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Q&A: James Cadogan, executive director of National Basketball Social Justice Coalition

As the league continues to address racial inequality, Michael C. Wright sits down with the executive director of the Social Justice Coalition.

‘Black Lives Matter’ is seen painted on the courts during the 2020 restart season in Orlando.

NEW YORK — Scurrying through the halls at the NBA’s office in Olympic Tower, James Cadogan totes a freshly-packed black leather bag in preparation for a full day of meetings.

Every few minutes, he stares down at his watch.

Clearly, he’s in a hurry.

But as the NBA’s executive director of its Social Justice Coalition, Cadogan knows and intimately understands it oftentimes takes eons to trigger even the slightest hint of movement on the issues he’s tackling. Appointed as the first executive director of the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition back in April, Cadogan is tasked with driving the group’s strategic vision and day-to-day operations, as the NBA works collaboratively to address racial inequality and advance social justice causes by raising awareness, educating citizens and advocating for policy change in multiple areas, including voting access and criminal justice system reform at the national, state and local levels.

Having toiled in this space for the bulk of his career as vice president of Arnold Ventures and director of the Thurgood Marshall Institute at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, not to mention eight years spent in the Barack Obama administration as a senior official at the United States Department of Justice, while holding roles as counselor to the U.S. Attorney General and senior counselor and director of policy in the Civil Rights Division, Cadogan hopes to guide the NBA into institutionalizing the Coalition’s policy work.

Here’s a Q&A with James Cadogan about the new endeavor, as well as a variety of other subjects, including the Coalition’s endorsement of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the EQUAL (Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application) Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited. When you first started the job in May, what were some of the first steps you wanted to take? Did it at times feel daunting to you?

Cadogan: The first thing I thought about doing was understanding the NBA community from the inside because I’ve been a fan since I was a kid. But there’s a difference between loving a community from a distance and then being a part of that community. So, coming into it, one of the most important things that I could do was listen, and start hearing from folks across our community, from our players, our governors, our league execs, our league staff, the teams. What is on your mind? What concerns you most? What would you like to see us take on? That’s been the most important thing.

You started the job about a year after George Floyd’s death. What were your thoughts when you first started to notice the beginning of this racial reckoning in our country in the aftermath of that situation?

I started the job a couple of weeks before the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, and that was a really critical time for all of us to reflect on what had happened in the [span] of a year. We had seen a reawakening on racial justice in America, but not just here. It echoed around the world. Then we had seen commitment after commitment and resource after resource be pledged to the fight for racial justice, to the fight for social justice. I think it was a really important time for us to take stock of where we were and what we wanted to do going forward. There are so many ways in which the NBA connects to fans. There are so many ways in which we can help people understand how they can get involved and how they can make a difference. One of the things I like to focus on is whether we’re using every resource that we have to honor, appropriately, the memory of Mr. Floyd and too many others who have lost their lives over the course of decades.

Is there a part of you that feels like as a country we’ve generated so much momentum on racial and social justice that we can’t squander what feels like a perfect opportunity to make this world a better place?

Absolutely, but the thing that I always say is people have more power than they think they do, and you see those moments when a large group of people starts to realize how much of an impact they can have on whatever issue it is that they take on. In this case, you saw a reawakening on racial justice in America. We saw tens of thousands of people marching, protesting, speaking out because they wanted to see something different in their communities and in this country. When you have those moments, you have to take advantage of them. You have to use them as what they are, which is a wake-up call to us all that we can do better, and we need to do better now.

What’s a typical workday for you?

That really depends on the day. But it could be anything from internal meetings where we’re talking about our legislative advocacy approach, to thinking about how we engage our partners in talking to them about what it looks like to push for greater police accountability, what it looks like to expand access to the franchise. It could be visiting on the Hill with senators, representatives, or their staffs to find out how they’re thinking about moving in our issue areas.

It could be doing a conversation like this where we talk about the mission of the Coalition and why it’s so important that people get involved in social justice work. It could be strategizing with our colleagues across departments in the NBA community about how we support a team’s initiative. How do we help build that work? How do we help amplify that work? All of that is just a snippet of the ways in which this work manifests because we’re a big organization with a lot of reach, and all those opportunities deserve investment.

It seems like you have a unique perspective for doing this type of work. How does your previous experience with the federal government and the Department of Justice transfer over to the work you’re doing now with the Coalition?

I think it’s integral to how I see the world. When you work in government spaces, or political campaigns, or within the structures of institutional power, you start to see how things move and you start to understand them. So, when you move outside of that frame, you still have that in mind when you’re asked to try to effect some change that’s sustainable. The machinery of our democracy is government, for good or for ill. So, we can make government responsive, or it can not be. But either way, you have to understand what it is now and understand what you’re trying to get it to do. So, to me, all those years spent in government, in meetings, in conference rooms and understanding the politics of our issues, all of that informs what I try to bring to this work and to this community.

Growing up overseas, James Cadogan says the 1992 Olympics team gave him an American dream.

Speaking of unique perspectives, you spent pretty much your entire childhood growing up in England. What was your perception of this country prior to immigrating here, and what was your reality when you arrived? Did any of that inspire you to pursue this type of work?

That’s a really great question. So, when I was growing up in the West Midlands in Birmingham in the U.K., I was captivated and inspired by the idea of America, by the notion of the United States. This is a testament to the power of the American dream, that it transcends American borders. It’s why so many people come to this country to pursue a better life. It’s what my parents did for me and my sisters. The idea of America and the American dream manifested most concretely in the Dream Team in 1992. I was 10 years old when they were playing. They were the representation of a Black excellence that I didn’t know I needed at the time.

You’ve talked about institutionalizing the Coalition’s policy advocacy work. Is there much from the past that you can draw on in this endeavor, or is the NBA somewhat of a pioneer in this space?

I don’t think anybody has tried this particular approach before to take the power of a sports league and community and say, ‘It’s not gonna be just the players who are doing advocacy.’ It’s going to be our institutional representatives, our team governors, coaches, league executives, and our union executives. They’re all going to be at the table helping to shape what our agenda looks like on behalf on the community, which is a very different frame. This particular configuration of folks all being at the table to make decisions on behalf of this community in the social justice space, I think that’s new. So, we’re really trying to accurately reflect what the NBA community wants to see, and make sure we use this unbelievably powerful platform to its highest and best effect.

The league itself has been very progressive compared to other sports leagues with regards to cannabis use among the players. Do you see the Coalition ever addressing the issue of such a large number of people in this country being incarcerated for cannabis offenses because, as we both know, those numbers are disproportionately people of color?

Sentencing reform is one of our key priorities. That’s why the EQUAL (Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application) Act is one of our legislative priorities, which is about the failed war on drugs and making sure our current laws reflect reality and that they don’t disproportionately incarcerate or harm Black and brown folks. At the end of the day, that larger question of how we frame our carceral power, how we use it, and who bears the brunt of it is something that is very much at the heart of what we do.

Can you give our readers a rundown on all the bills the Coalition has supported?

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is a piece of federal legislation that brings greater accountability to policing practices across the nation. It’s a really important bill that was introduced about a year ago. It passed the House, but it hasn’t yet passed the United States Senate. What’s most important about the bill is accountability. It bans certain practices like chokeholds that we know have been the proximate cause of people dying at the hands of police. It makes sure that bad police officers who have committed misconduct aren’t able to just transfer into another force without accountability. Those are the kinds of things that we know make a difference in policing practices and are common sense and bipartisan. That’s why we supported it.

The EQUAL Act is a sentencing reform bill that remedies a longstanding sentencing injustice. In the 1980s, it was enshrined into law that for crack cocaine offenses and powder cocaine offenses, there would be two different punishments; more [time] for crack, and less for powder simply because most powder cocaine users were white and most crack cocaine users were black. The EQUAL Act finally eliminates that disparity and makes it one-to-one, equal punishment for equal offenses. That’s a really important step forward in our criminal justice reform work and our sentencing reform policy.

The John Lewis Voting Rights [Advancement] Act is a critical piece of legislation that introduces more accountability into our voting practices. Right now, we know that voter suppression is rampant in multiple states across the country, and we need one standard for how elections are run and administered. We need our Department of Justice to have the same tools that it always had to be able to ensure that those elections are run fairly. Nothing could be more important to protecting the franchise than giving people equal access to the ballot, ensuring that they have the opportunity to vote. That’s exactly what the John Lewis Voting Rights Act does.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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