Pope Francis Praises NBA Players During Meeting in Vatican to Discuss Social Justice

Pope Francis
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'You're champions,' the religious leader told the group of athletes.

A contingent of NBA players and officials from the NBPA traveled to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis in order to discuss social justice and activism Monday, according to ESPN's Zach Lowe. The meeting was reportedly organized last week, when an intermediary reached out and indicated that Pope Francis was interested in learning more about their activism and how it will evolve moving forward. 

Five players made the trip, according to Lowe. Longtime union leaders Kyle Korver and Anthony Tolliver both attended the meeting. In 2019, Korver wrote an essay for The Player's Tribune detailing his experience of white privilege in the NBA. He also played for the Milwaukee Bucks, who initiated a wildcat strike during the first round of the postseason that suspended play for several days.

"We are extremely honored to have had this opportunity to come to the Vatican and share our experiences with Pope Francis," said Korver via the Associated Press. "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."

Pope Francis praised the players for their fight for social justice and being role models to not just younger people, but how everyone should fight against racism and intolerance.

"You're champions," said Pope Francis. "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."

Another member of the 2019-20 Bucks, Sterling Brown, also made the trip. Brown was involved in a famous instance of police brutality when he was tackled and tased by officers in Milwaukee. Jonathan Isaac, an ordained minister, attended as well. His decision to stand for the national anthem in the Orlando bubble was based in part on his religious beliefs. Marco Belinelli, a native Italian, rounded out the group. 

The meeting took place at the papal library of the Apostolic Palace, and the players are expected to return to the United States on Tuesday, when they will address the media. NBPA executive director Michele Roberts traveled with the players and attended the meeting as well.

Social justice was at the forefront of the NBA's concluded season in Orlando. "Black Lives Matter" was painted on the courts. Uniforms featured social justice messages. The players and owners formed a joint social justice coalition to further improve the league's efforts on that front, and the league created a $300 million fund for the sake of economic empowerment in the Black community. These have been meaningful steps, but both the league and its players recognize how far there still is to go. A meeting with one of the most influential people in the world is yet another step in the right direction.

This story was originally published by CBS Sports on Nov. 23, 2020.