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How ‘Education Reform’ Ended Up on NBA Jerseys

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 03, 2020 4 min read
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When the National Basketball Association restarted its season at the end of July, many players hit the hardwood in jerseys featuring terms associated with social justice like “Black Lives Matter,” “Equality,” and “Ally” that allude to the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police and the need for criminal justice reform, among other things. It’s part of an awareness campaign by the NBA and its players.

But even veterans of political battles over education might have gotten a surprise when some players donned jerseys with “Education Reform” on the back.

The NBA approved about 30 messages players could choose to put on their uniforms when the season restarted July 30. According to a list compiled by The Undefeated and a bit of internet searching, at least 11 players chose “Education Reform.”

However, as folks in the education policy world know, the term can sometimes confuse more than it enlightens. And it definitely has its own political gloss.

To some, it means revamping traditional public schools and implementing certain policies that better serve disadvantaged students. Democrats for Education Reform, for example, lobbies for charter schools, as well as robust accountability policies for schools and teachers. A top deputy to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently said “education reform” generally describes the Trump administration’s approach to K-12.

To others, however, it represents a misguided, corporate-minded approach to education that sidelines teachers and improperly downplays schools’ need for more funding. A recent report from a policy task force put together by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., uses the term “education reforms” once, and disparagingly at that.

So what have the players themselves said about why they picked “Education Reform” to be on their uniforms?

“The public-school system isn’t nearly where it needs to be in a country as powerful as ours,” Brooklyn Nets guard Garrett Temple told reporters. “Allowing people to be educated, allowing people to learn more things, maybe even changing some curriculum to make things more applicable to real-life scenarios, I think is something that really needs to happen.”

And Miami Heat wing Solomon Hill told the Undefeated that “When we send our kids to school that may be underfunded, teachers that are underpaid, you look at the facilities, the resources that that kid has, we’re already setting up our youth for failure.”

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry sounded a similar note when he focused on funding. “It sucks because the type of neighborhood I grew up in, they don’t get the same education that they get in the suburbs and the more polished neighborhoods,” Lowry told Sports Illustrated. “The tax money, they don’t get the tax money. They don’t get the opportunities that the other kids do, the kids in the neighborhood that I grew up in. I think it starts there.”

Lowry was also critical of the curriculum in schools like the one he attended, saying, “We weren’t really taught African-American history. We weren’t taught about our ancestors, our history as African-Americans. We had a month in February when we kind of went through some stuff, and that was it.”

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, who is not wearing a social-justice message on his jersey, has gone far beyond a phrase on the back of a jersey when it comes to involvement in education: He helped start a public school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. As EdWeek’s Arianna Prothero reported when the school opened in 2018, the I Promise School features longer school days and school year, a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math, and free tuition to the University of Akron for students who graduate from high school.

Here’s the list of players we could find from news sources who’ve chosen to wear “Education Reform” jerseys while playing:

  • Kent Bazemore (Sacramento Kings)
  • Ed Davis (Utah Jazz)
  • DeMar DeRozan (San Antonio Spurs)
  • Gordon Hayward (Boston Celtics)
  • Solomon Hill (Miami Heat)
  • Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)
  • C.J. McCollum (Portland Trailblazers)
  • Markieff Morris (Los Angeles Lakers)
  • Marcus Morris Sr. (Los Angeles Clippers)
  • Georges Niang (Utah Jazz)
  • Garrett Temple (Brooklyn Nets)

Markieff and Marcus Morris Sr., who are identical twins, attended a charter school in Philadelphia.

If Politics K-12 had to pick a starting five from that group, we’d probably go with NBA champion Lowry and McCollum in the backcourt, Hayward and Morris Sr. at the forward spots, and Davis at center for some rebounding and defense. But feel free to disagree with us in the comments section.

Photo: Brooklyn Nets’ Garrett Temple (17) wears a jersey advocating for education reform as he raises his arms in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic Friday, July 31, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)