Where the Buck Stops

Adi Raghavan & Parv Maheshwari

Aman Mehta

“Shut up and Dribble.” These were the critiques that far right journalist Laura Ingraham threw at Lebron James for his anti-Trump rhetoric. James took the statement and turned it into a documentary about the social responsibility of black athletes in the modern era. When Zlatan Ibrahimović criticized Lebron earlier in the year, he repeated a similar sentiment to that of Ingraham’s. “Do what you’re good at.”  Lebron responded by declaring himself the voice of his community.

In recent years, the NBA has prided themselves as the voice of the voiceless. When the majority big sport leagues dance around political issues to avoid alienating their audience, the league puts themselves on a pedestal for their ability to address socially relevant issues. This is not a new development - Bill Russell was on the frontlines of the civil rights protests and Magic Johnson was a major spokesperson for AIDS awareness. The nuance in the times of Russell and the times of Lebron is how much the league participates in the activism. In 1960, When Russell staged a walkout for the black players on his Boston Celtics and the opposition, the game went on anyway.  The words of his white teammates and opponents stunningly silent. Instead of a national spotlight, Russell’s actions were met with stone silence.  

In 2021, activism is no longer an act of defiance. The NBA stars of today are upstanding community members, leveraging their influence and social media platforms to address important issues, creating a uniquely progressive major sports league. For example, the ESPY Awards in July 2020. Fresh from the wounds of the George Floyd debacle, James and a myriad of superstars addressed police brutality in a rousing speech. Perhaps most impactful of the game’s attempts to address social issues were its response to Donald Sterling, former owner of the LA Clippers. After his racist comments surfaced, Adam Silver, commissioner, had him removed from the league.

The NBA’s commitment to social justice issues was at its peak during the 2020 playoffs. The Bucks, in a first-round matchup against Magic, refused to take the court in protest of the policy shooting of James Blake. Their decision to go on strike in support of the movement halted the league to a standstill and catalyzed a reaction across the major sports leagues. Through this strike, the NBA legitimized the struggles of the BLM movement in front of a public audience.

With such a clear impact, it’s difficult to argue that activism of this nature can be construed as “performative”, a criticism the league has attracted in the past. In the past, there were many forms of performative activism. When Jimmy Butler and several other NBA stars decided to wear a “No-Name Jersey” to stand in alliance with the Black community, their requests were denied by the NBA, who had set a defined list of “pre-approved” slogans for NBA jerseys. What is the value of allowing the players to express themselves on their jerseys if they need to stick to the league’s decision? It’s apparent that the league’s decision to allow slogans on the back of jerseys is blatantly performative and corporatized, and nowhere near productive for the social issues at hand.

Is activism really substantial in the absence of consequences? The NBA’s silence on human rights violations in China is deafening, and it’s clear that their commitment to social justice stopped the second the league’s corporate prospects were threatened. When Daryl Morey, then-GM of the Rockets, sent out a tweet supporting the Free Hong Kong movement, the league’s pariah on justice Lebron criticized him, calling Morey “misinformed”.  The NBA stars who were supposedly community leaders were indifferent to the plight of the people in Hong Kong, and Daryl Morey was reprimanded instead of supported. It is difficult to believe that the league is truly progressive or committed to any level of righteousness if they ignore contentious issues. Activism that is performative and limited to small sections of your community is not genuine in the slightest.

The opposing perspective is that NBA players are naturally more gravitated to issues within their own community. The protests in the wake of George Floyd divided the country, and the NBA players were proud to address it and create such a large level of engagement. Many of these players have faced atrocities in their communities and reckon with issues in the African American community regularly. With the league being predominantly African American, it’s evident that they are more likely to address issues that affect their own community at home.

In conclusion, athletes in the NBA should use their audience and connect with their communities. They should use their voices to spread awareness on important topics and not conduct performative activism. Much like the Premier League’s PR-focused approach to “addressing racism”, the NBA toes the line between superficiality and genuine impact. While the league does appropriately address marginalized communities, a unique distinction to the NBA, it only addresses issue that avoid controversy. This activism, while not performative, is not impactful either.

The voices shouldn’t get quieter the second your pockets start feeling lighter.

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