Liberté, Equality, #ICantBreathe! Teaching the Age of Revolutions Using the NBA’s 2020 Summer RestartRoundup
tags: French Revolution, sports, political history, revolution, basketball, Enlightenment, Protest
Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is Professor of History at California State University – San Marcos. Her newest book, Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games, is forthcoming in 2021 from the University Press of Mississippi.
The eighteenth century can seem remote to students interested in 21st-century issues. Especially in 2020, amidst the COVID pandemic and the explosion of #BlackLivesMatter protests following the murder of George Floyd, it may seem challenging for students to focus on long-ago subjects like the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions.
First look at NBA players wearing social justice messages on the back of their jerseys. pic.twitter.com/g34t41cRRx— ESPN (@espn) July 30, 2020
I would argue, however, that the 2020 summer basketball restart is an ideal means for helping students connect the present to the eighteenth century. The social-justice messages that NBA and WNBA players are wearing on their jerseys can help students realize that sports are not divorced from social movements; the messages highlight the long tradition of athletes as activists. Though WNBA players are wearing an identical message (Breonna Taylor’s name), NBA players can choose from an array of slogans to place on their jerseys, many of which have eighteenth-century roots. The messages they are projecting on their backs can in fact help students understand the global legacies of the Atlantic Revolutions, the uneven application of their universalist ideals, and the limits of different kinds of primary sources. 
Michelle Cusseaux was shot and killed by Phoenix police during a mental wellness check.— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) August 12, 2020
Say her name. pic.twitter.com/jMW2Pld0o9
How did NBA players’ jerseys become a site for political expression? In March 2020, as COVID spread, the NBA suspended its season, but by May, players were feeling pressure from the league, networks, and some fans for games to resume. Some, however, like Nets guard Kyrie Irving and others, worried that resuming the season – and giving the public the distraction of sports – could derail the momentum of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
After much negotiation, the NBA and the players’ union reached an agreement. Players would return – under three conditions. First, to avoid COVID, they would live and play in a sealed “bubble.” Second, players could opt out of the restart. Finally, “Black Lives Matter” would be written on the court for all games, focusing viewers’ attention on the movement. To reinforce this focus, the players could choose from an assortment of #BLM-related slogans to place on their jerseys.
This development was a remarkable departure from the NFL’s ostracization of activist-quarterback Colin Kaepernick; it also firmly rejected the ideas of people like Laura Ingraham who believed that players should “shut up and dribble” rather than speak out politically. Indeed, the jerseys (worn by U.S.-born players and the growing number of international ones) illustrate that Black citizens – in the U.S. and in many other countries that were sites of slavery and colonialism – still struggle to obtain the rights promised in late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century founding documents.
Jersey slogans offer a glimpse into the many successive movements worldwide in which Blacks and other marginalized peoples have sought equality. Some of the slogans are modern coinages. Black Lives Matter dates to Alicia Garza’s first using it in 2013, Sí Se Puede to Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Worker movement in the 1970s. But other slogans, like Freedom, Equality, Justice, and Educational Reform, stem from eighteenth-century philosophical texts. Instructors might assign U.S., French, Haitian, or Venezuelan founding documents (or Enlightenment texts, or those by eighteenth-century intellectuals of African descent such as Julien Raimond) to read against the jerseys. Students can be asked to consider: what rights were promised in these documents? What failures to extend these rights do jerseys reveal?