Brian Lowery: Today I’m talking about race and sports with Nneka Ogwumike, All-Star forward of the WNBA champion L.A. Sparks and also the president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, and with R.C. Buford, CEO of the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. Thank you both for being here. I feel like I’m in the room with two Champions League athletes. I feel lucky.
Sports is actually a very big part of our society and actually most societies around the world. Why do you think people care so much about sports?
Nneka Ogwumike: Sports is important to us because so much of it permeates culture in so many different ways. Especially as an athlete who has played a lot of sports and has seen a lot of sporting events, it’s clear that sports are cross-cultural. You can go anywhere and not speak the same language as someone else, watch the game, and enjoy it just the same. I think that’s really what brings people together: this unequivocal understanding of a pastime, a team, a city, even a player, that you love. That can be just a simple common denominator across so many groups of people, of so many different walks of life. I really do think that people love sports because it’s a way to bring people together.
Brian Lowery: R.C., what do you think?
R.C. Buford: I think sports fits both individual and societal needs in a big way: people’s need to belong, a meaningful life, feeling something, being a part of something larger than ourselves. As Nneka said, it’s a common language and a real part of the socialization process. It gives us a chance to integrate with people. When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, 5 million people attended. It was one of the largest gatherings ever on Earth to celebrate that championship. It brought people from diverse ethnic, racial, religious, political, and educational backgrounds together. Sports brings people together for a common goal and a common experience. And it’s a great way to be a part of a team.
Brian Lowery: This has been a theme, now that we’ve started talking about culture a bit in this series. We talked about music and about food, and how those things bring people together. What’s interesting is these cultural things also separate people. You have the teams you love and you have the teams you root against, so there is both the “bring together” and the “separation.” I wonder how you think about that: Is that a metaphor for the way society works?
R.C. Buford: I think sports aligns people’s passions and it puts people in a position where they have an opportunity to be distinctive. For the Boston Red Sox fan that lives in New York City, it’s a great way for him or her to separate themselves. So, there are opportunities to bring people together, but also to create some boundaries.
Nneka Ogwumike: I agree with R.C. It may not necessarily be sports solely bringing people together or separating them: There’s still beauty in bringing people’s differences together. If you have a Red Sox fan in New York, there’s more pride in representing their roots. It contributes to the competitive nature of sports: Although not everyone is playing, I’m a Celtics fan, you’re a Lakers fan, and we can argue about that all day. Like R.C. said, there’s a passion there, whether it’s in the sport or the team, that really fuels something in us that I’m not sure anything else can bring out in people.
Brian Lowery: One way that you do see sports bringing people together is that all sporting events throughout the United States play the national anthem before the event. It’s common that people stand up, and while we could get into when people don’t stand up, for now, let’s assume that people see that as a shared moment. There’s this sense of a strong tie between patriotism and sports, so it really struck me when Mark Cuban decided not to play the national anthem for the Mavericks home games. He didn’t make a big deal about it or even say anything, he just didn’t play the anthem. I’m curious what you think about that decision to just kind of quietly not play the anthem.
Nneka Ogwumike: When we heard the news about Mark Cuban doing that, he had basically brought to the surface conversations that had already been happening, and we were actually in the process of understanding what this might look like at sporting events. One question that arises for a lot of people is, ‘Why do we play the anthem at games?’ I think that’s a valid question. It’s one of those things that exists because “that’s always how we’ve always done it.” In this day and age, we don’t live in a world where that’s a valid reason to do anything. It brings the conversation to a head for us to explore not just the anthem’s place in sporting events, but also its meaning in this country. That certainly speaks to Mark Cuban’s actions. I’ll speak also as a player that’s played internationally in several different countries. Other nations play or don’t play their anthem in different instances. It’s not one way or the other but is based on how people view the formalities of the event. It’s just so interesting how serious of a conversation playing the anthem is in the U.S., in a place in which we literally play it at every event. You can go to a T-ball game and they will play it without really understanding why it’s being played, its place in sporting events, and also what it means for the time that we’re in.
R.C. Buford: Nneka said it really well. There are very few places around the world, except with national team play, that an anthem would be played before games. I do think that the politicization of the anthem currently signals the overall political divide, and people are trying to make that issue both oversimplified as well as overcomplicated.
Brian Lowery: This points to the activism around sports and how sports is a metaphor for more than just the games that are being played. Sports provides a sense of who we are and how we demonstrate that around sporting events. There’s obviously a very long history of activism in sports: Jack Johnson and boxing, to Jackie Robinson and others trying to desegregate sports, to Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the 1968 Olympics, through to today when many of the WNBA players are taking a knee during the anthem. There’s this long history of activism and sports.
Nneka, you’ve been a big part of that activism in the WNBA, which has been a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, as it intersects with sports. I’m curious how that activism came about and what the conversations were like between you and your fellow players in regard to that activism.
Nneka Ogwumike: The 2020 season was a lot of onlookers’ first experience with WNBA players’ activism. It was certainly not the first time we have spoken up about social and political change. People have approached this situation as though the players have a singular initiative. In reality, we just are organized and have learned how to mobilize along the way, as we’ve experienced pushback to our different forms of advocacy and demonstration.
It really all boils down to the fact that we are a league of women and we’re a league of mostly Black women. In this world, women experience sexism, and Black women experience racism and sexism. The players of the WNBA are just inherently in the cause, in the movement, in the fight. That brings a lot of force when you have 144 women who are used to experiencing these things in society and now bring that to sports. Outside of even what we’ve been experiencing in the Black and brown communities, we have also constantly been fighting for pay equity for our league. This advocacy is just a part of us. We also realize, especially in the last couple of years, that change doesn’t happen individually. We understand that we have to be collective and garner as much support as we can.
Brian Lowery: You all have done an incredible job of organizing, and people have paid a lot of attention to your leadership role in that. I’m curious what the debates are like: Nothing is ever simple when you have that many people considering an action, and the players are certainly not a monolithic group. As you have those conversations, what debates are had about whether you should do it or not, and how to be effective?
Nneka Ogwumike: The debates and the conversations don’t ever evolve if that is the first instance in which people are provided space to express themselves. Instead, over the course of many years, we’ve been working on player engagement. We’ve tried our best to instill in our players agency over everything, even those details that may seem innocuous to our players’ daily lives. Then, once it came to big decisions like dedicating the season to Say Her Name or wearing shirts that said “Vote Warnock,” that activism couldn’t have happened without using small experiences and opportunities for player engagement. That led to everyone being in a better position to own our voices and use them, whether the space has been created for them or not, because sometimes you have to speak up even when no one’s advocating for you to do so.
We’ve always understood as a league and as players that our space is a safe and open space. No idea is a bad one. I really try my best as league president to ensure I lead conversations in a way that allows people to give their perspectives to ultimately ensure solutions, change, and challenges are tackled.
R.C. Buford: Under Nneka’s presidency, the WNBA players showed great leadership that led to a great impact. Sports activism has been going on since 532 A.D. with the chariot races. Apartheid fell in large part because of the boycotts from sport. Sports have led some of the most important changes throughout the world, and it’s really important that, as a sporting community, we recognize the opportunity we have, especially with our players of color. I recently saw a statement in a small, local newspaper in the U.S.: “When you’re not properly represented in places of power, you have to make the important places you do occupy powerful.” The WNBA players, the NBA players, the players who have taken significant stands against racism should be recognized, because they’re doing so from their places of power.
Brian Lowery: R.C., I wonder about the NBA players who were putting statements on the jerseys and were given permission to do so. You’ve been around the NBA for a little bit now, and it hasn’t always been that way. When you compare it to other leagues, like the NFL, the NBA went a different way in terms of responding to players’ activism. I’m wondering what the conversations in the NBA were about when it came to players wearing things on their jerseys. I’m wondering about this in part because of the inequities across gender. There’s so much more money invested on the NBA side. I would guess that would lead to more tension and concerns about alienating big corporations or the fan base. What were those conversations like in the NBA?
R.C. Buford: Commissioner Adam Silver and our players have developed a very good relationship and an open, collaborative environment. I think as well, it’s easy to see what the right side of history is right now, and owners and investor groups are fully aligned with the players in that respect. The NBA has set up a fund over the course of a decade that has brought about $300 million+ for economic equality. This summer, while all the conversations were difficult, the alignment between our players and the NBA governors was really in a good place. From a sponsor standpoint, our partners have recognized that player statements are based on bringing people together and not dividing people. The three biggest groups that have been aligned in supporting the player initiatives have been millennials, the diehard NBA fans, and our sponsor segments. A large part of our fan base and the NBA community are aligned about being on the right side of history.
Brian Lowery: Nneka, recently the Atlanta Dream and other players wore “Vote Warnock” shirts in response to the Senate campaign and anti-Black Lives Matter stance of Kelly Loeffler, who was [up until recently] one of the owners of the Atlanta Dream. Do I have the details of that right?
Nneka Ogwumike: The details of that are correct, but I wouldn’t say that it was something that was necessarily planned, because we didn’t expect ownership to make such outlandish remarks against us. Our action was in direct opposition to what many of our sisters of the Atlanta Dream had experienced with Sen. Loeffler. An important detail that a lot of people don’t realize is that she was not voted in but was appointed. We had entered this time during our season where we had dedicated our efforts and our voices to Say Her Name, only to be met with an experience in which we were being directly disparaged in the name of Black Lives Matter from an unlikely culprit in sports.
This speaks exactly to the quote that R.C. just read: We didn’t have the power in our positions to remove an owner, but we knew what we could do that aligned with our already existing initiatives to use our voices and educate ourselves about voting and voting’s impact in our communities. At the end of the day, if politics wants to be used against us, then we had to find a way to be constructive and not just reactive. There were a lot of conversations about what we could do, but we couldn’t do it without talking amongst ourselves and following what the players of Atlanta Dream wanted to do. Through discussions together and by speaking with now-Senator Warnock, Michelle Obama, and the honorable Stacey Abrams — all conversations that we were so grateful to have had — we were able to learn more about voting.
This led to our taking part in a grand initiative to get out the vote, while preaching Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name. No one could have foreseen a runoff in the Georgia Senate race, so I do feel as though we got the ultimate government class lesson in this election year. The runoff, however, led to a spotlight on the work that we’ve always done for each other, for our communities, and for our fans. It really demonstrated the power that we have as a collective and in the platforms that we hold as players. Our actions were a testament to what athletes and people in entertainment and business can do with their platforms. It was quite remarkable to be able to see two Senate seats in Georgia be won by Democrats, and for us to have had a contribution to that was really great.
Brian Lowery: It was an incredible thing to watch. The courage and the power of the players working together to accomplish the changes they wanted was really impressive.
R.C., one of the things that’s interesting about this situation is that it also demonstrates a shift in the balance of power between players and owners. Is that showing up in the NBA, too?
R.C. Buford: The partnership between players and owners is growing. We have a big business, and it’s working for both players and organizations. The opportunity for players to have a voice and to really be heard when they take stands in important places is growing. The people that are now leading athletes are personalities that are not only engaging, but they’re also really active in these issues. For instance, LeBron James’ voting initiatives, the actions the WNBA has taken, Colin Kaepernick, and Naomi Osaka. There are people who have really taken active roles in not just being sports voices, but also voices for change in their own communities and across sports. Those opportunities to be heard are building on each other.
Brian Lowery: This is where sports is perhaps a forerunner of things that are changing generally in society. For instance, right now we’re seeing a lot of movement in terms of the power of labor. Even in tech companies, employees are walking out and protesting against their own employers. It makes me wonder, Nneka, about the WNBA’s negotiations. You recently negotiated a collective bargaining agreement on behalf of the players. I’ve heard great things about it, and I’m wondering how that experience of engaging with ownership in that way was for you.
Nneka Ogwumike: It was definitely a first for me, as well as a crash course in business school. When they talk about big ideas and big things happening in the war room or in the situation room, that’s really what the negotiations were. It’s not always, “My people will talk to your people and then we’ll figure it out.” There are instances when you’ll have players just knocking on the door of an owner and asking to talk.
We realized in our negotiation that if I just text or email our executive director and ask directly for a one-on-one or to speak to the board of governors, those conversations were much more productive than each side bringing their people and lawyers and the whole thing becoming what felt like divorce court. The negotiations were a great experience. Though they were a lot, they offered me the opportunity to speak to my executive committee, my players association staff, to the many members of the league, owners of teams, and, most importantly, the players. Having the players’ voices at the table was huge.
A lot of times that partnership between players and owners is what keeps the league going. It’s evolving in such an interesting way — it will be interesting to see exactly what it can do for sports, what it can do for influence and culture, and what it can do for collective and individual platforms. There’s so much power in the balance of all of those relationships that really do create the big changes that we see over time. That was really my experience, and I wouldn’t take back the good, the bad, or the ugly of that whole experience, because I learned so much from it.
R.C. Buford: Taking a design-thinking approach into these relationships is really important. To approach it with a sense of empathy and not just be focused on an individual side’s agenda, but to listen intently to try to learn, that’s when real progress gets made in labor negotiations. It’s easy just to go to your corner and come out swinging without ever paying attention to the issues that are important to the people that you’re in the room with.
Brian Lowery: That is a really interesting experience and a great way to capture what goes on. Nneka, how do you see yourself? You are an All-Star forward and president of the Players Association, but you are also active in the Black Lives Matter movement. How do you define your role professionally?
Nneka Ogwumike: If I were to take a holistic approach, I see myself as someone people trust to lead, and I think that allows me to understand the power that I have in my personal characteristics, whether as a teammate, as a president, as a friend, as a mentor, as a mentee even. I do know about myself that I don’t fear a challenge — in fact, I welcome challenges. I am comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m hoping that those qualities contribute to more success on and off the court, not just for me. Ultimately, I just want to be a part of the change that we wish to see and the change that we wish to be, especially for women in sport.
It’s Women’s History Month when everyone really gets into the fervor of supporting women. A lot of times, when you start raising awareness for those who may not have received recognition in past tellings of history, it can feel like a club only for those that it affects, and I think that that’s a grand illusion: You can empower women and you don’t have to identify as one.
So right now, I’m trying to navigate those spaces. For instance, being here and speaking with you gives me a space to be myself to people who don’t share my experience. That’s really where the magic is, and that’s where the growth comes. Education isn’t just when you go to school and you read books. It’s certainly more about experience and hearing different perspectives. I hope that I can continue to lead in that way.
Brian Lowery: When you’re part of groups that haven’t been fully seen historically and you’re in positions of power that provide you a platform, tensions can arise between how people define the job. Some may want you to just “do your job” and not be an activist, and there might be some risk associated with being more than just the job. For instance, Colin Kaepernick had his career more or less ended because he spoke out for what he thought was right. Do you see a tension between your job and your activism?
Nneka Ogwumike: I personally don’t see tension. It’s interesting that people talk about Colin Kaepernick’s career “ending.” Yes, he-s not playing, but —if he hadn’t taken the stances he did — what he would be doing is just being another average guy.
It’s important to realize that sports gives us a power which we are able to use however we want. At the end of the day, just playing sports isn’t our job. Even when we didn’t want to be in the mix, we were, because sports are embedded in culture. So much of what people do, listen to, where they go, how they dress, so much of outward expression and inward understanding has to do with my profession and everything that comes with it.
The perspective of seeing that power as a discord can be damaging to players in a lot of ways. The only thing that’s more dangerous than a player misusing their platform is a player that doesn’t use it at all. We have a responsibility, whether we want to or not, to do something meaningful within the world of sports which we are privileged to be operating within. Although we didn’t ask for it, that’s just how it is.
We’re not saying everyone should just blast everything that’s going on in their lives, but at the end of the day, there’s many people that have less than. Even people who feel that they haven’t been seen, there’s almost always someone that has been seen less than you. If we don’t lift the voice of the person at the bottom, then no voice rises at all. So as parts of humanity, that’s really our responsibility.
Brian Lowery: R.C., as a business leader who runs a team, what do you think is the role or the responsibility of business in this moment? In particular for you as a leader of a sports team, what’s the role of the business side of sports, given everything that’s going on in society right now?
R.C. Buford: Within our community, we take the responsibility of being a change agent and a leader for equitable education and equitable economic environments. Throughout COVID, we’ve created a new long-term strategic plan, one of the three strategic pillars of which is community and societal impact. So, we’re in the best position of any organization in our region and our community to bring people together and create those diverse experiences that we can learn from in a positive environment. Our coach, Gregg Popovich, has been an outspoken leader in calling out white privilege and not accepting racism, just because it’s where we are or where we’ve been for 400 years. It’s had a 7% impact on our sales revenues, but wanting to be on the right side of history, we’re going to go find new relationships with businesses who respect each other and who want to be part of a community that comes together for change.
Brian Lowery: I just want to make sure I heard that right: When you said it had a 7% impact on your revenue, by that you mean there was a decline as a function of what your coach was talking about?
R.C. Buford: Yes, driven by our organizational stance, by the NBA positioning with Black Lives Matter, and then our coach’s voice. But, again, being on the right side of history: If we’re not going to stand up for change, nobody will.
Brian Lowery: I just want to give you both a chance, if there’s anything that you’d like to say to the audience or wish they had included. Anything you want to add?
Nneka Ogwumike: It’s important for everyone to understand that we all have platforms, and it looks different for each individual to advocate for themselves and their community. We are certainly in the age of social media, and it’s imperative for individuals to understand that what works for you doesn’t always work for everyone else. What you see isn’t necessarily how you have to do it. There’s a way to find out how you can lead on your own, and I really do think it starts with allowing yourself to listen to others. In order to lead, you have to listen. We’re definitely learning that in this past year and a half: Hearing people out is something that has not happened and needs to happen for us to go anywhere. Additionally, holding each other accountable and ourselves individually accountable is incredibly important for change to happen.
Brian Lowery: Thanks. R.C., is there anything else you’d like to add?
R.C. Buford: I advise being intentional about the conversations and not being afraid to go into deep, dark places to learn about each other. Our coach and our organization have been focused on the benefits of diversity for a long time. As we build our team, we’re a model for society to recognize that bringing people together that believe and think and and act the same way isn’t going to help us improve as an organization.
We’ve got a great example of this within our team history: In 2013, we were a last-second three-pointer away from winning the NBA championship against the Miami Heat, which was a really devastating blow to our organization. We made it back into the 2014 NBA finals against the Heat again, and you would have thought that all our coach would have been focused on was beating the Heat. But the morning of the game, we go out on the court and the first Indigenous Australian in the NBA, Patty Mills, is on our team. Pop, our coach, says to Patty, “Hey Patty, you told everybody what today is?” Patty looked at him confused and said, “Pop, it’s game one of the finals. We’re playing the Heat again. Let’s get ready.” But Pop says, “Have you told them what else it is?” And Patty looked at him strangely until Pop says, “Isn’t it Eddie Mabo Day?” Eddie Mabo was the first indigenous Australian that legally had the right to own land, and he’s a real hero in the Indigenous Australian community. Patty proceeded to take about 20 minutes to tell the story of Eddie Mabo in the Australian environment, to share the plight of the Indigenous community. It was such a different bonding relationship to bring the team together, than if we were going to go out and just focus on how you’re going to guard LeBron James. In that series, we won five games and played some of the best basketball we’ve ever played.
I think the key was that shared experience in something that isn’t just about what your job is focused on, but learning about each other in ways that bring empathy to the conversations, as well as an understanding of the differences that we have and how those can magnify the success we can all share.
Brian Lowery: Thank you both for being here. I really appreciate it.