Few people understand the intersection of basketball and politics better than Craig Robinson. Nearly 12 years ago, Robinson exchanged hugs with his sister, Michelle Obama, and brother-in-law, Barack Obama, onstage at Grant Park in the euphoric hours after election night. Robinson had spent large swaths of time the prior 20 months helping Obama become the first Black president of the United States.
Robinson coached at Oregon State at the time, and after four years in the NBA, he’s re-entered the college basketball space amid a time of political tumult as another election looms. Robinson re-enters the college game as the new head of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, a position largely defined by executive apathy, irrelevance and greed in recent years.
With basketball and politics colliding on a grand scale this week, it felt right to check in on Robinson’s perspective. The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has become another galling flashpoint in America, and NBA players appear motivated to spearhead change as they walked out instead of participating in playoff games on Wednesday and Thursday.
“I just think it took a lot of courage to do what they did,” Robinson said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “That’s for sure. For all these young people who are trying to make their voices heard, we all have a different way of doing it. I commend them for trying to bring some awareness for a tragic situation.”
Robinson served as the head coach at Brown and Oregon State from 2006 to 2014 and worked in the NBA for both the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks before taking the NABC job in July. He’s eager to see, like many, how the push for social justice will trickle down to college basketball.
“I’ve been away from the college world for a while,” Robinson said. “I just think in this time in history, we all have to be prepared for young folks to look at things differently than their predecessors…
“Because of the internet, because of social media, because of technology, young people are exposed to way more now than even when my kids were their age. Let alone when I was their age. With that information comes enlightenment, comes inspiration and a little bit of trepidation, too.”
One of the most tangible results of the push for social justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the college space was an initiative for athletic departments to take Election Day off to enable voting. In June, the NCAA formally encouraged schools to give athletes the day off to give them an opportunity to vote.
Robinson was asked to reflect on how the country changed from the wave of optimism and hope – a central theme from the Obama campaign – that came with his election in 2008.
“Listen, when Barack was president, it was a hopeful time for a lot of people,” Robinson said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Right? And in some ways it was an awakening for a lot of people. We had record voter turnout. We had record numbers of people who were sort of working at a grassroots level on the political front. Over the last four years, it feels like we’ve lost a little of that traction. I don’t think the hope is gone. I don’t think the passion is gone.”
It’s too early to project how institutions around college basketball will address social justice. Questions still loom on what the season will look like amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Robinson pointed out the myriad factors looming over the sport’s future – the pandemic, a lost Final Four, the uncertainty of the season, the transfer portal, name, image and likeness legislation and, of course, the social justice movement.
“All of those challenges mean opportunity,” Robinson said. “I would be disingenuous if I said it wasn’t a tough time to take over this position. But I’m glad I get the opportunity to be part of the solution.”
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