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A lament on the day the NBA returns

Players are back on the courts and fields, but can they keep their focus?

When the NBA season restarts on Thursday, I’ll be curious to see which teams and players have the courage to walk off the court before the national anthem is played.

That’s what the Seattle Storm and New York Liberty players did when the WNBA began a new season on July 25.

The players didn’t kneel, as they’d been given permission to do. They left.

Their message was clear: We may be back on the court, but we have not lost our focus.

Will NBA players walk off when their season begins? We’ll see. NBA players have seemed content to operate within the boundaries of protest negotiated with the league. But it’s time to operate outside that box.

For all of the talk about how accommodating the major men’s pro leagues have been, their overtures to Black Lives Matter seem opportunistic and contrived. You can allow players to scribble slogans on uniforms and paint messages on fields and courts. The reality is that when power gives players permission to protest, it’s no longer a protest. It’s a pantomime.

I don’t care what the NBA players do: leave the court or kneel. Just let it be known that you’ll no longer stand for mistreatment.

This is why I lament the return of sports.

For the last five months, there has been a laser focus — free of sports — on issues in our country that have forced us to examine the often horrible underbelly of the nation’s foundation.

From the daily brutalization of enslaved Africans to the massacre and displacement of Native Americans, the 400-year-old connection between our past and present was coming into focus for a younger generation: lynching back then to police and vigilante murders of African Americans today.

Now, as federal troops are being sent into selected cities to break up demonstrations, sports are being force-fed back into action, providing a convenient diversion. This money-driven return of sports is less concerned with the health and safety of players than with the need to recoup lost income.

College athletes who have virtually no leverage are being coerced into coming back to campus, even as most of their fellow classmates are being told to stay away.

Professional athletes are compromised as well because they must play to be paid. A few have opted out, but most have not. Like so many of their fellow citizens, the athletes need to go to work. And we watch.

On July 26, I attended the New York Mets-Atlanta Braves game at Citi Field in New York. This was my first live sporting event since March 11 covering the Big 12 tournament.

That day marked the end of normalcy in sports as we know it. The NBA season was suspended on March 11 after two players tested positive for COVID-19. In short order, March Madness was canceled, and every other sports season was placed on hold. The United States was reduced to a sports-mad nation without sports.

Without sports, the vacant bandwidth was replaced by daily news of COVID-19 deaths and daily Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police violence. Sports talk shows that typically featured scores and results, filled air time with conversations about social justice and athlete activism.

Many athletes, especially Black athletes, were compelled to do some soul searching as well. The ravages of COVID-19 laid bare stark economic inequities between those at the top of the economic food chain and those near the bottom. Since many of the athletes come from disadvantaged neighborhoods, the disparities exposed by COVID-19 prompted many of them to take action, or at least begin to pay attention.

Now we’re back to balls and strikes and jump shots, and I’m curious to see if our national focus gets blurred.

(I still don’t know what to make of Dr. Anthony Fauci throwing out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals’ season opener. At a time when baseball players continue to test positive for COVID-19 and many are flaunting basic safety precautions such as wearing a mask, Fauci’s enthusiastic presence at the ballpark validated a cynical attitude that undergirds the back-to-sports-at-all-costs impetus.)

The one bright spot to sports coming back is that fans will not be joining them, at least not in stadiums. That’s good news.

For the last decade or so, I’ve become increasingly fed up with fans: their boorish behavior, the collective sense of entitlement. So many have the idea that the price of a ticket entitles them to transform into screaming, cursing maniacs. This has only gotten worse with the rise of social media. Social protests by athletes have often been met with vile racist posts that spill over into obnoxious behavior at ballparks.

The absence of fans at stadiums frees activist-minded athletes to demonstrate without having to worry about being heckledor for that matter, cheered.

Their actions were hopeful signs that the return of sports may not mean a loss of focus on major issues of the wealth and income gap and social justice.

Last week, two New York Yankees players continued to kneel after the league-sanctioned, ceremonial kneeling photo op ended. When the anthem began and all other players stood up, Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton continued to kneel.

After the game, Hicks told reporters: “I’m a Black man living in America. I feel like, for me, I should be judged by my character and not by my skin tone. Growing up, that’s kind of what’s happened. I felt like it was right to do. It’s my life.”

I can only imagine what the crowd reaction at Nationals Park might have been had fans been in attendance. On the other hand, I’m convinced that even with fans in attendance, the WNBA players, as well as Hicks and Stanton, would have made their protest. However, the larger point of the protest would have been buried beneath a cascade of fan reaction — some cheers, some boos. Without the distraction of fans in stadiums, players who protest can make their point, rest their case without the noise — pro or con. If they stay away from social media, players don’t have to hear anything at all.

Players can feel free to speak their truth, as the Liberty’s Layshia Clarendon spoke hers as the WNBA began its season.

“Breonna Taylor was dedicated and committed to uplifting everyone around her,” Clarendon said. “We’re also dedicating this season to Say Her Name campaign, a campaign committed to saying the names and fighting for justice for Black women, Black women who are so often forgotten in this fight for justice, who do not have people marching in the streets for them.”

While well-compensated, highly promoted NBA players often traffic in symbols, the WNBA deals with action. WNBA players knelt in support of Colin Kaepernick in 2016; the Los Angeles Sparks walked off the court in 2017 to raise awareness about the Black Lives Matter movement.

In September 2019, WNBA superstar Maya Moore shocked the league by taking a leave of absence so she could focus on securing the freedom of a man she believed was wrongfully convicted. The conviction was overturned in March and Jonathan Irons was released on July 1.

On July 26, the WNBA added a new chapter of activism by walking off the court before the playing of the national anthem.

As the truncated NBA season begins on Thursday, players should take their cue from the WNBA. With no fans in arenas to give thumbs up or down, the players can let their conscience be their guide.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.