It may have seemed odd to bystanders: A delegation of professional basketball players from the United States meeting privately Nov. 23 with Pope Francis at the papal library inside the Vatican’s apostolic palace. The reception line alone — with the diminutive pontiff peering skyward as he greeted the likes of Milwaukee Bucks shooting guards Sterling Brown and Kyle Korver — must have elicited a few chuckles.
The meeting was certainly unusual. While U.S. presidents host professional sports teams who win championships, this gathering, proposed by Pope Francis, was held to discuss social justice concerns and economic inequality. These are issues that took U.S. cities by storm last summer, following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Pope Francis, who has written and spoken frequently about the sin of racism and the dignity of all people, has been following racial tensions in the United States since Floyd’s death. He issued a statement at the time, saying: “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”
Like so many people, the National Basketball Association and their players association were appalled by the death of Floyd and other Black citizens at the hands of law enforcement agents. However, the NBA took steps last summer to address systemic racism. The Milwaukee Bucks were the first team to boycott a playoff game following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha. This act inspired other teams to follow suit.
While some sports fans believe their favorite teams and players should stick to sports, other people, like Pope Francis, applaud their social activism. It was the pope who, through one of his assistants, contacted the players association, asking for the meeting in order to learn more about their desire to raise awareness about social justice issues.
“You’re champions,” Pope Francis told the players during his private meeting with them, according to ESPN. “But, also giving the example of teamwork, you’ve become a model, giving that good example of teamwork, but always remaining humble … and preserving your own humanity.”
In a statement issued by the players association, Milwaukee’s Kyle Korver said the meeting with Pope Francis was inspiring.
“We are extremely honored to have had this opportunity to come to the Vatican and share our experiences with Pope Francis,” said Korver. “His openness and eagerness to discuss these issues was inspiring and a reminder that our work has had a global impact and must continue moving forward.”
Another player, Anthony Tolliver, said the meeting reinvigorated the players to continue their fight “to keep pushing for change and bring our communities together.”
Sometimes it takes a tragedy to ignite a movement, one that unites all colors — something Pope Francis calls a “healthy indignation” to strive for change.
“Jesus asks us to be present to those in need of help, regardless of whether or not they belong to our social group,” Pope Francis says in his latest encyclical, “Fratelli tutti.” “He challenges us to put aside all differences and, in the face of suffering, to draw near to others with no questions asked.”
These words make the meeting between professional basketball players and the supreme pontiff less of a novelty and more a moment of discernment — something all people of faith need to consider.