By Cat Ariail
If, as suggested by Sport in American History editor Andrew McGregor, college football represents a “safe space” for conservatives, the NBA serves that function for liberals. In 2017, the NBA unapologetically carried on the spirit of Obamaian triumphalism. Most notably, LeBron James captured the sentiments of many a frustrated American in his much retweeted tweet calling out the President for disingenuously disinviting Steph Curry and the Golden Warriors to the White House.
On multiple occasions, James offered more thoughtful musings on his status of a black athlete and black man in the contemporary United States. Curry himself also did not hesitate to explain his opposition to the policies and practices of the Trump administration, while other NBA stars also offering their support. Following the lead of the league’s best players, other players not only freely commented on the formal political scene but also used their platforms to advance other progressive political causes. Among others, Karl-Anthony Towns has advocated for the benefits of medicinal marijuana, while a number of players have embraced veganism.
Coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr likewise further established themselves as incisive critics of the nation’s ills, inspiring hopes for Pop-Kerr 2020. Heck, even Charles Barkley showed himself a progressive political advisor, seeming astutely to diagnose the failings of the Democratic Party. Along with celebrating black agency and criticizing white supremacy, the NBA continued to advance the project of gender equity. From Becky Hammon on the sideline to Rachel Nichols on The Jump to Doris Burke in the booth to an increasing number of women in front offices, the league and its attendant media has promoted women as equally intelligent analysts and evaluators of the game.
Just as thrillingly, the NBA also offered much basketball-related excellence and excitement. After the Kevin Durant-boosted Warriors waltzed through the playoffs and to the title with a 16-1 record, the league seemed poised for an era of unimpeded, and possibly uninteresting, Golden State hegemony. Yet, heeding the advice of Rockets GM Daryl More, a number of NBA teams, including Houston, raised their “risk profile,” making ambitious roster adjustments so that, even if the Warriors claim a second-straight title in May, the path to another ring ceremony by the Bay will be dotted with league-wide intrigue.
The aforementioned Morey inaugurated an evermore entertaining NBA offseason by trading for Chris Paul, thus pairing the long-time Clipper floor general with NBA MVP runner-up James Harden to create an offensive supernova that Golden State’s Splash Brothers may not be able to extinguish. While the OK3 has struggled to consistently unleash its offensive potential, adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to NBA MVP Russell Westbrook certainly increased the possibility for a deep playoff run in Oklahoma City. By reuniting with his former Chicago charge in Jimmy Butler, Timberwolves’ boss Tom Thibodeau accelerated Minnesota’s effort to not only make the playoffs but also to make noise in the playoffs. However, for all the fury at the top of the Western Conference, the young and fledging Lakers have remained at the center of both on- and off-court conversations about the league, from the hopes, hysteria, and hate surrounding Lonzo and Lavar Ball to the dawn of Kuzmania to the possibility of LeBronzo. Standing at the opposite end of the NBA’s hype spectrum are the always steady and ever-unheralded Spurs, poised for another nearly 60-win season despite the extended injury of superstar Kawhi Leonard.
Speaking of injury, a gruesome opening-night injury to new Celtic Gordon Hayward seem to extinguish the title hopes for the men in green. However, the Celtics enter 2018 at the top of the Eastern Conference, due to the playbook sorcery of Brad Stevens and the playground-like sorcery of Kyrie Irving. In a offseason of stunning changes, the biggest shock was revelation of Irving’s dissatisfaction in Cleveland (among revelation of other Kyrie curios), leading to an almost unprecedented trade between conference finalists. Irving’s departure seemed to have motivated LeBron James who, after an off-season filled with Versa Climbing and yoga bubble balancing, is, at 33, putting together his most impressive season, suggesting that, especially with the coming contributions of a hopefully fully healthy Isaiah Thomas, the King will maintain his reign over the Eastern Conference. However, a new cohort of promising talents and teams appear prepared to pounce when/if James ever slips from his throne. Along with the coronation of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the #Process, if still incomplete, has entered a new phase in Philadelphia. In Indiana, an invigorated Victor Oladipo has salved the wounds opened by the exit of Paul George, while, freed from Phil and Melo, Kristaps Porzingis has made the Knicks lovable and respectable.
Apologies to all the unmentioned players and teams who, for reasons political and apolitical, on-court and off-, also have helped to put the league on the precipice of overtaking the NFL as the nation’s supreme sport. Yet for the NBA’s ascendancy, it is necessary for progressive-minded basketball fans and sport critics not simply to delight condescendingly in the league’s political liberalism but also to scrutinize the ways in which the NBA’s practices, policies, and promotions actually contributed to the festering of the cultural toxicity that produced Trump.
As feminist critic of sport, I consider the recent jersey retirement ceremony of Kobe Bryant the most egregious example of the NBA’s selective and circumscribed woke-ness. In the moment of #MeToo, the Lakers and the league tone-deafly raised two Mamba jerseys to the Staples Center rafters. NBA luminaries past and present celebrated Bryant according to his self-styled persona as a thoughtful, basketball-obsessed savant, with this cacophony of praise making it all but impossible to reckon with the events of Eagle, Colorado in 2003. Until the implementation of the new collective bargain aggreement in the summer of 2017, the NBA had been as flagrantly inconsistent as the NFL in addressing players accused of sexual assault or domestic violence, as well as physical assault. In the immediate post-Ray Rice moment, the league harshly punished former NBA player Jeff Taylor, of the then-Charlotte Bobcats, when he pleaded guilty to a domestic violence. Otherwise, the league did not establish a identifiable policy for dealing with players facing accusations.
While it is arguable if a professional sports league should have the authority to punish players for such behaviors, the absence of a consistent policy communicates an unserious commitment to redressing the violence against women, thereby implicitly condoning the conditions that create and perpetuate America’s rape culture. The media interest in Derrick Rose’s turbulent 2016-17 season, in context with the largely absent, uncritical coverage of his on-going rape trial, especially a questioning of his legal team’s smear strategy, encapsulates the limitations of the NBA’s proud progressivism. Likewise, the league willing employs Isiah Thomas, despite a jury ruling that he sexually-harassed Anucha Browne Sanders during his tenure as an executive with the Knicks and Liberty. The farcical reconciliation of Thomas and Magic Johnson (whose rift developed when Thomas intimated that Johnson acquired the AIDS virus due to having sexual relations with men) also indicates an enduring discomfort with homosexuality within dominant NBA culture. While the NBA can claim major American men’s sport’s first openly gay athlete in Jason Collins and referee in Bill Kennedy, as well as tout its decision to move the 2016 All-Star Game from Charlotte in light of North Carolina’s anti-LGBT legislation, open support for gay rights remains rather absent in the league’s portfolio of social justice publicity.
Rather, the NBA promotes a more traditional, patriarchal brand of masculinity, highlighted by the league’s stars using social media platforms to advertise themselves as proud husbands and fathers. In the context of the historic criminalization of black manhood in the United States, these self-positionings have progressive effects. However, it also is important to recognize that the uncritical celebration of traditional masculinity further entrenches an American social order organized around a heteronormative gender hierarchy that ultimately protects the power of the white heteropatriarchy and, in turn, produces Trumps, Weinsteins, Moores, and Lauers, not to mention the suite of regressive and reactionary policies advanced by the Republican Congress. Furthermore, while the league visibly has recognized the basketball knowledge of women, the NBA’s feminism remains of the neoliberal, “lean-in” variety, celebrating the ways men can help the women in their lives individually experience equality of opportunity but not considering the structures, both in sport and beyond, that disadvantage women.
The NBA’s record on racial rights also deserves closer scrutiny. Although unapologetically advocating for racial justice, the league consistently does so in a way that evades the underlying, structural causes of racial oppression and inequality. Fostering stronger relations between police and the community they serve and calling for national unity, while a positive goals, misidentifies the concerns raised by #BlackLivesMatter and Colin Kaepernick, with which the league, at least symbolically, seeks to align itself. A re-emphasis of a strict, David Stern-era rule prohibiting protest during the national anthem not only preemptively protected the NBA from any anthem-related histrionics, but also, somewhat curiously, seemed to have bolstered its racial justice cred. While LeBron James is right to recognize that his outsized notoriety gives him more effective means for influencing sociopolitical conversations, the national anthem still could serve as a powerful moment for making a political statement, one that might possibly, and productively, implicate the league for its shortcomings.
Such actions could expose the shallowness of the NBA’s progressivism, showing that, while the league may have perfected virtue signaling, the material effects of its policies and practices largely support status quo social, political, and economic arrangements. Of course, one can argue that it is unfair to expect a sports league, which ultimately is a capitalist and entertainment institution, always to stand on the side of social justice. However, when the NBA intentionally styles itself this way and, all the more, earns much praise for doing so, it is incumbent upon the league’s proudly-progressive fans to recognize its shortcomings and demand a more thorough, more substantial commitment to the causes it ostensibly supports. In short, in 2018, the NBA needs to serve less as a “safe space” for the liberal-minded. Instead, it offers an ideal space through which to consider and critique the limitations of performative progressivism. In making the NBA a less comfortable space, we possibly can think about the deeper changes necessary to make the nation better place.
Cat Ariail is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History of the University of Miami. She researches race, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and nationalism in mid-twentieth-century black women’s track and field. As an Atlanta Hawks fan, she hopes that the Hawks win Tankathon 2018 so that Luca Dončić can rescue Atlanta from NBA irrelevancy. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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