Why Basketball Leads the Intersection of Sports and Politics
When the National Basketball Association resumed its season inside the bubble in Orlando, plastered across arenas was the slogan: Whole New Game. Little did the league know this would soon become an understatement of epic proportions, as the work stoppage by NBA players in August was a seminal moment in the civil rights movement. But with the ongoing chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic and the bitter rhetoric surrounding the 2020 election, the Black Lives Matter movement is no longer prominently featured in daily news coverage.
Yet the intersection of basketball and politics is still game on during this election cycle because there’s a historic opportunity to address not only Black Lives Matter, but to also make meaningful progress on the issue of systemic racism. How? By activating NBA and WNBA players to directly reach out to voters in battleground states and toss-up Senate races, which will focus attention on the divide between candidates who will address police violence, criminal justice reform and racial inequality and those who won’t.
“The way things have gone these past three years, it’s imperative that players realize the power of their voices and use their platform more actively to make a statement,” says Alex English, an eight-time NBA All-Star and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. “It’s going to take a number of players going to their player associations to say, ‘Let’s set up a Zoom meeting, let’s see who wants to participate, let’s get a consensus, because we’ve got roughly two weeks.’”
The NBA has an estimated 80 per cent Black players, the WNBA 70 per cent, yet the leagues, teams and their broadcast networks won’t support individual candidates, whether due to concerns over overt partisanship, sponsorship considerations or equal air time regulations. The players and owners have worked together to utilize arenas as polling places, established the NBA Foundation to spur economic growth in the Black community, and created voting campaigns to encourage attendance, register new voters and provide logistical support. And to their credit, the players have stuck to the long-honored credo of “may the best man or woman win,” even when the only rule in Donald Trump’s rulebook is there are no rules.
Rewinding the clock — back in the 1980’s, I worked in the NBA Commissioner’s office in New York, where my chief responsibility was producing the league’s promotional TV campaign. Our mantra was, “NBA Action is Fan-tastic!” and part of our marketing strategy was to recruit high-profile celebrities from the film, television and music industries like Michael Douglas, Oprah Winfrey and Elton John to recite our tagline on camera. Why pursue these megastars? Because their endorsements not only added cachet — people have emotional connections with their heroes. In retrospect, the league was using social influencers way before the term even existed.
With a combined 594 players, the NBA and WNBA are a social media tsunami — LeBron James alone has 47 million Twitter followers, 46 million on Instagram and 24 million on Facebook. In partnership with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, his organization, More Than a Vote, recruited over 10,000 new poll workers in just two weeks. That’s an election MVP.
For Gen Z and Millennial voters, diversity, equality and social justice are crucial issues and the underlying truth is that when Black and White professional basketball players urge voter participation, they are tacitly endorsing Democratic candidates, not a leader who has refused to disavow white supremacists nor his enablers in Congress who have been complicit with their silence on addressing police violence, voting rights and institutional racism.
“This is so important where we go in this country, who we elect as president and who we elect in the Senate,” says Golden State Warriors head coach, Steve Kerr. “Is this the country we want to live in, with this moral stain we carry? It is so crucial right now because we have someone who is dividing us and inciting violence every day, someone who has shown he is a racist basically throughout his adult life.”
No league has proven itself to be comprised of more determined political activists than the WNBA, with players constantly referring to social advocacy as being part of their DNA. Candice Dupree, a seven-time All-Star with the Indiana Fever, works closely with the League of Women Voters to help empower voters and fight voter suppression. She understands the fine line players walk, but also acknowledges that it’s their time to take a stand.
“I can’t speak on behalf of all the other professional athletes, but I know that right now, Trump is everything that we don’t want,” says Dupree. “While we try to stay as non-partisan as possible, it would be great to get on a call with some NBA players and WNBA players to focus on how we can have an impact in these swing states, because it’s not going to come from the NBA, and it’s not going to come from the WNBA, it’s got to be a player-driven initiative.”
With the president claiming he may not accept defeat as he disparages mail-in voting, the fact is that many of these races may be decided by the narrowest of margins and with states like Florida and Texas making it harder for people to vote, especially people of color, every ballot will count. Pivotal electoral states include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. Each hosts an NBA team (Florida has two, Texas three), and the WNBA three.
Vulnerable GOP Senate seats include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina and Texas — seven of those eight host NBA teams and the WNBA four. With Democrats needing wins in four of these races to flip the Senate, basketball players are potential game changers. Teaming up to ensure that every eligible voter gets on the court, is the best and only shot for 2021 to really start a Whole New Game.
“It’s got to be about more than just Black Lives Matter,” says English. “It’s about racial justice and how this country is going to operate going forward. These people that are working against the common good of all of its people, they need to be gone.”
Paul Gilbert is the former Director of Production for the National Basketball Association