While the NFL has tried to stay out of politics, the NBA is leaning in hard.
Politics were everywhere and nowhere in this Super Bowl. Team Trump versus ATL was culture war by proxy, to the point where Twitter couldn’t help but revisit election night trauma. At the same time, though, Tom Brady blithely refused to speak on the Muslim ban, claiming that he “[hadn’t] paid much attention” and was “just a positive person.” Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu, born into a Muslim family from Sierra Leone, barely touched the subject. Given the current climate, Lady Gaga’s halftime performance of the queer anthem “Born This Way” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” almost felt like hedging.
The lone exception almost proved the point: Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett, who so strongly opposes the policy that he won’t be traveling to the White House with the rest of the Patriots—a declaration he made after the Patriots won.
But at the same time as the NFL’s tight-lipped (and misleading) “stick to sports” mentality held sway in Houston, the NBA community was having a very different reaction to Donald Trump’s America. Kyle Lowry condemned the Muslim ban, repeatedly, as “bullshit.” Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson called it “inhumane.” Retired superstar Steve Nash saw “freedom and liberty packing up their things.” Those directly affected were among the most vocal. Retired big man Nazr Mohammed tweeted that “it’s a tough day when u find out that so many ppl that you u thought were fans or friends really hate u and everything u believe in.” Thirteen-year NBA veteran Luol Deng, born in the Sudan, a nation now subject to the travel ban, invoked his own refugee experience.
The NFL discourages any kind of political commentary—Colin Kaepernick’s activism about police violence generated death threats and whispers that it might jeopardize his career—while providing safe harbor for some deeply conservative values. You can politely describe it as a top-down, put-up-or-shut-up league where traditional authority reigns supreme. Many of its fans go one step further, fetishizing the NFL’s militarism, brutality and frightening risk. It’s the unofficial sport of red state America, to the point where a significant chunk fans threatened to stop watching in the wake of protests like Kaepernicks’s; some critics even declared, without evidence, that it was the cause of the NFL’s first-half ratings swoon. Now, with Trump’s wild-eyed MAGA installed in the White House, the NFL has never seemed more authoritarian.
By contrast, the NBA skews deep blue, a facsimile of the late Obama coalition. It’s no accident that the league had such close ties with the President, whose optimistic vision of this country has much in common with NBA’s eternal come-up. It’s the unofficial game of American cities and its audience skews toward coastal strongholds. In terms of cultural expression, athlete empowerment, and community outreach, the NBA is the blackest major pro sports league in the world. While David Stern briefly tried to make in-roads into Middle America by pilfering the Sonics and relocating them to Oklahoma City, the league—especially under Adam Silver—has doubled down on its international, cosmopolitan appeal. Players from other countries have become an integral part of its make-up, which in part explains the reaction to the Muslim ban. The NBA isn’t just progressive by general consensus. Its politics are so ingrained that many fans, including yours truly, can at times fall victim to a smug, nearly elitist, attitude toward other sports.
All posturing aside, the NBA’s political import is practically unavoidable. As young(ish), black millionaires with considerable cultural influence, its players—especially its stars—are often expected to weigh in on current events. All too often, they find themselves in an impossible bind: If they don’t speak out, they’re failing, but when they do speak out, they’re either told they should keep quiet or admonished for not going far enough.
But this time, it wasn’t just players lining up to criticize Trump’s slapdash policy. Coaches and executives have entered the fray as well, showing that the league’s political base is even stronger than previously thought. This didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s been fomenting for months now, led by three of the NBA’s most respected head coaches: Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and Stan Van Gundy.
If players are guarded with the press when it comes to politics, Popovich, Kerr and Van Gundy are nearly the opposite. They seem to relish their platform, taking the opportunity to hold forth and make their opinions known, often speaking at great length and with a degree of nuance that’s practically foreign to sports discourse. As protestors took to the streets two weeks ago, Pop blasted the ban and police handling of the response to it (“Keystone Kops,” “scary”); Kerr, meanwhile, called the ban “shocking and horrible” and Van Gundy warned that “we’re getting back to the days of putting the Japanese in relocation camps and Hitler registering the Jews.” Their comments were typical of their respective styles: Popovich is forceful and incisive, Kerr is reflective-but-firm, and Van Gundy takes no prisoners.
On some level, these three coaches establishing themselves as the most “woke” voices in the NBA is tremendously encouraging and novel. While coaches are supposed to know best, they’re also very much authority figures. They’re given a pass often not afforded to their players, partly because they’re assumed to be either culturally out of touch or too consumed by X’s and O’s to give a crap. But Popovich, Kerr and Van Gundy have shattered these misconceptions, becoming mouthpieces for the conscience of the league. To have coaches, especially ones of this caliber, break with tradition and enter the fray is a clear sign that the NBA considers this moment in our nation to be all hands on deck. Popovich, Kerr, and Van Gundy aren’t just invaluable voices. They’re also a shining example for the entire league.
That said, there’s a high degree of privilege here. Popovich, Kerr, and Van Gundy have all earned their stripes. They have very little to prove and, as older white men who stay out of the public eye, even less to lose. They’re not trying to manage personal brands with millions of dollars on the line, and they’re not subjected to the same merciless scrutiny as rich, young black men. And in the case of Popovich and Kerr, their credibility on these matters is unassailable. Popovich served in the Air Force overseas and is trained in intelligence; Kerr’s father, an academic and Middle East expert, was murdered by terrorists in Beirut in 1984. What’s more, their behavior is so extraordinary that there’s simply no mechanism for telling coaches to shut the fuck up.
Because they have far less to risk and face far less blowback, Popovich, Van Gundy, and Kerr take the pressure off of individual players to speak. They may be setting a very high bar, but they’re helping to reinforce the idea that the entire league—not just those pesky players—is strong in its opposition to Trump.
MORE STORIES LIKE THIS ONE