Why the NBA is in revolt against Trump

March 2, 2017
LeBron James.

“Now we’re judging people by their religion — trying to keep Muslims out,” said Stan Van Gundy, head coach of the US National Basketball Association (NBA) team Detroit Piston in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim nations.

“We’re getting back to the days of putting the Japanese in relocation camps, of Hitler registering the Jews. That’s where we’re heading.”

“I agree with that description [that Trump is a ‘real asset’ to the United States] if you remove the ‘et’ from asset,” added Steph Curry, two-time NBA Most Valuable Player winner.

Throughout the NBA, respected coaches and the most decorated players are speaking out against Trump. This is happening throughout much of the sports world — even in NASCAR — but most notably in the NBA. Over the All-Star weekend in New Orleans, the question was raised: Why is this happening in the NBA — and why now?

I have asked coaches, players and sport writers this question. The consensus is that the NBA revolt against the Trump administration is the result of a perfect storm: the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, greater comfort with social media, and the multicultural and global nature of the game have all inspired this majority-black sports league to stand up to the white nationalism of Muslim bans and border walls.

Many journalists and players also believe that the particular outspokenness of superstars like LeBron James and Gregg Popovich has provided political cover for anyone who wants to follow suit. Others point out that being anti-Trump is good for business.

Nike is commodifying dissent with a beautifully filmed — if crassly opportunistic — commercial starring LeBron himself.

All of these theories have merit, but they don’t explain everything. The NBA was largely silent during the Bush years, except for the continual anti-war voice of 10-year veteran Etan Thomas and a T-shirt worn by Steve Nash.

Players like Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf were driven from the league in the 1990s in part for their political outspokenness. Yet now Hodges is interviewed about his “courage” on Dr Martin Luther King’s birthday for Inside the NBA and Rauf is the subject of a beautiful Outside the Lines special on ESPN, celebrating his “revival”.

Something else is going on, and it’s an unintended consequence of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s efforts to keep the anthem protests that sprang up in the NFL from spreading to the NBA.

Before the season began, the league sponsored public-service announcements about “togetherness” featuring star players known for being vocal about police brutality: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade, along with white player Kyle Korver.

Silver and National Basketball Players Association President Michelle Roberts also sent each team a memo affirming the rights of players to speak out off the court, and asking NBA players to contact the league or the union if they are looking for ways to make “positive change”.

Silver’s message was that players could be as “woke” as they want to be — as long as it was kept off the court, and tilted toward service, not resistance.

It has to be noted that this corporate strategy worked only because Silver, by all accounts, sincerely cares about there being vocal, civic-minded athletes in a way previous NBA heads didn’t. The very reason the All-Star game was in New Orleans was, of course, because it was pulled from Charlotte, North Carolina, over the state’s discriminatory legislation against LGBTIQ people.

Players took the cue from Silver, holding hands during the anthem to symbolise “unity”.

But then a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to kumbaya. Trump was elected president and rebellion has been normalised. Americans have been protesting since the inauguration, and a heterogeneous “resistance” against the grifter in the White House has taken hold.

With his every tweet, Trump sends more people — even those who never thought about politics — into the streets.

Players and coaches are part of this world, too. Many are just as shocked and enraged as the rest of us. They are standing up and not stopping, even if it has gone beyond what Silver could ever control. These are what are called “unintended consequences”.

Silver wanted a “woke league”. Well, he got it and, in the short term, no one is going back to sleep.

[Slightly abridged from Dave Zirin’s website, Edge of Sports.]

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