Forty years ago, when the NBA televised league games late at midnight, the unpopular league was considered “too black,” whatever that meant in America at the time. The late Commissioner David Stern began building his leadership legacy by bridging that gap between black players and white clients in a way that was more comfortable for all of America, growing the sport across oceans and language barriers and divisions. racial, and began to do so with the particular personalities and particular pigmentations of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Since then, basketball has empowered its black stars and treated them as partners in a way not yet seen in football, where black faces wear masks and black bodies remain disposable, and white quarterbacks are still the ones who get. the best TV commercials and best broadcast jobs. The NFL treats its employees as if they were in the military; the NBA treats its employees as if they were artists. Give more power to your most powerful people, Stern knew, and everyone gets stronger, as does the partnership and loyalty within it.
With this historical context, it was fascinating to see what exploded last week, when some of America’s biggest and strongest black icons were trapped inside a bubble, playing games, while America felt like it was. to burn again. Four years after Colin Kaepernick knelt peacefully in front of the American flag during the national anthem to protest police brutality and lost his football career as a result, it was impossible even inside a well-curated Disney World bubble. escape the awful reality that came out. from Wisconsin: a video of a black man being shot in the back seven times by police in front of his loved ones, another video of a 17-year-old white man carrying an assault rifle with his hands up after killing two protesters – while the police passed him.
From Watts to Ferguson to Miami, American history is full of cities burned when injustice is so raw, and now it seemed NBA players were angry enough to ignite the bubble and the season, and given the financial ramifications of the collective agreement, maybe even sport. Sure, he would have hurt them more than anyone else, but the fact that they were also considering speaks volumes about how much pain they were already feeling.
But Adam Silver, who learned from Stern’s knees and became the most progressive commissioner in American sport history, has gotten pretty good at this “leading through unprecedented calamity” thing. First, while our country’s leadership downplayed a pandemic, it got all of America’s attention by stopping its sport after Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus. Then, in a virus hotspot, he somehow got the basketball back up and running again with unprecedented success on the pandemic protocol to help him.
Before he could even get out of the first round of the playoffs, however, he was put in a dire situation as the white leader of a predominantly black sport, standing among all his sport’s dollars and proud players too angry to distract America with. the bounce balls. You understand how much trust you have gained with your black workforce when you are white and your angry employees believe you have their principles in mind even when your agenda, your business, your bosses and all your money seem to conflict with amazing? It is very easy to have a good relationship when interests are aligned; the real test of collaborations emerges when they are not. After taming a virus that had poisoned America for months, Silver was now faced with the one that has poisoned America for centuries.
In the breach came, of all people, the famous apolitical Michael Jordan, saying that he was speaking first as a black man, not as a former player or current owner, and that he was proud of the players for their beliefs and pushing the owners. NBA for substantial systemic change. Do you know why that 10-part ESPN documentary / Nike commercial got record ratings removed two decades from Jordan’s latest game? Because he never made the fans uncomfortable away from the sport, he never made them choose sides beyond the scoreboard. As Jim Brown will remind you, Muhammad Ali didn’t go from America’s most hated athlete to his most beloved … until he lost the ability to speak. Jordan inherited Stern’s league from Magic and Bird – he took it from them by force, really – but he didn’t use anything of that power or platform to support or instigate change in the way you see the NBA today. He packaged the championship in a cool and confident Nike lining, taking it away from the “too black” of 1980 even as he played his games in the heart of racial Chicago.
Jordan, it should be noted, is from Wilmington, North Carolina, where in 1898 a black newspaper was razed to the ground, 60 people were murdered, and the local government elected days earlier was overthrown and replaced by white supremacists. It remains the only coup ever on American soil. For decades, whitewashed American history textbooks have misrepresented black victims as instigators and murderers as heroes. Sometimes you have to choose which side to take. Jordan is 57 now, and it’s a lot easier today, but it’s good to see him finally check into this game.
Our country is so divided that it cannot agree on masks or science or even what was known as facts, so obviously frustrated NBA players would feel like millionaire minstrels continuing to play nonstop while the dehumanizing discourse on police brutality too often it looks like a version of this:
Can we please have equality?
Could Black Lives Matter?
Can you stop shooting at us?
It must seem unusually helpless for the powerful – foolish and even insignificant – to wear the words “How many more” or “Listen to us” on the back of your shirt as another black man takes seven bullets behind him. Police brutality is no worse than it has been; it is just televised more often. The system is not actually broken; it works as intended and a little too well (police forces didn’t even exist in the south until they were created to prevent slave revolt and chase fugitives). Black men are being killed and incarcerated at a disproportionate rate in America, which is why Clippers coach Doc Rivers voices heartbreak when wondering why the country blacks love can’t just reciprocate. What the hell is controversial about demanding equality?
But when you come from privilege, another man’s cry for equality can seem like oppression … or a threat. So even the most benevolent language has been used as a weapon in recent years. “Awake” just meant getting out of sleep. The “snowflakes” were delicious. “Social justice warrior” might have sounded like a compliment before social media turned into a poisoned pit. It’s all code and camouflage, a security blanket to protect white power from the threat of invading equality. And, from the inside that bubble, athletes with strong voices and opinions are told to shut up and dribble. Some fans don’t want their escape playground painted from the real world.
It doesn’t help that Donald Trump raced to a platform to build a literal wall between us and their dangerous, and now he’s trying to get reelected with a more divisive fear, telling the white housewife’s periphery that he’ll keep him safe from urban centers. . from which many of these NBA players emerged. Walls, division, fear, voter repression, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, police brutality – all obstacles to equality, all intended to hold power exactly where and as it always has.
People want more immediate change on systemic reform that will take decades, so there has been a lot of corporate turmoil recently, none more embarrassing than the NFL. Aunt Jemima is removed from your breakfast table, Washington’s NFL team changes its name, and Land O ‘Lakes butter changes its packaging by doing the most American things: removing Native Americans but keeping the land. It is not worth much in the way of fixing the system and it inflames those who whine to erase culture and political correctness. But if you’re tired of hearing about racism, imagine how tired black people are of experiencing it.
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Real change happens much slower and requires the transfer of power, so let’s retrace the history of this championship again over the past 40 years as it has grown in stature and strength, from tape delay to prime time, from Stern to Silver, from Magic and Bird to Michael and now to LeBron James. You’ve seen what Jordan’s heir to the throne is doing off the pitch, right? Create a media company to empower blacks. Builds a school to get college scholarships for at-risk children and emotional support. Builds a rent-free transitional housing community for families in Akron suffering from homelessness, domestic abuse and other obstacles. Pour millions into Ali’s exhibit in an African heritage museum. Lead and fund a voting movement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to help black voters. Help turn Dodger Stadium into a polling station. He rejects any attack from Trump and summons Barack Obama for leadership when his sport is under duress.
Trump intended to sack and discredit the NBA when he said it was “like a political organization”. But it is, now more than ever, in messaging that goes from court to jerseys to press conferences. It is a political organization that defends the rights of blacks, a symbol of black strength, powerful enough to welcome even an unjust, undaunted struggle even though blacks have lost this battle since both they and this country were born.
What was once a problem for the NBA is now a source of its strength.
The change doesn’t get much more obvious than that.