The Jimmy Butler vs. NBA jersey saga should be a bigger deal

When Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler requested his jersey remain nameless, the NBA made one thing clear: Players can stand for social justice—so long as the league allows it.

In late June—roughly one month following yet another senseless loss of life via the racially-charged murder of George Floyd—NBA players spoke to league executives regarding their desire to spread social justice messages while playing inside the bubble.

A league that fully understands their predominant representation by members of the Black community, the NBA, as they so often do, presented the players with a carefully considered platform to amplify their voices.

With the help of the Players Association, NBA officials created multiple initiatives to stand in solidarity with their valuable employees. Of these plans, the most immediately notable was the allowance for players to don brief social justice messages on the back of their jerseys during games within the bubble.

The league as a whole—including players, coaches, and executives—agreed upon a list of roughly 30 readily-available sayings for players to place on their uniforms. Since the return of basketball on July 30th, fans have seen nearly every NBA-permitted slogan on at least one uniform.

Some players, however, have opted to display their names instead, refraining from the approved list of messages altogether.

Anthony Davis mentioned his family name holding extreme value to him throughout his journey. Kawhi Leonard thoughtfully articulated that placing a message on one’s jersey is nowhere near as helpful as going out in the community and actually “doing the work.

In a similar tone, LeBron James stated that, though he stands with those who choose to sport one of the NBA’s approved slogans, the initiative was “just something that didn’t seriously resonate with (James’) goal.” Continuing his quote, James then stated, “I would have loved to have a say-so on what would have went on the back of my jersey.”

Interestingly enough, this is a sentiment that many fellow players have also expressed. In a rather round-about way, this leads us to the man in the middle of the most eye-opening yet coldly under-discussed situation within the bubble:

Jimmy Butler.

Before the NBA sent their list of sanctioned social justice messages to players, Jimmy Butler had voiced his own plan for the back nameplate of his Miami Heat threads. In an extremely thought-provoking, down-to-earth moment, Butler explained:

“I have decided not to [wear one of the NBA’s permitted messages]. With that being said, I hope that my last name doesn’t go on there as well… I love and respect all the messages that the league did choose, but for me, I felt like with no message—with no name—it’s going back to… who I was. And if I wasn’t who I was today, I’m no different than anybody else of color and 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.”

His plan—and a well-thought-out plan, at that—gained significant traction on social media over the following days. However, despite the inspiring idea, Jimmy Butler’s proposal was turned down by the NBA.

In a further effort to force the league’s hand, Butler attempted to start the Heat’s first game within the bubble wearing a nameless, slogan-less jersey. As both the Heat’s and the Denver Nuggets’ starting units stood at half-court awaiting tip-off, the officiating crew caught wind of Butler’s unauthorized uniform. In a matter of seconds, referees postponed the jump ball as they waited for Jimmy Butler to swap the blank jersey on his back for one displaying his surname.

Though this may seem of little importance on the surface—after all, it is just a jersey—diving into the deeper meaning of the NBA’s denial should provoke an unusual level of discomfort. For a league frequently celebrated as one of the most outspoken, forward-thinking, and socially omnipresent leagues in professional sports, it should come as more of a concern that a simple jersey request was so vehemently rejected.

Having rules in place regarding what players may or may not billboard on their uniforms is entirely understandable. However, by strictly controlling the messages permitted for players to display, the NBA is ironically failing to provide the full freedom that their players are actively fighting to achieve. Granted, it would be one thing if Jimmy Butler pressed the league to sign off on a harsh remark or a controversial political stance. But a blank jersey intended to inspire the demographic the NBA’s social justice initiative aims to fight for hand-in-hand?

Call me crazy, but the NBA got this one wrong.

I will always contend that the NBA is the best-operated league in professional sports. In regards to star power, player empowerment, personalities, visibility, growth, and overall viewing experience, it does not get much better than the National Basketball Association. The league only magnified this opinion by their handling of the pandemic—a situation that every other American sports league has yet to adequately resolve.

However, in this instance, the futuristic NBA has uncharacteristically reverted to how one might think the old-guard NFL or prehistoric MLB would handle a similar situation. Perhaps I am reading a bit too in-between the lines. Still, in a somewhat comparable echo to the NBA’s China debacle back in October, the league has unfortunately made one thing very clear upon the Jimmy Butler jersey saga:

Our players have the freedom to stand for whatever social justice message their heart desires—so long as we give them that freedom.