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NBA Players More Confident To Speak Out On Political Issues Than Other Sport Leagues


Basketball's biggest stars take the court tonight for the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans. Now, you might remember that the game was supposed to have been in Charlotte, N.C., this year, but the league moved the festivities because of North Carolina's controversial state law known as HB2 that limits anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. It was, perhaps, the most visible example of the NBA's willingness to be outspoken on political and social issues, especially when compared to other sports leagues like the NFL.

Now, that league faced questions of its own when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem. We wanted to get a better sense of this so we called Dave Zirin. He's sports editor at The Nation and the host of the Edge of Sports podcast. And I asked him why NBA players seemed so much more willing to speak out than their NFL counterparts.

DAVE ZIRIN: It's such a terrific question, Michel, and I've been asking players, former players, coaches and sportswriters over the last several weeks why the NBA? Why is the breadth and width of speaking out in the National Basketball Association so much broader and deeper than other sports? And what I've come up with is that it's a perfect storm of factors.

First and foremost, it's the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement over the last several years. It's made players more confident to speak out. Second of all - social media, the fact that players can reach directly to their fans with how they feel. That's been a huge factor in the NBA. Another factor, Gregg Popovich, without question the most respected coach in the NBA, LeBron James, Steph Curry - these are the platinum standards for NBA players. And the fact that they're speaking out has given cover to a lot of players that I bet many of your listeners have never even heard of who have also been very outspoken on these issues.

Another issue that people bring up all the time is the global question of the NBA. The NBA has players from roughly 36 different countries. So this idea that somebody in the White House is saying that immigrants are the problem or Muslims are the problem, that is going to rankle players who, you know, that's just not part of their lived experience. So that is very important. But there's another aspect, too, and it has to do with the league's corporate reaction to Colin Kaepernick's anthem protest.

When Colin Kaepernick took that knee, and when it spread in what is the traditionally very conservative, very locked down National Football League, the question across the sports world was, like, whoa, if this is happening in NFL games, what are NBA games going to look like? And so Adam Silver, who's the commissioner of the National Basketball Association and a very committed politically liberal person - he made a strategic move to say to players, look, we want you to speak out all you want. We'll even do public service announcements about the importance of bringing people together and standing up to not just police violence, but gun violence, violence in the community. The NBA can be the peacemakers league.

We don't want racial radicalism, but we'll give you political liberalism, basically. Just don't kneel during the anthem. Don't pull a Colin Kaepernick, and we will make sure that no one says to you just shut up and play. We will make sure that there will be no blowback on you for speaking out. We will make sure that the NBA is the, quote, unquote, "woke league" for you. And then a funny thing happened on the way to this political liberal kumbaya, and that was the election of Donald Trump.

And all of a sudden, these players, who have been empowered to speak out, they're speaking out about Trump. And they feel like they have cover from the league. I think it's making the league offices very nervous, the sheer number of players who are taking to the mike and speaking out about this presidency. But it's sort of like you can't put that wine back in the bottle. You can't undunk that basketball. So I would describe all of this as the unintended consequences of attempting to head-off the racial radicalism of Colin Kaepernick. That's how I would describe it.

MARTIN: That was Dave Zirin. He is sports editor of The Nation magazine. He's also the host of the Edge of Sports podcast. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Dave Zirin, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ZIRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.