On the second day of September, almost exactly two months before the 2020 presidential election, the Orlando Magic held a press conference in soupy Central Florida to make good on a promise. Several members of the franchise were present, including president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman, CEO Alex Martins, head coach Steve Clifford, and center Mo Bamba. They were joined by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, and Bill Cowles, the Orange County supervisor of elections. Together, in consultation with More Than a Vote—an organization backed by LeBron James and other athletes and artists dedicated to fighting Black voter suppression—the group proudly declared that the Amway Center, home to the Magic, would double as a polling place on November 3.
The announcement was the result of an agreement reached in late August between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association after players paused the postseason to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin, Officer Rusten Sheskey. The plan called for the establishment of a social justice coalition including players, coaches, and governors; dedicated advertising spots during each playoff game aimed at “promoting greater civic awareness in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity”; and the conversion of arenas into polling places. The Magic were the latest franchise to deliver on that final component, joining a host of other organizations, among them the Kings, Bucks, Hawks, Pistons, and Clippers.
In a conversation with The Ringer in late August, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts credited the league for working with the players, an effort that began before the season’s restart in the Orlando bubble, including the governors’ pledge of $300 million over 10 years toward economic empowerment in the Black community. Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan and the Jordan Brand promised another $100 million over 10 years to organizations “dedicated to ensuring racial equality, social justice and greater access to education.” The Nets pledged $50 million to create economic mobility in the Black community, and the Celtics promised an additional $25 million over the next decade to “address racial injustice and social inequities” in and around Boston. The league also approved a list of messages to be worn on jerseys and painted “Black Lives Matter” on all courts in the bubble. And to begin the conference finals, players donned new warm-up shirts with a single word and a simple message: “Vote.” Roberts emphasized that, “because of the political environment” in the country, voting is an especially important and pressing issue for her membership.
“With all the discussion about voter suppression,” Roberts said, “the November date has been something the players have been mindful of and this was a way to make sure there was some concerted action to make November an actual potential turning point.”
Despite the donations, the messages of solidarity, and the formation of committees, some skepticism about the governors’ motives remained. In a conference call with the media after the joint NBA-NBPA agreement, Jaylen Brown said he was “not as confident as I would like to be” in the owners’ collective commitment because “promises are made year after year.” Before the restart, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that sources said Kyrie Irving didn’t support finishing out the season because “I’m not with the systematic racism and the bullshit. Something smells a little fishy.” And in the bubble, Bucks guard George Hill, who was a leading voice in Milwaukee’s decision to sit out its playoff game against the Magic, thus spurring the multiday postseason strike, voiced regret about the decision to play basketball at all. Meanwhile, former players like Greg Anthony and Caron Butler criticized the idea that owners have done enough simply by pledging $300 million. Andre Iguodala, the first vice president of the NBPA, went further.
“Is it a marketing ploy, or are we just doing it to build relations?” Iguodala asked in remarks to USA Today. “In the grand scheme of things, that’s $10 million per team, and that’s essentially a tax.”
It’s not hard to understand why so many current and former players are waiting, as Roberts put it, to see NBA governors “walk the walk” rather than just “talk the talk.” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that “not every owner in the NBA was enthusiastic about having ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the court” and wondered whether there might “be some splintering off among ownership if this season unravels.” So what happens to the partnership between the players and the governors if one side’s agenda is suddenly in conflict with the other’s?
That very thing is happening right now. Roberts said the players are focused on a particular piece of federal legislation that passed the House but is currently stuck in the Senate: HR 7120, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. Among other things, the bill would lower the criminal intent standard required to convict law enforcement of misconduct in federal prosecutions, as well as limit qualified immunity, which helps shield police officers and government officials from civil suits.
Pleas for police reform and justice continued on Wednesday, when it was announced that a Kentucky grand jury would not directly charge any officers for their role in the killing of Breonna Taylor. Instead, former Louisville police detective Brett Hankison was indicted on three counts of wanton endangerment for shooting into neighboring apartments in the March 13 police raid that killed Taylor in her home. Following that announcement, Roberts issued a statement calling Taylor’s slaying “the result of a string of callous and careless decisions made with a lack of regard for humanity, ultimately resulting in the death of an innocent and beautiful woman with her entire life ahead of her.” Several players also spoke out on Twitter, including Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell and Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. And Nets guard and NBA veteran Jamal Crawford posted that “the cops that murdered Breonna Taylor knew this is how it would play out” and “they were never worried about justice being served.”
HR 7120 was sponsored by Representative Karen Bass (D-CA), and it passed the House in late June by a margin of 236-181. Of those nays, all but one came from Republicans. Only three Republicans voted yea. The bill now resides with the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has yet to call a vote.
It’s hardly news that billionaires who own sports teams donate heavily to politicians and their political action committees, and it’s no surprise that the overwhelming amount of that money is earmarked for conservatives and their causes. As Roberts said, “I don’t think any of our players think we’ve got a bunch of progressives running these teams.” Her membership knows the deal. But a recent BuzzFeed review of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees found that “they expressed full-throated support for law enforcement and made clear they believe courts should do more to shield officers from lawsuits.” And now, in the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death just 46 days before the election, the president and McConnell are vowing to add another conservative justice to the Supreme Court.
Some of the owners who purport to be allies in the fight against systemic racism and police brutality have also contributed massive amounts of money to Trump and the GOP, a president and a party that stand in direct opposition to a specific position the players want to see advanced—law enforcement accountability and reform through HR 7120. That contrast becomes even more glaring when you consider that franchises across the NBA issued statements in support of the players’ strike after Blake’s shooting—including the Magic. The franchise, owned by Dan DeVos, said the team and the DeVos family “stand united” with the league and the players in “condemning bigotry, racial injustice and the unwarranted use of violence by police against people of color.”
Sources who know the DeVos family pointed to those statements of solidarity with the Magic’s players, as well as the Magic’s rush to convert the Amway Center into a polling place, as proof that their well-publicized political affiliations aren’t necessarily representative of their personal beliefs. (DeVos’s sister-in-law, Betsy DeVos, is the U.S. secretary of education. Betsy’s brother, Erik Prince, founded the controversial private military force formerly known as Blackwater, now called Academi.) That position becomes harder to defend, however, when considering their one-sided political donations.
According to Federal Election Committee records, in mid-June the Magic owner donated $50,000 to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that funnels money to the very same Republican representatives who accounted for all but one of the nay votes against HR 7120. In early June, DeVos and his wife, Pamella, gave $150,000 to the Senate Leadership Fund, another GOP super PAC, and in late June they contributed an additional $71,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. That is a lot of funding directed to the Republican senators who have so far shown little interest in calling a vote on HR 7120.
There’s one other notable DeVos political contribution from this period. George Floyd, whose name is attached to HR 7120 in his honor, was killed May 25. Two weeks later, DeVos donated $200,000 to America First Action, one of Donald Trump’s super PACs.
Dig deeper, below the surface support the governors have publicly offered the players, and it’s fair to wonder how invested the owners actually are in the fight for racial equality and police reform. I began reporting this story more than a year ago. During that time I’ve had conversations with league executives, agents, coaches, players, and staffers. Many of them had opinions about the seeming gap between the owners’ PR posturing and their political donations. Few went on the record. In the weeks leading up to publication, I contacted more than two dozen owners and players asking for comment regarding our findings. Only Mavericks owner Mark Cuban agreed.
Because of the country’s charged political climate, the subject matter is ready-made for partisan pushback. Recently, a Utah Jazz beat writer for The Salt Lake Tribune named Andy Larsen reported about the political donations of head coach Quin Snyder, who made two $500 contributions to a Black Republican congressional candidate who had spoken out against the NBA and BLM protests. Larsen’s Twitter mentions were immediately flooded with accusations of left-wing media bias. He responded by defending the piece on the merits, explaining that he didn’t write the headline and the story had been assigned to him, and underscoring that he wasn’t drawing any conclusions.
In the interest of transparency, I will save people the trouble of pointing out the obvious by doing it myself. I registered as a Democrat this year after being an independent since I was 18. I have made a number of small-dollar contributions to Democratic candidates and causes this cycle, including $100 to a fund that distributes money to Democrats running for Senate, many of them in battleground states. I voted for Elizabeth Warren in the California primary. I will vote for Joe Biden in the general.
None of that changes the facts or the data we compiled here. Nor should it distract from a pressing question facing the NBA: How does the league’s public messaging look when placed in full context alongside the political contributions of its owners? After all, the majority of NBA players are Black, but the majority of governors are white. Only seven owners—Jordan, the Kings’ Vivek Ranadivé, the Bucks’ Marc Lasry, the Pelicans’ Gayle Benson, the Jazz’s Gail Miller, the Lakers’ Jeanie Buss, and the Nets’ Joseph Tsai—are not white men. (Tsai was born in Taiwan and is a naturalized Canadian. Accordingly, he is prohibited from making financial contributions to American politics under federal law, as is fellow Canadian and Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum.) So what do those political donations say about a league that plainly wants to be seen, and hailed, as a positive force in the fight against racism?
An extensive review of FEC records by The Ringer reveals that NBA owners have made more than $28 million in political donations to various causes and candidates since January 1, 2015. You will notice that is not an exact figure. Because many NBA teams have large ownership groups, we reviewed the contributions of governors with principal or notable stakes in their franchises. We also checked the donations of their spouses since political contributions aren’t always made in a governor’s name. Because of that, and because the FEC website allows for multiple variations on a person’s name and allows filtering only by state of residence and employer, the numbers listed in this piece reflect a minimum donation amount. Put another way, it is possible there is more money we missed.
We found political contributions by 27 different owners (as well as 20 significant others) over a period of more than five years. Of that $28 million total, more than $14.9 million (53.4 percent) went to Republican politicians and PACs, while over $12 million (43.1 percent) was directed to Democrats. That leaves roughly $1 million to nonpartisan issues, such as the University Public Issues Committee, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, or PACs that give to candidates from both parties. At first glance, that appears to be a fairly even split. Those numbers, however, are misleading due in large part to a massive, single contribution recently made by one governor.
NBA Owner Political Contributions Since 2015
|Owner||Total $||Republican Donations||Democratic Donations||Nonpartisan Donations|
|Owner||Total $||Republican Donations||Democratic Donations||Nonpartisan Donations|
|Steve Ballmer (Clippers)||$7,946,914||$10,000||$7,936,914||$0|
|Dan DeVos (Magic)||$4,854,344||$4,854,344||$0||$0|
|Dan Gilbert (Cavaliers)||$2,641,073||$2,250,400||$345,673||$45,000|
|James Dolan (Knicks)||$2,128,979||$1,945,179||$175,800||$8,000|
|Jerry Reinsdorf (Bulls)||$1,912,100||$469,600||$615,500||$827,000|
|Tilman Fertitta (Rockets)||$1,381,950||$1,333,450||$48,500||$0|
|Micky Arison (Heat)||$1,232,800||$929,800||$268,000||$35,000|
|Josh Harris (76ers)||$839,100||$648,950||$190,150||$0|
|Herb Simon (Pacers)||$826,538||$186,500||$606,038||$34,000|
|Marc Lasry (Bucks)||$544,150||$0||$544,150||$0|
|Ted Leonsis (Wizards)||$426,620||$0||$426,620||$0|
|David Blitzer (76ers)||$265,570||$115,000||$142,770||$7,800|
|Gayle Benson (Pelicans)||$260,800||$260,800||$0||$0|
|Wesley Edens (Bucks)||$242,400||$0||$242,400||$0|
|Robert Sarver (Suns)||$220,400||$179,400||$11,000||$30,000|
|Glen Taylor (Timberwolves)||$151,600||$151,600||$0||$0|
|Gail Miller (Jazz)||$132,000||$103,000||$24,500||$4,500|
|Tom Gores (Pistons)||$109,763||$5,400||$104,363||$0|
|Vivek Ranadive (Kings)||$108,442||$0||$108,442||$0|
|Tony Ressler (Hawks)||$76,333||$8,700||$67,633||$0|
|Clay Bennett (Thunder)||$54,800||$54,800||$0||$0|
|Peter Guber (Warriors)||$40,490||$3,700||$31,390||$5,400|
|Jim Buss (Lakers)||$8,797||$8,797||$0||$0|
|Jeanie Buss (Lakers)||$5,948||$0||$5,948||$0|
|Wyc Grousbeck (Celtics)||$500||$0||$500||$0|
After the postseason pause, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer announced that the Forum will be a voting center beginning in late October. Along with his wife, Connie, the Ballmers have made 54 contributions totaling more than $7.9 million since 2015. That puts the Ballmers at the top of the NBA donor list—but only because Connie contributed $7 million in April to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control and serves as an NRA watch group. That is one of the largest donations of any amount by any individual during the 2020 election cycle—and by far the largest single contribution by an NBA governor in the five-plus years of data we collected. Ballmer called for bipartisan national police reform after the slaying of George Floyd and endorsed HR 7120—something Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, whose father was a police officer, also supports. (It should be noted that in 2015 Ballmer was honored at the Los Angeles Police Foundation’s True Blue Gala, where there were “demonstrations with the latest state-of-the-art police technology, vehicles, weapons and crime-prevention equipment.” Ballmer also helped fund a private study conducted by UCLA researchers about the efficacy of community policing and whether it helps residents in public housing developments feel safer. Critics say it does the opposite.)
A recent study conducted by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies found that, broadly speaking, billionaires tend to give somewhat equally to both political parties. Not so in the NBA—especially when you consider what the numbers look like absent the Ballmers’ onetime mega-donation to an advocacy group. During the 2020 election cycle—which began in 2019—The Ringer found that, not including the Ballmers’ $7 million gun-control contribution, 80.9 percent of political donations by NBA owners have gone to Republicans and Republican causes, 18.4 percent to Democrats, and 0.7 percent to nonpartisan issues.
This cycle, league governors have collectively donated more money to Trump and his associated super PACs than all non-Ballmer Democratic donations combined. Everytown for Gun Safety was by far the biggest beneficiary of NBA owner contributions. After that, nine of the next 10 top recipients of NBA governor donations this cycle have been GOP candidates or causes. They are, in order:
- The Republican National Committee
- Unite the Country (a left-leaning PAC that made the list thanks to $500,000 from Connie Ballmer)
- Trump Victory
- The National Republican Senatorial Committee
- The Senate Leadership Fund
- Better Future MI Fund (a super PAC for John James, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Michigan)
- The Congressional Leadership Fund
- America First Action
- The National Republican Congressional Committee
- The Cornyn Majority Committee (a super PAC affiliated with Republican Senator John Cornyn)
While some governors donate some money to both political parties—Jerry Reinsdorf, Herb Simon, Micky Arison, and Sixers owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer gave at least 20 percent of their donations to both parties—and while only five directly contributed to Trump or his PACs (DeVos, James Dolan, Tilman Fertitta, Julianna Holt, and Jim Buss, part owner of the Lakers), most of the contributions by owners over the past five-plus years have gone to the GOP and its causes.
“It’s fair and important to question anything and everything,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban responded via email when asked whether it was fair to question his fellow governors about their political contributions. “That’s the only way to learn and to hopefully make this country and our electorate stronger. You can’t believe in facts and science and then say a position should not be questioned. It’s exactly how knowledge is earned.”
Cuban—who said the American Airlines Center in Dallas will be open as a polling place from the start of early voting—vowed to “invest far, far more in businesses and investment funds run by people of color, women and LGBTQ entrepreneurs.” And while he said he thinks “players respect the right of individuals to support who they choose to support,” Cuban—who over the summer was rumored to be weighing a run for president as an independent—noted that he does not give to politicians or PACs because “I strongly value my independence.”
That makes him a rarity in the NBA. Of the 10 owners who have donated the most money since 2015, seven directed more than 75 percent of their political contributions to Republicans. They are, in order of most money spent:
- Dan Gilbert (the Cavaliers’ owner, who also helped host the Republican National Convention at his Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland in 2016)
- Dolan (Knicks)
- The Holt family (Spurs)
- Fertitta (Rockets)
- Micky Arison (Heat)
- Joshua Harris (Sixers)
The other three were Ballmer (0.1 percent to Republicans), Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf (24.6 percent), and Pacers owner Herb Simon (22.6 percent). Among NBA governors who donated solely to Democrats, Lasry leads the way with a little over $544,000 in contributions. In addition to Lasry, five other NBA governors donated solely to Democrats without giving to Republicans: Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, Bucks co-owner Wesley Edens, Ranadivé, Buss, and Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck.
Along with his wife, DeVos has been the NBA’s most prolific political contributor since January 2015. Together they’ve accounted for at least 465 separate transactions over that period—174 more than any other owner-spouse combination. Every penny of the more than $4.8 million they contributed over the past five-plus years has gone to GOP candidates or affiliated PACs. This cycle, the DeVoses have donated more than $2 million to Republicans.
With respect to DeVos, it isn’t just the amount of money or the timing of his donations to Republicans that raises questions about his public commitment to supporting the players’ fight against racism—it’s also the specific recipients. In 2018, Mediaite reported that Juan Pablo Andrade, a policy adviser for America First Policies, the nonprofit social welfare organization tied to the Trump PAC, was caught in a recording saying, “The only thing the Nazis didn’t get right is they didn’t keep fucking going.” Trump himself has a long history of racism, and when journalist Bob Woodward asked him whether he needed to work harder to understand the plight of Black people, Trump replied, “No, I don’t feel that at all.”
“There are some people who purport to despise Trump but believe as long as he keeps those taxes low he’s their guy. Now, I think that’s a disgraceful excuse for why you would support someone with his politics,” Roberts responded when I asked about the political donations of DeVos and other NBA owners. “But I know people who look me in the eye and say that to me: ‘Look, I think [Trump is the] scum of the earth. And I would never have him in my home. And I tell my children all the time don’t listen to him, he’s a jackass. But you know how much money I saved in taxes the last four years?’ And that’s important to them. It drives me mad that there are ways for people to justify supporting Trump while taking a very progressive position on other issues.”
Of course, DeVos isn’t an outlier on that front. In June, the Knicks and Spurs were the only two NBA teams not to immediately issue statements after the killing of George Floyd. That reportedly angered some Knicks players and staff, while Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich issued a lengthy statement of his own. Dolan has made more than $2.1 million in political contributions over the past five-plus years, with 91.4 percent going to the GOP. (Dolan and his wife have donated $175,800 to Representative Tom Suozzi [D-NY] and supporting PACs; the congressman worked at Cablevision while Dolan served as the company’s CEO.) He has given $788,100 to Trump over that period, including a $355,000 donation to his super PAC in May. Over that same stretch, the Spurs’ owners—Julianna Holt, Peter Holt, and Corinna Holt Richter—have contributed more than $1.4 million, 99.9 percent to Republicans, including more than $500,000 to Trump.
“I think it’s really dishonest for anyone to even say, ‘Oh, I’m just donating to one of the parties that I believe in.’ You can’t differentiate, you can’t separate whatever economic argument you make for supporting Republicans from the harm they’re doing,” said Shaniqua McClendon, now the political director for Crooked Media. McClendon previously served as legislative aide to former Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC), and as legislative director to Representative Alma Adams (D-NC). McClendon said it isn’t lost on her that NBA governors give money to a political party that “essentially wants Black people to stop being a nuisance and stop asking for things like civil rights so they can keep making money off them. There are Black people making money for these [governors], and these [governors] are going to invest it into the same people who are oppressing them.”
The owners’ widespread financial support of the GOP, however, has not insulated the league from being criticized by the Trump administration. During the leaguewide shutdown in protest of the Blake shooting, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, took a swipe at the players for having “the luxury to take a night off from work” and said he wanted to see them offer “concrete solutions that are productive.” For his part, Trump attacked the league for its TV ratings in the bubble and for becoming “a political organization.”
During a subsequent appearance on CNBC, Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta took umbrage with those remarks. Fertitta called NBA players “our partners,” insisted, “I don’t know why [Trump] made that statement,” and said the president’s remarks were “disappointing, because everybody right now is somewhat of a political organization and that’s why we all need to work together, to pull everybody, to work together to solve all these issues.”
Here, again, an owner’s public comments are at odds with his political contributions. In February, shortly before the league temporarily suspended operations because of the coronavirus pandemic, Fertitta gave $35,000 to the Trump Victory PAC. In total, Fertitta and his wife have made more than $1.3 million in political donations over the past five-plus years, 96.5 percent of which has gone to the GOP, including more than $150,000 to the president.
As Jemele Hill explained in The Atlantic in July, “The NFL can’t fight racism when owners support Trump.” The NBA faces the same problem. Just this week, The Washington Post detailed how Trump has “presided over a sweeping U.S. government retreat from the front lines of civil rights, endangering decades of progress against voter suppression, housing discrimination and police misconduct.” In addition to direct donations to Trump, contributions to the GOP and politicians who enable the president’s agenda lead to questions about the sincerity of the public commitment that governors have lately made with regard to social justice.
For example, Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, whose team plays in the city that sparked nationwide protests and started a broad debate about law enforcement funding after Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, has made more than $150,000 in political contributions since 2015—all of it to the GOP, including more than $50,000 this election cycle. In 2017, Taylor donated $2,700 to Steve King, a Republican representative from Iowa who has a long history of racist comments. In 2019, King was removed from his committee assignments after doing an interview with The New York Times during which he asked rhetorically, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” King lost his bid for reelection in June when he was defeated in the Iowa Republican primary.
In Arizona, Suns owner Robert Sarver has given more than $220,000 in five-plus years, with more than $179,000 going to Republicans. In the 2018 cycle, Sarver gave Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, $2,700 in her bid for the U.S. Senate. But that same cycle, Sarver also donated $25,000 to Defend Arizona, a super PAC aligned with her opponent at the time, Martha McSally. During their race, Defend Arizona distributed an anti-Sinema mailer claiming she wouldn’t keep people safe. The front of the mailer looked like a photo of Phoenix, until it was tilted in a certain direction—at which point the hologram shifted to a mushroom cloud. (In an email, a Suns spokesperson said that, since 2004, Suns Charities has given more than $30 million to programs in Arizona “supporting disadvantaged and marginalized communities specific to education and job growth.” The spokesperson also noted that, in 2010, Sarver was an outspoken critic of a controversial Arizona immigration law that he called “mean-spirited.”)
And in Philadelphia, Sixers ownership attempted to turn an arena it does not own into a polling place for the November election. (Instead, the Wells Fargo Center will serve as a mail ballot drop-off site.) The team also partnered with More Than a Vote to provide educational resources and encourage people to vote. Despite these efforts, questions abound about ownership’s push to build their own arena along the Delaware River. That bid was defeated by another developer, but the team initially claimed that the construction of a new multiuse building could lead to $1 billion for “businesses and contractors owned by people of color during the construction and initial operations of the project,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The organization’s initial arena plan also called for construction of a new African American Museum—a move endorsed by the Urban League of Philadelphia, the Urban Affairs Coalition, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, and the African-American Chamber of Commerce. But Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier told the Philadelphia Inquirer that investing in the Black community “should be a given” and shouldn’t automatically be tied to corporate subsidies.
Pennsylvania state Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, whose district represents parts of Philadelphia, applauded the Sixers for their efforts to aid voters this fall. But Kenyatta also told me that “folks who have benefited from the incredible wealth and opportunity that this country provides” continue to “be comfortable using that wealth” to support a president and a party that have worked to “tear down the very structures” that might benefit others. If you want to see what people really value, Kenyatta said to look no further than their budgets.
“This is very straightforward,” Kenyatta said. “It’s not good enough at this point to simply put out a statement. We’re gonna have to put our money and our votes where it counts.”
While the Sixers insisted they would pour money into the Black community, Harris’s political donations and connections have been largely tailored to a different audience since 2015. Harris and his wife, Marjorie, have made more than $830,000 in political contributions over the past five-plus years; 77.3 percent has gone to the GOP. While Harris has not donated directly to Trump or his super PAC, he has ties to the administration. In early 2017, shortly after Trump was sworn in, Harris met with Kushner about a possible White House job, according to The New York Times. While the job never materialized, the Times reported that the company Harris cofounded, Apollo Global Management—one of the largest private equity firms in the world—lent $184 million to the Kushner family real estate firm through Apollo’s real estate lending arm. The deal had gone unnoticed until reported by the Times, which discovered that it was triple the average size of property loans typically made by Apollo, according to securities filings reviewed by the paper.
(An Apollo spokesperson pushed back against the Times’ reporting in a statement to The Ringer: “Josh Harris and Jared Kushner never discussed any loans to Kushner Companies. The loans went through the firm’s standard approval process for this line of business, were typical for Apollo and done at market rate, and were disclosed with the SEC as normal for Apollo. Harris never discussed a role at the White House with Jared Kushner. As was widely reported, Harris was asked to serve on the infrastructure task force with various other business leaders. The task force never moved forward.”)
But if Harris’s actions seem contradictory—partnering with players to fight voter suppression and promising to invest in the Black community while also meeting with high-ranking administration officials and enabling a party that has often worked against the interests of the Black community—Cuban cautioned that you cannot “pigeonhole” owners or players into “conservative or progressive compartments,” and he doesn’t believe that they’re “monolithic in thought or positions.”
“I talk to owners and players who are ‘conservative’ when it comes to financial issues but simultaneously very ‘liberal’ when it comes to social issues,” Cuban wrote via email.
That thought also tracked for Roberts, who independently made a similar connection. Roberts said owners who straddle two opposing sides would “probably say that there’s nothing inconsistent in those two acts.” McClendon agreed that owners probably wouldn’t see a contradiction between their statements and contributions—primarily because she never found their remarks or motivations sincere in the first place. “It’s never been the case that they’re saying [Black Lives Matter] because they actually believe it,” McClendon said. “I think they say it for the same reason they give Donald Trump money: their bottom line. They know if they don’t step up and say these things matter, you have all these fans who care about these things.” Which is why, McClendon figured, NBA governors will insist they stand with players while also giving material support to the GOP—“so they can keep these policies in place that make other people poor but enrich them, and they support the players so they can keep bodies bouncing basketballs.”
In his anti-NBA rant, Trump said the league was becoming “a political organization, and that’s not a good thing. I don’t think that’s a good thing for sports or for the country.” That’s a plainly disingenuous statement considering how often and openly the president has used athletes as a wedge issue to advance grievance politics. But there are some people who would prefer that sports and politics remain separate—even people in sports who are politically active.
More than a year ago, I asked Jerry Colangelo, the managing director of USA Basketball and a longtime NBA executive, about his political contributions. (In June 2019, just after Team USA finished training camp ahead of the World Championships, Colangelo contributed $3,000 to Trump Victory PAC.) Our conversation happened only a few days after billionaire Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was widely criticized for holding a high-end fundraiser for the president.
Asked about Ross and his own Trump donation, Colangelo said one of the freedoms we enjoy in this country is “the ability to have some privacy.” He said, “Everything can’t be in black and white as it relates to what political side you’re on,” and insisted, “Many successful businesspeople support people from both parties.” Colangelo—who has donated $17,300 to Republicans during this cycle, as well as a total of $3,000 that was broken up between two separate Democratic congressional candidates—told me at the time that he hadn’t gotten much pushback for his own political donations over the years.
“No one has confronted me with my political views or who I contributed to or who I haven’t contributed to,” Colangelo said about his contribution to the Trump campaign. “And I appreciate that.”
Not far from where Colangelo stood in the Lakers’ El Segundo, California, training facility that day, I ran into Warriors coach Steve Kerr—an assistant under Popovich for Team USA who has devoted his social media reach to criticizing and mocking the president. (This summer, Kerr cohosted a show with Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll on the Ringer Podcast Network.) I asked Kerr about the head of USA Basketball, as well as NBA owners, donating to Trump and the GOP. Kerr said there’s an understanding among players and coaches that “most owners are very conservative.” That wasn’t generally a problem in the past, but he thought “maybe it will become one.” Kerr said Trump is different, that “everything is out the window” with him—“Decorum. Class. Dignity.”—all of which means “there’s a bigger and bigger divide.” Like Cuban, he thought it was fair to press Colangelo and the owners on their political contributions. Besides, Kerr said, these days “there’s very little that remains hidden.”
A previous version of this piece left out Jeanie Buss on the list of owners who are not white men. Her inclusion makes five, not four. It also misstated the year that Steve Ballmer was honored at the LAPD True Blue Gala. It was in 2015, not earlier this year.