Will 2017-2018 NBA Season be the Wokest Season Ever?
NBA fans may bear witness to the most social activism the league has seen in 50 years
Republicans buy sneakers too. Taken by itself, this statement is ordinary to the point of being mundane. Republicans, one half of the United States two-party political system, are people. People have feet. Feet require shoes and hence Republicans, like their Democratic counterparts, buy sneakers too.
As comfortably as this statement regarding Republicans and their footwear sits in this article, there was a lot of discomfort surrounding it when first uttered back in 1990. At the time, incumbent North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms was up for reelection against former Charlotte Mayor and Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt.
Helms repeatedly painted Gantt as a big government liberal throughout the campaign, often linking his opponent to Massachusetts Senator and Democratic stalwart Ted Kennedy, an association that culminated in the infamous Hands political advertisement.
Locked in a tight race with Helms, the Gantt campaign approached Jordan about endorsing its candidate in the days leading to election night. Jordan declined, expressing his desire to stay politically neutral, reportedly telling a friend at the time that “Republicans buy sneakers too”.
Helms defeated Gantt in his 1990 reelection bid and would remain in the Senate for another 13 years.
Social activism was once a part of the NBA. In the 1960s, players like Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell joined with other sports icons like Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali to fight for equality and progress on behalf of racial and economic minorities.
The 1970s found the NBA trying to cope with too many on the court issues, namely widespread drug abuse and a selfish style of play, to turn its attention to leading the sports world on social issues.
The 1980s brought the league unparalleled popularity, revenue and fortune for a new generation of superstars, including Jordan. As players became wealthier through salaries and endorsement deals, the desire to speak out on issues seemed to wane.
Of course, they were many players who maintained their activism throughout their careers – former NBA sharpshooter Craig Hodges arguably lost his career over his activism – but the day of the superstar activist seemed to be a relic of an era that had long since passed.
The modern NBA superstar has his sights set on global domination. He wants to be more than a player. He wants to be a brand. An icon. An idea.
He wants to be like Mike.
A Resurgence in Activism
Given that a generation of players have poured over the Jordan career blueprint, it is interesting to witness large scale activism return to the NBA. And it seems as though this resurgence could not come at a better time.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest, which began in 2016, is still a topic of discussion as the quarterback remains unsigned since being released by the 49ers last spring.
His message has been largely and erroneously co-opted to a discussion about the national anthem and military, which has resulted in player protests, staged political theater and fundraising emails.
There is no sticking to sports in today’s social and political climate and the NBA players seem up for the discussion.
The Golden State Warriors, perhaps the wokest team in the NBA, first made ripples as they openly discussed whether to adhere to the established tradition and visit the White House as NBA champions.
President Trump ended this debate before it could begin in earnest by uninviting Warriors guard Steph Curry, who was on record as a “no” for the trip well before receiving news on the invitation revocation. Curry’s teammates supported him and unilaterally decided not make the trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
President Trump’s “un-invitation” sparked the type of Twitter frenzy usually reserved for Beyoncé album releases and Star Wars trailers.
The day culminated with LeBron James, the world’s best basketball player, calling the sitting president a bum and dropping the Twitter hammer harder than any tomahawk jam he has ever executed in his accomplished career.
Other players followed the King’s lead, taking to social media to give their own fire takes for the masses to consume. There was no turning back. The NBA, led by some of its biggest stars, made its feelings of the current administration clear through a series of high profile tweets.
What’s Next for This Season
But what does all this really mean for the NBA’s activism? Flaming President Trump on Twitter is entertaining, but it is not political action; it is barely newsworthy at this point.
There is an argument that the league’s stars have not been all that woke in recent years. In 2012, the Miami Heat posed for a team selfie clad in hoodies in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, but in some people’s minds, failed to land a suitable message when discussing the death of Tamir Rice in 2015.
In 2016, as the killing of unarmed black men seemed to mount on a near daily basis, James and fellow stars Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo appeared on stage at the ESPYS and called for changes to a broken judicial system. But that demand was couched in calls for peace and mutual understanding, with a bit of “but we have to do better” sprinkled in for good measure.
What’s next for the NBA in terms of social and political engagement is anyone’s guess. The current administration has all but forced politics into sports and has done so in a pretty deliberate manner. Superstars may not have the luxury of sticking to sports and will be asked to weigh-in on heavier matters in postgame interviews.