Is the NBA really as progressive as it wants us to believe?

The NBA likes to lean into its reputation as a progressive leader in professional sports. But is it deserved?

On June 19, the Washington Wizards’ John Wall and Bradley Beal helped lead a protest in the nation’s capital. The All-Star duo marched, with megaphones in their hands, giving voice to those tired of police forces being able to kill black persons with impunity. Earlier that month, LeBron James announced that he was working to form a new organization to help fight for voting rights, entitled More Than A Vote, pushing back against tactics used to suppress the ability of many to easily exercise their right to vote. These actions by star players, along with the tacit and occasionally explicit support of the league, has led many to see the NBA as “the most progressive [league] in major sports” and “America’s most forward-thinking sports league.”

The NBA has recognized and leaned into this reputation as a beacon of progressivism within the sports world, which to an extent they are. Although that says as much about the NBA as it does about their peers. Major League Baseball often seems caught in a self-fulfilling loop of perpetual nostalgia while the NFL is more reactionary — clearly of the present, though parroting more nationalistic and conservative rhetoric. Even when these other leagues are not explicitly political, they still provide a safe haven for people who are vexed by the changes taking place in society, where they can find refuge and be comforted by rhetoric or ideas that are either from the past or in counterpoint to the nation’s ongoing shifts

Yet the NBA is a business — its foremost desire is to make money — and the stances its players and coaches take mostly happen independently of the league itself. With several notable league figures taking shots at Donald Trump, appearing at Black Lives Matter Protests, and taking steps to ensure that voting rights are respected, some observers assume that these individual stances say something about their employer. The NBA understandably welcomes this, taking credit for the initiatives undertaken by players, as if their personal convictions say something flattering about the league itself.

Is the NBA really living the progressive value it espouses?

However, the NBA is a league that allowed Donald Sterling to own a team for decades, even after he was sued time after time for housing discrimination. Even today, there are still multiple owners who should not have a place in an actual bastion of progressive ideals. There is James Dolan — a man who is consumed by petty squabbles, chronically insecure, and has been complicit in sexual harassment happening within the organization. There is Mark Cuban who also oversaw an organization running rampant with sexual harassment and received little more than a proverbial slap on the wrist for his inability or unwillingness to stop it. And there is also the DeVos family who own the Orlando Magic and can claim one of their members as a part of Trump’s cabinet. It’s not great.

It is true that stripping teams from morally vacuous owners would be a difficult thing to do, especially considering the fact that Adam Silver is technically their employee, but the fact that so many exist peaceably and generally unchallenged within the league’s infrastructure undercuts its stature as a haven for progressivism within the sports world.

Over the last decade, ever since LeBron James decided to leave Cleveland in order to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach, players have felt more empowered to forge their own destinies through free agency and trade demands than ever before. They now choose where to play and who to play with, showing that they themselves are bigger than the teams they play for or the league they play within. However, that player power still has its limits. The players remain, for all their fame and talent, very well-compensated employees who have less far say in the actual setting of league policy than their stature — and their power as the actual reason fans tune in to watch games — should command.

This is why Kyrie Irving’s nascent idea of a player-run league makes moral and political, if not immediate practical sense. Fans watch the NBA in order to see the world’s best athletes do astounding things, not to give Mickey Arison the money to buy another yacht and players becoming more aggressively aware of that could give them more bargaining power when the CBA expires and a new one is being negotiated. A player-run league may be a fantasy, but it would be a concrete way of giving athletes more power as well as a true step towards taking at least some away from billionaire oligarchs which would be far more in line with true progressive ideals than any statement the NBA could possibly make.

The league’s propensity to care for money-making above all else is being very clearly illustrated as they fight to resume a long-postponed season in the midst of a pandemic. It’s an ill-advised move in a vacuum, but one whose foolishness is made far more pronounced by the fact that the season will be taking place in Florida, a state who has bungled the handling of everything related to the pandemic as poorly as possible and is now seeing persistently rising numbers of cases daily. Also, the league’s plan to institute a bubble is full of fraught logistical and ethical questions that do little to ease concerned fans and observers.

Even as the league is rhetorically saying many of the right things regarding social injustice on social media and in prepared statements, reaffirming the fact that Black lives do indeed matter, their actions seem to betray that idea as they are now forcing players to choose between foregoing their salary or risking their health. And with recent reports that the NBA will be employing “local, state, and federal law enforcement, plus former special operations forces, to secure the bubble in Orlando,” it feels as if the league does not understand just what all the protests happening across the world are actually about. It is dumbfounding that the NBA would hire police to essentially guard their players when awareness of police brutality and the inherent racism within police forces is at the forefront of the national discourse. This decision transforms players into prisoners. It’s not just a matter of bad optics; it’s a poor decision practically and ethically.

The league itself cannot really do anything to address income inequality, the lack of healthcare suffered by millions in the United States, or the militarization of the police. They can make statements and donate money, but as a business, they are unable to take steps to enact policy changes that would concretely help their fanbase. This is not a problem; the issues themselves and the fact that neither the Democratic nor Republican leadership seems willing to address them is the problem. Many are desperate for moral leadership and without being able to find it elsewhere — in government or in other professional sports leagues — such nobility has been projected upon the NBA. However, it is undeserved.

Part of this may be the fact that many have come to see politics as theatre, a game between two opponents rather than an arena that, in many instances, literally decides who will live and who will die. This is how an out of context photo of Nancy Pelosi appearing to sarcastically clap in Trump’s face becomes an icon of resistance even as she does little to actually resist Republican goals. When one can only expect theatrics from politicians themselves, such gestures from corporations such as the NBA come to seem bigger and more important than they actually are. Many on the left are so desperate for leadership that anyone who says anything negative about Trump is an immediate hero and many NBA players and coaches fit that bill.

Yes the NBA’s rhetoric leans progressive — insofar as a multi-billion dollar entity’s can — but that progressivism is almost exclusively symbolic. The mere existence of a league brokered by billionaire owners accountable to essentially no one besides themselves is a bulwark against true progressive ideals. It may seem trite and obvious to say that the NBA’s primary concern is making money. However, with the tendency of some fans looking to the league for insight on issues of justice, it is a point worth reiterating. This the same league that had no place for Craig Hodges or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, after all. It’s not that left-leaning NBA fans should hope for the league to become a truly progressive entity — something that seems impossible for a corporation such as the NBA to be — but instead should abandon such a hope altogether, working instead alongside foundations and initiatives that work to actualize aims the NBA’s rhetoric can only vaguely hint at. A better, more just world is possible, but it will not be brought about by corporations like the NBA; it will come because of us.

Next: Kyrie Irving and the radical imagination he almost pitched us

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