At last year’s annual ESPYS, four of the National Basketball Association’s most prominent stars took advantage of the spotlight to speak out against police brutality. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul sent a clear message: it’s no longer acceptable for athletes to stick to sports, they have a responsibility to stand up and say something.
Both NBA players and coaches have been speaking out in unprecedented numbers against racial discrimination and the Trump administration over the past few months. To understand what is going on in the NBA, I spoke with Progressive columnist Dave Zirin, author of eight books on the politics of sports.
This summer, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that the NBA would move its 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte in protest of North Carolina’s law eliminating anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community and barring transgender people from using public bathrooms that do not correspond with their birth gender. Several head coaches and many players in the NBA spoke out against Trump’s “Muslim Ban.” LeBron James recently refused to stay at a Trump hotel on a visit to New York, and top coaches, including the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr and the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, apparently feel free to explicitly issue anti-Trump statements.
The NBA has emerged as a progressive force in both the sports world and in response to police brutality and the Trump administration. The Tides Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport rates the NBA’s hiring practices highly.
The overt politics certainly don’t appear to be hurting the league, which set an all-time attendance record last year and is the first sports league to surpass one billion social media likes and followers.
It’s also notable that the NBA is the only major American sports league with a higher percentage of fans who are black than white, and has the youngest audience, with 45 percent of fans under the age of thirty-five.
But not long ago the NBA was derided as “too black” and filled with “thugs.” Michael Jordan famously avoided politics, allegedly defending himself by saying, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” In the past, the best NBA players have typically avoided explicit political statements or engagement.
So how is it that today the league and its players are becoming icons for progressive values? Dave Zirin offered insight.
“This flows from a number of different fonts, creating a perfect ecosystem for outspoken NBA athletes,” Zirin told me via Skype. “In the broader world, the Black Lives Matter movement—which touches the lives of so many NBA players—and the movements that have erupted against the Trump administration have inspired players and created a broader context in which to make statements and have broader societal support.”
Importantly, the move to take a political stand is coming from the top. Because star players like LeBron and respected coaches like Gregg Popovich are so outspoken, Zirin explains, it’s harder to isolate and target any single player for speaking up.
A change of leadership has also made a major difference: “The ascension of Adam Silver as NBA commissioner—which started with the expulsion of the racist slumlord owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling—has created more oxygen than previous commissioner David Stern ever provided.”
I asked Zirin why he thought NBA players responded so vociferously to Trump’s Muslim ban.
“NBA players are different in that they play a truly global sport,” he said. “Many have played around the world and all teams contain international players.” Zirin mentioned Los Angeles Laker forward Luol Deng (who was born in what is now South Sudan) and is one of the most respected players in the league. When it was reported that Deng—and Milwaukee Bucks rookie Thon Maker (also born in what is now South Sudan)—might be victimized by Trump’s ban, players, their union, and the league expressed solidarity.
Zirin also talked about the shared experiences of discrimination of many players in the NBA, and how that informs their politics. “It’s a city league whose players come from areas that are more inclined to be politically progressive,” he said. “It’s also a league defined by black athletes, all of whom (from my experience) have stories about confrontations with police and being racially profiled.”
“It’s a league defined by black athletes, all of whom (from my experience) have stories about confrontations with police and being racially profiled.”
The NBA is “a player’s league,” Zirin noted, unlike the NFL which is built around its team brands. NBA star players have more individual power compared to superstars in other sports, he says, and they are exercising that power both in terms of the construction of their teams and their opinions off the court.
Zirin also talked about the role of social media and youth in the politicizing of the NBA. The NBA has leveraged the rise of social media better than any other major American sports league. “NBA Twitter” is now considered a vital source of discussion on not just the game itself, but on political and cultural issues. Zirin emphasized that he thinks access to social media gives players the option to go beyond beat writers they may not trust and to speak directly to fans.
“Athletes in particular, because of their popularity and following, are able to reach people who otherwise may be apolitical or not care about these issues because they don’t have to,” he said, “Some of this demographic will say, ‘stick to sports’ or ‘boycott LeBron!’ But if you even reach a fraction of those folks, then you can see how political athletes have to power to sever segregation, the power to puncture privilege.”
The “stick to sports” mantra we often hear is really another way of saying, “sports and a certain kind of politics don’t mix,” Zirin said. “Sports is a big business run by generally right-wing businessmen and often with a great deal of paternalism projected onto the young athletes. Their youth means they also have an influence far greater than a George Clooney or Meryl Streep. That’s why the platform is so highly policed.”
The “stick to sports” mantra we often hear is really another way of saying, “sports and a certain kind of politics don’t mix.”
“Political athletes have the power to redefine politics as something distinct from the moral bankruptcy perceived to be emanating from Capitol Hill and the petty hatreds that define this White House,” Zirin concluded. “They can make people, particularly young people, see that politics is not a dirty word but actually it’s civic engagement. There is a rich history of athletes influencing public debate. After a year where we commemorated the passing of Muhammad Ali, the timing could not be more ripe to revive this history.”
Adam Gallagher is a freelance writer and analyst focusing on U.S. foreign policy, politics and sports. Follow him on Twitter @aegallagher10.