The NBA’s racial politics: a closer look

I’ve been watching basketball for as long as I can remember. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the mecca of basketball, New York City—home to “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” Madison Square Garden—but I feel that there’s something magical about ten freakishly tall athletes at the top of their game running up and down a wooden court trying to put a ball in a hoop. Although I understand that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for the sport (especially here at Oberlin), I’d like to shed some light on something that any fan or non-fan should know about: the NBA’s relationship with race and social justice. 

The NBA boasts the greatest representation of both Black fans and players of any other major US sports league: 74.2% of players identify as Black and 45% of fans are Black and 54% are non-white, making it the only sports league with a majority non-white viewership. Founded in 1946 as the Basketball Association of America, the organization became known as the NBA after merging with the National Basketball League in 1949. In just the league’s second season, Japanese-American Wataru Misaka became the first non-white NBA player for the New York Knicks (my hometown team). From the beginning of the 1950s, Black men began to enter the league. The Knicks helped break racial barriers again after becoming the first team to sign a Black player, former Harlem Globetrotter, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, in 1950. Earl Lloyd became the first Black man to play an NBA game, debuting just days before Clifton, on Halloween in 1950, followed by the NBA’s second Black player, Celtics rookie Chuck Cooper. These players of course endured racist taunts from fans, but their participation did for basketball what Jackie Robinson had done for baseball only three years before.

Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, the NBA slowly but surely became more integrated. Basketball icons Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain achieved major stature in the league in both a professional and physical sense, literally, with each player standing at 6’9” and 7’1” respectively. Bill Russell, who won a record 11 championships with the Boston Celtics, has always been vocal about the abuse leveled at him as a dominant black athlete during the 1960s. Chamberlain, an absolute force on the court, set unbreakable scoring and rebounding records, most famously dropping 100 points on the Knicks (fortunately for us Knicks fans, there is no footage of this game). A new star would enter the league towards the tail end of Russell and Chamberlain’s careers: noted activist and NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. A few years prior to leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their first title, Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, refused to stand for the National Anthem during his time at UCLA. Despite sagging ratings in the 1970s, the NBA saw a surge in popularity in the 1980s fueled by Commissioner David Stern’s marketing expertise and the iconic rivalry between Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics. I feel like there was some basketball phenom in the 1990s, but I’m forgetting his name… maybe I’ll go shoot around to think about it. Anyone know where I left my Jordans? Michael Jordan led the ‘90s Chicago Bulls dynasty to six championships (two remarkable three-peats only interrupted by Jordan’s first retirement and stint in the MLB). While the NBA’s reach spread to global heights in this era, players weren’t nearly as outspoken about social issues, leaving all of their fight on the court. However, some outliers did use their platform, like the Denver Nuggets’ Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who refused to stand for the Anthem during the 1995-96 NBA season. His actions resulted in a one game suspension, but did not attract nearly as much media attention or controversy as Colin Kaepernick’s influential kneeling protest two decades later.

In the early 2000s, rising stars and future legends Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant injected a new swagger into the NBA. Players like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, and Paul Pierce would show up to the arena blinged out with heavy chains and earrings and sporting the baggy, oversized wardrobe that might fit an aging NFL retiree. If this interests you, I highly recommend that you check out the legendary 2003 Draft’s class picture. Some players wore durags and baseball caps, while Iverson notably became one of the first players to wear his hair in braids and cornrows. The league implemented a dress code at the start of the 2005-06 season, which targeted the aforementioned apparel and jewelry. Stephen Jackson and several other players agreed that this mandate was racially targeted. Fast forward to the 2020 season — we’re not going to talk about the players’ fashion here, but you might want to check out some of Russell Westbrook’s outfits — when the slogan “Black Lives Matter” was painted on the NBA Bubble’s courts and replaced many of the players’ last names on their jerseys. 

Months after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered arenas in March, the NBA implemented a “bubble” in order to resume play safely. For two to three months (depending how far into the playoffs a team made it), 22 of the league’s 30 teams moved to and played in the bubble, an isolation zone which used Disney World facilities in Orlando, Florida. The Knicks were not invited due to posting a lackluster record.

As the resumption of NBA happened during worldwide protests inspired by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, the bubble was designed with a social justice initiative in place. Players could choose from a number of league approved phrases, like “Peace” or “Group Economics,” to wear on their jersey instead of their name. 50 out of the 350 NBA players in the bubble opted to leave their name on their jerseys for various reasons. Tyson Chandler and Austin Rivers of the Houston Rockets wanted to use Travon Martin’s name but were not allowed to, while Los Angeles Lakers powerhouse duo LeBron James and Anthony Davis, as well as Los Angeles’ other superstar duo, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers, wore their own names. James, who is known for achievements both on and off the court, has been outspoken about social justice issues, especially since the beginning of the Trump administration. In 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham infamously instructed James to “shut up and dribble” after he offered his critique of President Trump in an interview. When asked to comment about his jersey choice for the season, James remarked that “I don’t need to have something on the back of my jersey for people to understand my mission or know what I’m about and what I’m here to do.” While James had obvious reasons to not display his solidarity with the movement on his jersey, I wondered about each player’s decision as I watched the NBA this summer. It reminded me of what my social media feeds looked like in June and the performative nature of posting about activism online. Like my friends who posted online, I was curious about which players genuinely cared, which players, like James, cared so much that it would have been ridiculous to sum up their feelings in two or three words, and which players felt pressure to endorse something they did not agree with. I bring up the pressure cooker environment that social media can be because this season, due to falling ratings, the NBA has backed off of its PDAs—public displays of activism, that is—removing the Black Lives Matter slogans from courts and t-shirts. Shockingly, the usually progressive Commissioner Adam Silver explained to ESPN in October, “That message will largely be left to be delivered off the floor. And I understand those people who are saying, ‘I’m on your side, but I want to watch a basketball game.’” Sounds eerily like “shut up and dribble” if you ask me.

While some of the league’s engagement with activism may be performative and executed imperfectly, the NBA does actively listen to its players, and is taking real action based on what they have to say. After police shot Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their playoff game scheduled for August 26, which caused the NBA to postpone playoff games scheduled for that day and inspired several other teams across the NBA and MLB to sit out their games. Many players, including the entire Lakers and Clippers rosters, did not see it fit to play ball while African-Americans continued to live their lives at risk of being the target of racial violence. Thanks to a late night phone call between President Barack Obama and several of the league’s most prominent players, including James, the players decided they should continue to play while using their platform to tackle more specific issues and enact real change — “speaking out and dribbling,” if you will. 

Shortly thereafter, the NBA’s Board of Governors provided $300 million in funding and pledged to continue to give $30 million annually towards the establishment of the NBA Foundation, which will work to generate more economic empowerment in Black communities. All 30 teams will serve as NBA Foundation members, and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) members and NBA governors (formerly known as owners but updated due to the term’s racial connotations) will sit on its Board of Directors. In November 2020, the NBA and NBPA formed the NBA Social Justice Coalition, an organization that will work to raise awareness of and take action against social justice issues. This came just after the league and its players worked tirelessly to raise voting awareness, as 23 team’s arenas served as voting sites. 15 years prior to all this, the NBA founded the NBA Cares, a program that works to address social issues in the US and globally, which has raised over $230 million dollars of charity and provided 2.8 million hours of service by NBA players and coaches. 

The NBA is far from still far from perfect: that the majority of players are Black doesn’t reflect quite as well when compared to the extremely small number of Black people in leadership positions such as head coach, general manager, president, and governor. Michael Jordan is the only principal governor of an NBA team, the Charlotte Hornets. The NBA also ran into quite a bit of controversy in 2019 when Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted an image with the slogan “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” in support of the Hong Kong protests in that year. This comment was met with great backlash from fans in China, who constitute a massive multibillion dollar basketball market, as well as members of the Rockets organization and much of the rest of the NBA. CCTV in China halted broadcasts of NBA games and the Chinese Basketball Association cut off ties with the Rockets, who had been closely linked with China since they drafted Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming in 2002. The NBA’s obsequiousness to China for the sake of dollar signs calls the sincerity of their attention and care to social issues like the BLM movement into question.

However, even if this is the case, the NBA deserves more credit than other major sports leagues, like the NFL, which effectively ousted the poster boy for social activism in athletics back in 2016. Mark Cuban, the eccentric billionaire governor of the Dallas Mavericks, recently announced that he had decided back in November that the Mavericks would not play the National Anthem at home games. The NBA had allowed the Mavs to operate as they wished for the first 13 games of the season, but recently reneged and required that they stick to league policy and play the Anthem, as fans are beginning to return to the stands amid loosening pandemic restrictions. Even after the staunch activism of the NBA bubble, the league will continue to wrestle with which task sits atop their to-do list: generating revenue by pleasing fans or holding fast to its commitment “to standing for social justice and racial equality,” to use Commissioner Silver’s words.