A wave of activism in sports, fueled in part by the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, dominated a good part of our summer and fall — forcing leagues to reckon with athletes who had seen enough and were not content to "stick to sports."
In the NBA's Orlando bubble, "Black Lives Matter" messages adorned courts and players put social justice messages on their jerseys — just some of the countless examples of what played out across many leagues and many months.
In October, though, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that type of high-visibility activism would not carry over to the 2020-21 season that has now been underway for two weeks.
"My sense is there will be some sort of return to normalcy," Silver said in an interview with ESPN. "That those messages will largely be left to be delivered off the floor. And I understand those people who are saying 'I'm on your side, but I want to watch a basketball game.'"
It was enough to make me wonder: Were leagues — and the NBA in particular — trying to nudge athletes back into that narrow "stick to sports" focus that tends to please some segments of fandom and sponsors?
Whatever the league's intent, one thing is clear from the last 24 hours: NBA players and coaches are still in no mood to stick to sports, and for good reason.
Reacting both to the Tuesday decision not to charge officers in the shooting of Jacob Blake in August and the violent pro-Trump mob that broke into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, those in the NBA — the only major U.S. pro league that had games either day — had plenty to do and say.
The Celtics and Heat left the court before tipoff Wednesday and almost didn't play before ultimately deciding to go on with the game. Celtics guard Jaylen Brown tweeted after the game in reference to what happened in Washington D.C. in relation to kneeling before the anthem, which Celtics players did Wednesday.
The Clippers and Warriors similarly kneeled before their game Wednesday, with Warriors head coach Steve Kerr — seldom shy about delving into matters beyond basketball — offering his perspective on the events unfolding and the state of the union.
"A legitimate election is suddenly questioned by millions of people, including many of the people who are leading our country in government, because we've decided to — over the last few years — allow lies to be told," Kerr said. "So, this is who we are. You reap what you sow."
But perhaps 76ers coach Doc Rivers had the most pointed and direct commentary, drawing a sharp distinction between how Black Lives Matter supporters were treated when protesting in D.C. over the summer compared to what he saw Wednesday.
"It basically proves a point about a privileged life in a lot of ways," Rivers said. "I will say it, because I don't think a lot of people want to: Can you imagine today, if those were all Black people storming the Capitol, and what would have happened? That, to me, is a picture that's worth a thousand words for all of us to see, and probably something for us to reckon with again."
Did Silver still get what he wanted, threading the needle between saying the league supports activism while trying to mute the on-court demonstrations? Perhaps. All the games went on as scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday, a sharp contrast to the bubble boycott that started after Blake was shot and nearly left the season unfinished.
But in the bigger picture, athletes and coaches are still being heard loud and clear about far more than sports.