It’s a daunting 15-hour drive from Boston all the way down to Atlanta but for Celtics guard Jaylen Brown, it was something he had to do—he was on a mission. Brown decided to make the trek down to his home city to lead a peaceful march and protest after watching protests in Atlanta the night before descending into chaos and violence. Brown told viewers on his Instagram Live that is something he simply had to do.
“I drove 15 hours to get to Georgia, my community,” Brown said. “This is a peaceful protest. Being a celebrity, being an NBA player, don’t exclude me from no conversations at all. First and foremost, I’m a black man and I’m a member of this community. […] We’re raising awareness for some of the injustices that we’ve been seeing. It’s not OK.”
The recent spike in protests for racial justice in America following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and many others has taken the NBA by storm. Players from nearly every team took to the streets to participate in protests and when games resumed, many donned messages of social and racial justice on the back of their jerseys, while playing on a court that read “Black Lives Matter” across the middle. When the NBA players, led by the Milwaukee Bucks, led a historic strike following the shooting of Jacob Blake, Brown was one of the first to come to the defense of the team.
“We came down here to use our platform and that’s exactly what Milwaukee did and we all saw its effect. We all saw the awareness that was raised,” Brown said. “To be honest, I think we will appreciate what Milwaukee did. There’s a lot of reasons why guys came down here other than basketball and to use our platforms and Milwaukee did exactly that.”
This action by Brown should not come as any surprise to Celtics and NBA fans though. When Brown entered the league, he was touted by some scouts as “too smart” for the NBA. He attended the University of California Berkeley where he also played basketball, one of the best academic schools in the nation after forgoing offers from many powerhouses in college basketball. Brown spoke about his time at Berkeley in a seminar at Harvard University.
“My best experience was just taking classes there,” Brown said. “The basketball was whatever it was. The chips fall into place, but the educational experience I had at Cal, second to none.”
In this current climate, someone like Brown could be the perfect new face of the NBA. The NBA long faced a crisis about how to market themselves in a racially divided America throughout the 70s and 80s, but later found success with marketing players like Michael Jordan. Scholars David L. Andrews and Michael L. Silk wrote in their essay Basketball’s Ghettocentric Logic about how the NBA embraced and used pillars of Black culture like hip hop music, barbershops, and street culture as a way for them to market themselves better to a predominantly white America. However, in this age of a new fight for civil rights, racial justice, and activism, a figure as well versed and outspoken as Brown could be an ideal face for this new phase of the NBA.
The NBA and its players have long had a mixed past with racial and political messages. Long before Colin Kaepernick ever took a knee during the anthem of an NFL game, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf found himself blacklisted from the league for doing the exact same thing. 2020 was also not the first year that players began to take an active voice in social justice and politics. In their work Athletes and/or Activists: LeBron James and Black Lives Matter, authors Danielle Sarver Coombs and David Cassilo detailed how Lebron James has used his position as the face of the NBA to help carefully advocate for racial justice, particularly following the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice at the hands of the police. Brown has been outspoken on these issues since he entered the league and said he believes it is important for players to use their voices for change, even when they get pushback.
“This has been the notion in our society for the last 10 or 15 so years,” Brown said in his speech at Harvard. “That athletes are not allowed to have an opinion, not allowed to have a voice. Even me coming up here today, I had concerns that there would be some kind of pushback…To be honest, I’m not afraid. This has been the notion for too long and it is time to change.”
He has also already become a prominent voice throughout the league on these issues. Brown serves as a Vice President of the NBA Players Association and was very vocal during the discussions and debate following the Buck’s protest and subsequent strike. NBA Insider Marc Spears said Brown challenged players who wanted to go home from the bubble after the strike asking them “if you leave, are you going to leave and hang out with your families? Are you going to be in the trenches? Are you going to be in the streets” encouraging that if players chose to leave, that they use their time away from the bubble using their platforms for racial justice.
On the court, Brown made a huge leap this season as he averaged over 20 points per game for the first time in his career while also shooting 48 percent from the field. He proved to be a key player on a Celtics team that reached the Eastern Conference finals. At only 23-years-old, Brown has a long future in the league ahead of him.
Should the NBA decide to continue on its trend of supporting and promoting activism, a player of Jaylen Brown’s skill, youth, and pedigree would be a perfect face for the new activist NBA. He is poised as someone who could be easily marketable to the country as a role model for young fans, as someone who performs well on and off the court and stands up for what he believes in.