Sports | May 13, 2021 1:42 pm

NBA Launches Social Justice Award in Honor of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The annual prize will commemorate one player's commitment to social justice and award $100,000 to an organization of their choice

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the Walter A. Brown championship trophy
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the NBA's most outspoken social activists.
Richard Mackson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

On Thursday, the NBA announced a new annual honor: the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award. While it’s named for the league’s all-time leading scorer, who also won six championships during his career, as the name suggests the prize actually commemorates the work of players off the court, particularly those who commit time and resources to social justice and racial equality.

Each year, all 30 teams will have the opportunity to nominate one player who best embodies that mission. Finalists will then be selected by a seven-person committee composed of league executives, activists and former NBA players. The ultimate winner will receive the distinction, along with a $100,000 donation from the NBA to be diverted to an organization of his choosing. Four other finalists will each receive $25,000 for charity as well.

It might not sound like a lot of money, and that’s because it isn’t. The average NBA player earns in the ballpark of $101K per game played. But the cash prize isn’t really the point here. The NBA’s larger goal is to show solidarity in the fight that so many of its players are waging every day. Elevating an off-court award to the level of its well-publicized performance honors, meanwhile, will likely encourage many more players to get involved — which will hopefully lead to millions more dollars raised for worthy causes.

Not to mention, the NBA has already pledged $300 million over the next 10 years in support of an “NBA Foundation that will work to spur economic growth in the Black community,” while the Jordan Brand, one of the league’s leading partners, has pledged $100 million to support “racial equality, social justice and greater access to education.”

All told, this is a great initiative by the NBA, and an important recognition that the probing discussions on racial equality in this country that began about a year ago are only just beginning. The league deserves credit for its response at the time — its support of the wildcat strike after the shooting of Jacob Blake comes to mind — and for its thoughtfulness here, especially in honoring Abdul-Jabbar. The legendary Lakers center has been a courageous activist for decades.

As early as 1968, while still at UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar helped organize a boycott of the Olympics in Mexico City, following the assassinations of civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. During his professional career, Abdul-Jabbar spearheaded the Cleveland Summit, to support Muhammad Ali’s decision to refuse conscription into the Vietnam War. And all throughout his post-NBA life, Abdul-Jabbar has been a thought leader on racial equality — in 14 books, through documentaries, and in columns for publications from Time to Jacobin.