Background for the Teacher:
This is part 2 of a lesson that has students consider a confrontation between Russell Westbrook (a Black NBA player) and a white fan, its aftermath, and the public discussion that ensued about racism in the NBA and society at large. This lesson, part two of the series, has students read and discuss an essay stemming from the controversy, by white NBA player Kyle Korver, which focuses on white privilege.
The NBA controversy began in March 2019, after a video went viral of Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma Thunder, who is Black, confronting a white Utah Jazz fan at a game in Salt Lake City. The cause of the confrontation was soon revealed: The white fan had made a racist and degrading comment to Westbrook.
The Utah Jazz quickly moved to permanently ban the white fan from all future events at their arena for his “excessive and derogatory abuse.” Westbrook was fined $25,000 by the NBA for directing profane and threatening language at the fan and his wife. Black players, among others, spoke out to defend Westbrook for standing up to racist abuse.
The incident led to widespread discussion in the media and among players, fans, and the public, about the racist and insulting comments Black players regularly receive from white fans, and what to do it about it – as well as larger issues of racism. It also led Kyle Korver, a white NBA player with the Utah Jazz, to publish, a month later, a thoughtful essay entitled “Privileged,” which went viral. In his essay, Korver reflects on the level of racism in the NBA and in our society at large; white privilege, including his own; and the responsibility that he and other white people have to counter racism.
This lesson has two parts:
Students consider tweets about Westbrook’s confrontation with the white fan (which include some profanity). They discuss the statement from Westbrook following the incident about what prompted the confrontation and how he views it. They consider the racial context of the incident. Then they read and discuss a timeline of events that occurred after the confrontation.
- Part 2: An Essay about the NBA and White Privilege
Students read and discuss two excerpts from Kyle Korver’s essay “Privileged,”and consider a series of quotes from the essay.
Note: Before beginning the discussion, consider reviewing these guidelines on discussing controversial issues in the classroom.
An NBA Controversy Over Racism
Part 2: An Essay about White Privilege
Invite students to look at the following tweets and ask them if they know what they are in reference to. Then ask the questions below:
- Who is Kyle Korver?
- What is “the elephant in the room” that he refers to in his tweet?
- What do LeBron James and others want us to listen to?
Elicit and explain that Kyle Korver is an NBA player with the Utah Jazz. On April 8, 2019, Korver published a personal and revealing essay entitled “Privileged” in The Players Tribune, in which he discusses his white privilege.
The essay appeared almost a month after a courtside incident in Salt Lake City, Utah, received national attention. Visiting player Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma Thunder, who is Black, got into a verbal altercation with a white Utah fan who had been taunting him with racially charged language from the stands.
In the essay, Korver describes this and an earlier racist incident, involving Black players and teammates, that have made him reflect on racism and the privilege he enjoys as a white man, in the U.S in 2019. He writes that he’s come to the realization that "It's about understanding on a fundamental level that black people and white people, they still have it different in America. And that those differences come from an ugly history..... not some random divide."
Privileged, by Kyle Korver
- Why did Kyle Korver cringe when writing about his response to the news that police had arrested his friend and teammate Thabo Sefolosha, throwing him in jail for the night and leaving him with a season-ending injury?
- What was his discomfort about?
- Why do you think he felt he let his friend down?
- Why do you think he felt he let himself down?
When the police break your teammate’s leg, you’d think it would wake you up a little.
When they arrest him on a New York street, throw him in jail for the night, and leave him with a season-ending injury, you’d think it would sink in. You’d think you’d know there was more to the story.
I still remember my reaction when I first heard what happened to Thabo. It was 2015, late in the season. Thabo and I were teammates on the Hawks, and we’d flown into New York late after a game in Atlanta. When I woke up the next morning, our team group text was going nuts. Details were still hazy, but guys were saying, Thabo hurt his leg? During an arrest? Wait — he spent the night in jail?! Everyone was pretty upset and confused.
Well, almost everyone. My response was….. different. I’m embarrassed to admit it.
Which is why I want to share it today.
Before I tell the rest of this story, let me just say real quick — Thabo wasn’t some random teammate of mine, or some guy in the league who I knew a little bit. We’d become legitimate friends that year in our downtime. He was my go-to teammate to talk with about stuff beyond the basketball world. Politics, religion, culture, you name it — Thabo brought a perspective that wasn’t typical of an NBA player. And it’s easy to see why: Before we were teammates in Atlanta, the guy had played professional ball in France, Turkey and Italy. He spoke three languages! Thabo’s mother was from Switzerland, and his father was from South Africa. They lived together in South Africa before Thabo was born, then left because of apartheid.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that Thabo was one of the most interesting people I’d ever been around. We respected each other. We were cool, you know? We had each other’s backs.
Anyway — on the morning I found out that Thabo had been arrested, want to know what my first thought was? About my friend and teammate? My first thought was: What was Thabo doing out at a club on a back-to-back??
Yeah. Not, How’s he doing? Not, What happened during the arrest?? Not, Something seems off with this story. Nothing like that. Before I knew the full story, and before I’d even had the chance to talk to Thabo….. I sort of blamed Thabo.
I thought, Well, if I’d been in Thabo’s shoes, out at a club late at night, the police wouldn’t have arrested me. Not unless I was doing something wrong.
It’s not like it was a conscious thought. It was pure reflex — the first thing to pop into my head.
And I was worried about him, no doubt.
But still. Cringe.
A few months later, a jury found Thabo not guilty on all charges. He settled with the city over the NYPD’s use of force against him. And then the story just sort of….. disappeared. It fell away from the news. Thabo had surgery and went through rehab. Pretty soon, another NBA season began — and we were back on the court again.
Life went on.
But I still couldn’t shake my discomfort.
I mean, I hadn’t been involved in the incident. I hadn’t even been there. So why did I feel like I’d let my friend down?
Why did I feel like I’d let myself down?
Invite students to read a second segment of Kyle Korver’s essay Privileged. Then ask students some or all of the following questions:
- Why might Korver feel upset and embarrassed when the full story about the fan using racially charged language with Russ Westbrook came out later that night?
- Why might others on the team feel disappointment mixed with exhaustion? Why were some guys just sick and tired of it all? Why did they feel different from Korver?
- Why does Korver say that the incident is about what it means to exist as a person of color in a mostly white space?
A few weeks ago, something happened at a Jazz home game that brought back many of those old questions.
Maybe you saw it: We were playing against the Thunder, and Russell Westbrook and a fan in the crowd exchanged words during the game. I didn’t actually see or hear what happened, and if you were following on TV or on Twitter, maybe you had a similar initial viewing of it. Then, after the game, one of our reporters asked me for my response to what had gone down between Russ and the fan. I told him I hadn’t seen it — and added something like, But you know Russ. He gets into it with the crowd a lot.
Of course, the full story came out later that night. What actually happened was that a fan had said some really ugly things at close range to Russ. Russ had then responded. After the game, he’d said he felt the comments were racially charged.
The incident struck a nerve with our team.
In a closed-door meeting with the president of the Jazz the next day, my teammates shared stories of similar experiences they’d had — of feeling degraded in ways that went beyond acceptable heckling. One teammate talked about how his mom had called him right after the game, concerned for his safety in SLC. One teammate said the night felt like being “in a zoo.” One of the guys in the meeting was Thabo — he’s my teammate in Utah now. I looked over at him, and remembered his night in NYC.
Everyone was upset. I was upset — and embarrassed, too. But there was another emotion in the room that day, one that was harder to put a finger on. It was almost like….. disappointment, mixed with exhaustion. Guys were just sick and tired of it all.
This wasn’t the first time they’d taken part in conversations about race in their NBA careers, and it wasn’t the first time they’d had to address the hateful actions of others. And one big thing that got brought up a lot in the meeting was how incidents like this — they weren’t only about the people directly involved. This wasn’t only about Russ and some heckler. It was about more than that.
It was about what it means just to exist right now — as a person of color in a mostly white space.
It was about racism in America.
Before the meeting ended, I joined the team’s demand for a swift response and a promise from the Jazz organization that it would address the concerns we had. I think my teammates and I all felt it was a step in the right direction.
But I don’t think anyone felt satisfied.
Reading 3: Quotes
Invite a group of volunteers to read the following quotes from Korver’s essay, one at a time. Then ask students:
- What was it like for you to listen to these quotes from Korver’s essay?
- What quote resonated with you and why?
Facilitate a classroom discussion using some or all of the following questions. (You might also ask students to pick one of the quotes to research and write about before your next class to inform the discussion.)
- When Korver talks about “opting into” this conversation on racism, what is the point he’s trying to make?
- How does this relate to title of the essay “privileged” and the idea of “white privilege?” (Note: for more on this subject, refer students to the seminal essay by Peggy McIntosh White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack)
- And how does this relate to the opening tweet by Exavier Pope: “Kyle Korver thank you for saying something many black people innately know and have screamed, marched, and died for but cannot translate to the untrained white ear who refuse to hear. May others follow your example to listen.”
- Korver speaks of two different kinds of racism, one that’s “easier” to deal with, the other “harder.” Why? What are your thoughts about that?
- What does Korver say about “doing better,” “pushing himself further,” and “becoming part of the solution?”
- Why is Korver drawing a line in the sand? What answers is he coming to? How do you feel about that?
- Do you have any other realizations, answers, or things you/we could do in the context of Korver’s essay?
Kyle Korver Quotes:
What I’m realizing is, no matter how passionately I commit to being an ally, and no matter how unwavering my support is for NBA and WNBA players of color….. I’m still in this conversation from the privileged perspective of opting in to it. Which of course means that on the flip side, I could just as easily opt out of it. Every day, I’m given that choice — I’m granted that privilege — based on the color of my skin.
And I know I have to do better. So I’m trying to push myself further. I’m trying to ask myself what I should actually do. How can I — as a white man, part of this systemic problem — become part of the solution when it comes to racism in my workplace? In my community? In this country?
I know that, as a white man, I have to hold my fellow white men accountable. We all have to hold each other accountable. And we all have to be accountable — period. Not just for our own actions, but also for the ways that our inaction can create a “safe” space for toxic behavior. And I think the standard that we have to hold ourselves to, in this crucial moment …. We have to be active. We have to be actively supporting the causes of those who’ve been marginalized — precisely because they’ve been marginalized.
And I guess I’ve come to realize that when we talk about solutions to systemic racism — police reform, workplace diversity, affirmative action, better access to healthcare, even reparations? It’s not about guilt. It’s not about pointing fingers, or passing blame. It’s about responsibility. It’s about understanding that when we’ve said the word “equality,” for generations, what we’ve really meant is equality for a certain group of people. It’s about understanding that when we’ve said the word “inequality,” for generations, what we’ve really meant is slavery, and its aftermath — which is still being felt to this day. It’s about understanding on a fundamental level that black people and white people, they still have it different in America. And that those differences come from an ugly history….. not some random divide.
It’s about understanding that Black Lives Matter, and movements like it, matter, because — well, let’s face it: I probably would’ve been safe on the street that one night in New York. And Thabo wasn’t. And I was safe on the court that one night in Utah. And Russell wasn’t.
But as disgraceful as it is that we have to deal with racist hecklers in NBA arenas in 2019? The truth is, you could argue that that kind of racism is “easier” to deal with. Because at least in those cases, the racism is loud and clear. There’s no ambiguity — not in the act itself, and thankfully not in the response: we throw the guy out of the building, and then we ban him for life.
But in many ways the more dangerous form of racism isn’t that loud and stupid kind. It isn’t the kind that announces itself when it walks into the arena. It’s the quiet and subtle kind. The kind that almost hides itself in plain view. It’s the person who does and says all the “right” things in public: They’re perfectly friendly when they meet a person of color. They’re very polite. But in private? Well….. they sort of wish that everyone would stop making everything “about race” all the time. It’s the kind of racism that can seem almost invisible — which is one of the main reasons why it’s allowed to persist.
But if we’re really going to make a difference as a league, as a community, and as a country on this issue….. it’s like I said — I just think we need to push ourselves another step further. First, by identifying that less visible, less obvious behavior as what it is: racism. And then second, by denouncing that racism — actively, and at every level. That’s the bare minimum of where we have to get to, I think, if we’re going to consider the NBA — or any workplace — as anything close to part of the solution in 2019.
The NBA is over 75% players of color. …. People of color, they built this league. They’ve grown this league. People of color have made this league into what it is today. And I guess I just wanted to say that if you can’t find it in your heart to support them — now? And I mean actively support them? If the best that you can do for their cause is to passively “tolerate” it? If that’s the standard we’re going to hold ourselves to — to blend in, and opt out? Well, that’s not good enough. It’s not even close.
This feels like a moment to draw a line in the sand. I believe that what’s happening to people of color in this country — right now, in 2019 — is wrong. The fact that black Americans are more than five times as likely to be incarcerated as white Americans is wrong. The fact that black Americans are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as white Americans is wrong. The fact that black unemployment rates nationally are double that of overall unemployment rates is wrong. The fact that black imprisonment rates for drug charges are almost six times higher nationally than white imprisonment rates for drug charges is wrong. The fact that black Americans own approximately one-tenth of the wealth that white Americans own is wrong. The fact that inequality is built so deeply into so many of our most trusted institutions is wrong.
And I don’t think I have all the answers yet — but here are the ones that are starting to ring the most true:
I have to continue to educate myself on the history of racism in America.
I have to listen. I’ll say it again, because it’s that important. I have to listen.
I have to support leaders who see racial justice as fundamental — as something that’s at the heart of nearly every major issue in our country today. And I have to support policies that do the same.
I have to do my best to recognize when to get out of the way — in order to amplify the voices of marginalized groups that so often get lost.
Time for me to shut up and listen.
Invite students to share one take away from today’s lesson.