Two weeks from today on Nov. 25, Division I Men’s basketball is scheduled to return from its abrupt ending back in March. However, due to the continuing presence of COVID-19 across the country, most top conferences have yet to release their schedules for the upcoming 2020-21 season — including the Big Ten.
The uncertainty of the season, mixed with the country’s tense social and political climate, create a challenge for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
“Going through a pandemic and then social justice issues, we try to take each day, just be grateful for each day,” senior forward Isaiah Livers told The Daily. “Our brothers or whoever minority doesn’t have it as easy as we do … (so we’re) just not taking anything for granted, coming in with that attitude each day.”
The imminent presence of the coronavirus places a lot of pressure on these student-athletes, who are already swamped with responsibility under normal circumstances.
“It’s just we don’t see that schedule,” Livers said. “We don’t know what’s up for the future, who we’re gonna play, and it’s like, ‘Dang.’ It can really get you down.”
But when the schedule is announced and play restarts, basketball will not go back to being a distraction for these athletes. Over the last few months, athletes and sport organizations have stood up and used their platform to promote social justice and other societal issues. In the NBA, players and organizations became activists and leaders in their communities.
The same responsibility has fallen on college athletes.
The Wolverines understand the sacrifice they have to make. Although their passion is playing basketball, they know their sole focus cannot be on the game this season.
“I know basketball gets very competitive and you want to talk about basketball, but it comes to a time where we’ve got to sacrifice,” Livers said. “That’s going to be the number one, especially for a lot of college basketball players.”
The student-athletes at Michigan have chosen to wear patches that promote positive messages that each team votes on. For men’s basketball, coach Juwan Howard placed his team’s choice on Livers.
“I know we’re down to two patches,” Livers said. “ … Either one, they stand for a great cause and I feel like every player — not even trying to — is going to be sending a message. They’ll be icons, especially with little kids watching or just people watching, understanding that these players are representing something bigger than themselves.”
These patches create a powerful image. The reach that Michigan has in football alone is impressive. Over five million people tuned into ESPN’s primetime broadcast of its game against Minnesota a few weeks ago. Michigan men’s basketball will look to do the same and use their exposure as well.
“We have a big, huge responsibility,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard told The Daily in October. “We’re always looked as being great examples to our … young kids … striving hard to some day to become a student-athlete here at Michigan, so they look up to our players. … We accept that responsibility to be great examples to our future Wolverines.”
Although the patches are a great way to draw awareness, they can start to become overshadowed by the intensity and focus of play. Livers hopes to keep the team’s messaging relevant and not allow them to fade — like the NBA’s social justice messages on the back of their jerseys did towards the end of the season.
“I want guys to sacrifice and take some time out of their interviews to talk about what’s going on in this country and however you stand for it,” he said. “Just make sure you speak up and use your voice. That’s the best way to not let it die down and not let it become a part of the jersey.”
These efforts will not be welcomed by everyone, and there will be some fans who do not want to see politics invade their sports-watching experience. The classic “shut up and dribble” argument will certainly be the refrain of those who disagree.
“(It’s) just disgusting, because why can’t athletes speak up? Because they’re athletes?” Livers said. “We’re all human beings, we all have blood streaming through our veins. I honestly would call them ignorant. They’re lacking the knowledge of understanding that athletes can use their voice. Just because they shoot basketballs, score touchdowns, hit home runs, score goals doesn’t mean they don’t have a life outside the sport.”
But so far, resistance has not stopped athletes from using their platform to speak up for change. From racial injustice to gender discrimination, athletes have begun to speak up, and it doesn’t look like that will stop anytime soon.
“Once (athletes) start using their voice more … often, all it’s going to do is go down to the college level and it’s gonna go down to high school,” Livers said. “Watch, we’re going to have middle schoolers, elementary schoolers. It’s something that’s going to be great for the future and I’m glad our athletes (in) this generation started it.”
Sports are powerful and have long had the ability to unite people. College basketball is a prime example: Players from all different states and all different backgrounds coming together every year to compete at a variety of levels. It’s unifying in a way that seems increasingly rare.
“It’s a great example to our country,” Howard said. “ … The players on those particular teams come from different backgrounds, different communities, different households with different viewpoints and they have amazing leaders … who (are) able to bring those different individuals together and teach them what it takes to be one. The one meaning (to) play as a team, to sacrifice their ego, to sacrifice their difference and to band together as brothers and to go out there and compete.”
The spotlight they face and the newly added stress of recent events only adds to the burden already on the shoulders of these student-athletes, but it’s a challenge they are prepared for.
“If we’re all together and standing as one, we can get through this,” Livers said. “ … It’s going to be a pressured time because guys are playing for something bigger than themselves. It’s important to take a step back, it’s gonna be a lot. … Times are rough right now and it’s time to sacrifice.”
There’s a lot up in the air right now, and who knows what the next few months will hold for not just for college basketball, but for the world. If there’s one thing that is known, it is that the issues people marched in the streets for and flooded voting polls are not over.
The fight for justice will continue, and student-athletes will be at the forefront of it.
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