Jimmy Butler’s Social Justice Message Was Too Unique for the NBA

One part of the NBA’s bubble restart involves the players’ jerseys. The league allowed the athletes to choose social justice messages — from a preapproved list — alongside or in place of their names. Many NBA players, including Jimmy Butler, have chosen to highlight topics close to their hearts. Unfortunately, Butler’s message may have been too unique for the league. 

The NBA’s jersey demonstrations

Basketball fans everywhere were excited to see the NBA make its return in its bubble. But some players faced a moral quandary. Was it wrong for them to play while the country was still in the middle of large-scale social unrest related to racial injustice and police brutality?

Several players, such as Dwight Howard and Kyrie Irving, voiced their concern over distracting from the political discussions and protests taking place. The NBA, particularly under commissioner Adam Silver, has positioned itself as a forward-thinking league that encourages players to speak out on progressive issues. 

As a compromise, the league enacted a rule in which players could select one of a number of messages on the back of their jerseys in lieu of names. The approved messages for the most part encouraged support of the Black Lives Matter movement and other progressive-minded causes like it. 

The NBA’s approved messages for jerseys

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In a confusing time, the players’ jerseys would offer messages of hope and justice. ESPN reported on the approved list of messages that players could wear. They included: 

  • Black Lives Matter
  • Say Their Names
  • Vote
  • I Can’t Breathe
  • Justice
  • Peace
  • Equality
  • Freedom
  • Enough
  • Power to the People
  • Justice Now
  • Say Her Name
  • Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can)
  • Liberation
  • See Us
  • Hear Us
  • Respect Us
  • Love Us
  • Listen
  • Listen to Us
  • Stand Up
  • Ally
  • Anti-Racist
  • I Am A Man
  • Speak Up
  • How Many More
  • Group Economics
  • Education Reform
  • Mentor

While it’s certainly a positive move, it also exposes the league to a vulnerability: What happens when a player wants to express a message that isn’t on the approved list? Disallowing one player from speaking about a topic important to them could be viewed as the NBA stifling his freedom of expression.

It wouldn’t be the league’s first clash with the First Amendment. After Laura Ingraham crassly told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” many around the NBA called out the right-wing commentator. But when Daryl Morey tweeted that he stood with Hong Kong, reports The Washington Post, James was one of the first players to ask him to hold his tongue. 

Jimmy Butler’s social justice message


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In treading carefully, the NBA was bound to stop someone’s attempt to speak out with this jersey experiment. That’s exactly what they did with Jimmy Butler. According to Yahoo Sports, he wanted to wear a jersey with no name or message. Butler almost got away with it before the league stepped in and made him to wear a jersey with his name on it.

While Butler supports the messages on the jerseys, he simply wanted to show that despite his privileged status as an NBA player, he was still first and foremost a person of color.

“If I wasn’t who I was today, I’m no different than anybody else of color … and I want that to be my message, in the sense that just because I’m an NBA player, everybody has the same right no matter what.”

Jimmy Butler on his jersey message

It was a powerful message. While Butler didn’t get to display it during a game, he made his point by even attempting it in the first place.