweets, T-shirts or funeral processions fit for a president.

Obviously it’s different when the shooter wears a badge, and the two problems can be worked on concurrently. But with finite time and public attention and irreversible loss of life, the 80-20 rule comes to mind.

Where can the biggest impact be made? It’s like being caught up on keeping Steve Kerr from getting an open look, while Michael Jeffrey Jordan is torching us every time down the floor.

Even if every last racist or subpar cop were stamped out, even if every last bit of bias were magically removed from every officer’s mind with some kind of Men in Black contraption… there would still be a racial wealth gap, disproportionate crime, and unconscionable disparity in privilege and opportunity. Frankly there would still be police shootings too.

Money for education, housing, jobs and social services changes things at scale. I was inspired and enlightened by Netflix’s pledge to move up to $100 million of its cash holdings to lenders focused on Black communities.

The idea was based on a professor’s book tracing the origins of the segregated economy and undercapitalized Black banks. I’d like to read it but probably won’t given my slow pace.

Coincidentally though, I’ve been bookmarked on page 308 of Sapiens for weeks. It happens to be the chapter on capitalism.

Bank credit is the magical engine that creates wealth. It’s how you make the future pie bigger for everybody rather than fight within a zero-sum game.

It’s how new businesses are created and the economy grows. I presume the other book explains how Black communities have been screwed by limited access to capital, rooted in systemic racism that goes all the way back to the beginning.

Anyway, I think paying more attention to stuff like this — following the money — can be more productive than obsessing over every police shooting. That sounds callous. A better way to put it is if you’re going to obsess over every police shooting, there should be some cognitive dissonance if you’re not obsessing over other Black shootings that happen on a much larger scale.

Netflix by the way also pledged $120 million to support scholarships at historically Black colleges. The NBA created a standalone foundation dedicated to Black economic empowerment and committed $300 million.

These things get me fired up. Some cynics might think checks from corporations or billionaires are more about PR than actually caring. I couldn’t care less about sincerity with that many zeroes. It seems more helpful than changing your company logo to black and white for a month and pumping more rhetoric into the echo chamber.

That’s why I was exhilarated by the player boycott. Nothing matters until there’s money on the table.

Considering TV contracts, advertising spend, player salaries, ticket sales and the live event economy down the road, the expiring collective bargaining agreement… not ballin’ for even just three days was so baller. It was historic, and I didn’t see it coming at all.

I feel like the players of a league I’ve been following since the 90s were heard like never before, and I wanted to be sure to add that to my 2020 scrapbook.


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