clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why the NBA Trumps the NFL on Athlete Activism

While the NFL grapples with how to respond to the president’s rebukes, the NBA is already leading the way once again

LeBron James Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Monday morning, Washington Wizards point guard John Wall made a trenchant observation about the different ways the NFL and the NBA respond to issues involving race.

“Most of our franchise guys, the big-time players in our league, are African Americans,” Wall said. He then listed off some names—Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and, finally, LeBron James. He pointed out that, in college football, it’s common to see quarterbacks who are black. But “when they get to the NFL, what do they try to do? Change our position. Why? Because franchise guys are quarterbacks. So you have guys like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers. … Until those guys come out and speak, I don’t think the NFL is going to make any adjustments.”

Wall was far from the only NBA figure to speak out this week. The loudest voices belonged to the league’s most emblematic figures: Steph Curry, Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and LeBron James.

LeBron is uniquely positioned to be the NBA’s elder statesman. He is the greatest NBA player since Michael Jordan (who studiously avoided political statements during his storied career). A three-time champion and a four-time MVP, James has succeeded at the highest levels. At 32 years old, he’s been in the public eye for half his life. There’s probably no athlete as skilled at leveraging traditional and social media to send a message. And he’s still the greatest all-around basketball player alive. James had one of the best statistical seasons of his career last year, averaging a near triple-double—26 points and just shy of nine rebounds and nine assists per game.

At Cavaliers media day, LeBron was asked about his response to President Donald Trump’s comments referring to any NFL player who kneels for the national anthem as a “son of a bitch.”

“The thing that frustrated me and pissed me off a little bit is the fact that he used the sports platform to try to divide us, and sports is so, so amazing,” James said. “What sports can do for everyone, no matter the shape or size or race or ethnicity or religion or whatever. People find teams, people find players, people find colors because of sport, and they just gravitate toward that and they just make them so happy. And it brings people together like none other.”

Sports are thought of as a refuge from life’s problems—great and small. That’s broadly correct, but upon closer inspection not precise enough. Sports are life simplified. Issues of race, gender, governance, authority, and patriotism, among many other concerns, are present in sports and have been for a long time. You don’t have to squint that hard to see football as a stand-in for warfare. Boxing and MMA aren’t metaphors at all; they’re just expressions of violence according to a set of rules. It’s probably more accurate to say that sports—and games in general—are a framework for engaging with complex issues in the most simplistic, and therefore safest, possible way, disconnected from any larger cultural context. Like everything else in sports, these issues are presented according to a strict set of rules. And these rules naturally reflect the point of view of the rich white men who fostered them.

It’s no surprise, then, that for many, a giant American flag unfurling on a football field while fighter jets scream overhead isn’t seen as an overtly political statement. It’s simply the standard opening to the proceedings, codified over several decades. But not an eternal one. The inclusion of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as part of the ceremonies for the 1918 World Series, toward the end of World War I, “went a long way to making the (song) the national anthem,” according to Major League Baseball historian John Thorn. In 1931, President Hoover signed a bill making the song the United States’ national anthem. Only six years earlier, more than 50,000 Klu Klux Klan members—men and women, many carrying American flags—paraded through Washington, D.C., a potent reminder that symbols can mean different things to different people.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” became an official part of the professional football experience at the end of World War II. On August 22, 1945, NFL commissioner Elmer Layden and Washington Redskins owner George Marshall visited the White House, where they presented President Truman with a pass, engraved in gold, to attend Redskins games. (By 1961, the Redskins were the only team in the NFL without a black player; Marshall said his team would sign black players “when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”) No president had ever attended a professional football game, but Truman said he planned on doing so, schedule allowing. Layden took the opportunity to announce that the league would soon return to its pre-war roster limits (from 28 players back to 33), and that “The Star-Spangled Banner” would henceforth be a permanent part of every game. Today, any divergence from that very straight, white-male standard, or any acknowledgment of the circumstances of its creation, is regarded as a “distraction.”

In the NBA, the constraints of pageantry exist, but they’re easier to surmount. Numerous NFL owners—including Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, Rams owner Stan Kroenke, and Jets owner Woody Johnson—donated significant sums to the Trump inaugural committee. And many NBA owners supported the now-president as well. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s company donated $750,000 to Trump’s inauguration committee; James Dolan gave money and had the Rockettes, who largely opposed the president, perform at his inauguration. Betsy DeVos, whose family owns the Orlando Magic, is President Trump’s secretary of education. Kroenke also owns the Denver Nuggets. Peter Holt, who owns the San Antonio Spurs, donated to Trump’s fundraising committee. But in the NBA, the power to set the game’s agenda is in the hands of the players, not the owners. The league could not function without the participation of its superstars, nearly all of whom are black.

The structure of the NBA makes it easier for fans to connect with players. They don’t wear bulky helmets and body-anonymizing pads. NBA players have longer careers, are subject to fewer physical hazards, and enjoy the security of guaranteed contracts. There are only 12 active players on a basketball team and only 10 on the court at one time. And while the NFL is a league of teams, the NBA has always promoted its stars over everything. When the Minneapolis Lakers traveled to New York City for a game in 1949, Madison Square Garden’s marquee read “George Mikan vs. the Knicks.” Thirteen of the 100 most famous athletes in the world are NBA players, per ESPN, compared with eight (six of whom are quarterbacks) for the NFL. LeBron James (no. 2, behind Cristiano Ronaldo), Kevin Durant (no. 8), and Steph Curry (no. 11) are the only American team sport athletes in the top 20. The highest-ranked NFL player is Tom Brady (natch)—all the way down at 21, behind Japanese tennis pro Kei Nishikori.

NFL teams’ ongoing, unofficial ostracization of Colin Kaepernick, who began quietly protesting police brutality and inequality during the Obama administration by kneeling during the national anthem, is the best example of the differences between the two leagues. There is no historical precedent for a player of Kaepernick’s abilities not getting a shot at an NFL roster. As my former colleague Bill Barnwell wrote, “It’s close to impossible to make an argument against Colin Kaepernick starting for a handful of NFL teams right now, let alone being on an NFL roster.” If Kaepernick were an NBA player, he’d be a top-tier backup point guard. A younger Shaun Livingston. If a player with those proven abilities, with a similarly controversial public profile, were available to NBA teams, he’d get signed. The Spurs just tried to sign him and he doesn’t even exist.

On Sunday morning, Aaron Rodgers posted a picture to Instagram of him kneeling with three Packers teammates—a clear suggestion that he supported the protests, which began as statements against police brutality. Some time later, Tom Brady’s (who kept a “Make America Great Again” hat on display in his locker two seasons ago) Instagram account commented on the post with an arm flex emoji. Both quarterbacks locked arms with teammates on the sideline, but neither took a knee during the national anthem.

“[Trump] doesn’t understand the power that he has for being the leader of this beautiful country,” James said at media day. “He doesn’t understand how many kids, no matter the race, look up to the president of the United States for guidance, for leadership, for words of encouragement. He doesn’t understand that, and that’s what makes me more sick than anything.”

LeBron, along with fellow NBA stars Stephen Curry (an endorser of Under Armour, whose CEO, Kevin Plank, was an outspoken Trump supporter and sat on the president’s advisory council on manufacturing until August), Wall, and Bradley Beal, and coaches Popovich and Kerr, addressed the topic in no uncertain terms. “The people run this country,” James said. “Not one individual. And damn sure not him.”