The NBA’s America
As we prepare for the beginning of the NBA season, players and league officials have already begun voicing their anticipation of practicing peaceful protests against prejudice and police brutality. This preseason, entire teams, not just select players, are locking arms regardless of race in solidarity to take a stand on equality.
When looking at the NBA, we see a league very much dominated by African-American players. The NBA’s census shows that 69% of the league are African-American. This is actually only one percent more than the ratio of African-American players in the NFL. Yet, in the American consciousness, blackness is the norm in professional basketball more than it is in football. There are many reasons for this, which would require its own essay to fully express. One of the reasons is that there are currently no American-born white players listed in the top five in any major NBA statistical category. The last truly iconic, white, American-born NBA player that comes to mind is Larry Bird. Shorts were a lot shorter back then.
In the last twenty years, we’ve seen great NBA players who may be white or “pass as white” in America: Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Steve Nash (Canada), Pau Gasol (Spain), to name a few. While the NBA is a league with a majority of African-American players, it is a world game with more than one hundred international players currently under contract. There are no longer homegrown, white superstars like those in the NFL - no Tom Brady’s or Peyton Mannings or Aaron Rodgers’.
The NBA’s fan base is sprawling because it contains players from every continent, whereas the NFL is comprised of white and black Americans. If we look to Hollywood as an example, the Academy has been giving Oscars to white artists over black artists for decades. A primary reason for this is that the decision-makers are primarily white, and on a basic human level, they relate to the films they see themselves in; just like Joe Bucktooth in an all-white Alabama town is more likely to worship football than basketball because Joe Bucktooth from an all-white Alabama town knows dudes like the ones he watches play football, and guess what, many of them are actually stars.
We have yet to see any white allies in the NFL kneel in support with Colin Kaepernick. Maybe that’s because of the pressure of the NFL’s binary demographics (68% African-American and 28% White-American) and deeply American fanbase. It is a Christian-infused, violent game. Running Back Arian Foster had to “come out” as an Atheist in a league where domestic abusers take the field on Sundays.
In a straw poll conducted by Bleacher Report Magazine, 21 out of 21 white NFL players polled said they planned to vote for Donald Trump in the election, while 2 out of 22 black NFL players said they planned to vote for Trump, a jarring divide in locker room philosophy. Retractors out there, including Trump, have voiced their short-sighted beliefs that Colin Kaepernick should leave the country if he feels so oppressed, that what he’s doing is an act of protest against the United States military, though he has time-and-again reiterated that it is not, that someone with millions of dollars has no place to make a stance against inequality, given the opportunities he’s received. That’s basically saying, “Hey, you’re rich. You shouldn’t care about those who are not.” The NFL is league run by a fear-mongering commissioner that players have compared unfavorably to a dictator.
The NBA, on the other hand, is run by a widely respected commissioner who recently helped to move the All-Star Game out of Charlotte because of North Carolina’s restrictive laws against the LGBTQ community. While there are no openly gay players in the NBA right now, some of the most impactful players and league officials came out in support of this decision.
Basketball is a world game that goes beyond America, transcending race, religion, and politics. It is a game of inclusion and diversity. Football remains the most popular sport domestically, but basketball is the second-most popular sport in the world. Whether this is good or bad for activism in the context of young black men being shot by white officers, or the inherent, systemic issues we’ve been facing for generations born out of slavery and perpetuated by the housing market and institutional racism in Chicago and Baltimore and across America, remains to be seen. Football’s stronghold as the most watched sport in America still means that football has the biggest impact on the American public at large.
We are a country founded on immigration. We coined the term “melting pot.” In this context, the NBA is a more accurate depiction of Americanism than its more popular counterpart because it represents a broader spectrum of identities. The variation of perspectives and backgrounds offered by basketball leaves me hopeful that, while viewership isn’t what it is in the NFL, its influence will travel.
I anticipate the NBA having a more united movement from the top down than the NFL’s, and the optimist in me hopes that society will take into account the importance of empathy as communicated by this more diverse set of perspectives. The realist in me thinks that this diversity will actually work against the NBA, and that white America will still view basketball as a black man’s game with no place for them, deeming the protests obvious or expected or without contention.
With the new NBA season ahead of us, I look forward to seeing NBA players continue to take a stance on inequality. I have faith that not only black-American athletes, but white American and European athletes, Latinos, Africans, Australians, Hispanics, and Asians will take a stance as allies. I hope that basketball’s global reach and combination of varying world-views can help shed some light on the problems we have at home.