Can We Stop Pretending The NBA Is So Goddamn “Woke”?!

Here’s a riddle: a vegan, a cross-fitter, a Bitcoin investor and someone boycotting the NFL to support Kaep all walk into a bar. Who announces what they’re doing first?

While I’m unsure of what that answer may be for every other day of the year, I know Sunday, the day of the 52nd NFL Super Bowl, the answer was most definitely the latter. All over my social media, the only people more insufferable than Patriots fans and more pompous than Eagles fans were the “woke” delegation who decided that not watching the game was not only a righteous propagation of their blackness, but also an indictment of the blackness of those who did.

As someone committed to racial justice, reconciliation, and the Raiders, I’ve sat back this year and tried to understand and appreciate the NFL boycott. In fact, I didn’t even watch week one in solidarity. But then I sat down and thought about it, really took in some of the arguments, I found myself incredibly confused. What exactly was I supposed to be committing myself to? What were the terms of ending this boycott? And what change did I hope this boycott would bring about?

From what I heard from the smart Black men and women around me who were protesting was that we’re committing ourselves to not spending a dime of our money in support of an institution so anti-Black that they would dare blackball a Black man for simply fighting against social injustice. I was told that the boycott would end once Colin Kaepernick was signed to an NFL roster who allowed him to protest, on field, in any manner he so chooses. I was also informed that when it came to the change that the boycott would inspire (outside of Kaep being employed) the idea was that any form of anti-racist activism would be allowed by the league at the highest levels, and, hopefully, embraced.

The goals were incredibly noble, yet, I just couldn’t connect the action to the intended goals. When Colin Kaepernick bravely chose to protest brutality against Black bodies, and injustice throughout our society in an incisive and inflammatory public manner, I knew that there was a great chance he’d never play another down in the NFL ever again – because I’d seen in at least twice before in my lifetime – BOTH in the NBA.

This past December, I was invited to participate on an “end of year pop-culture wrap-up” panel on CBC news.

When the topic turned to the impact of the “anthem protests” on 2017, Jelena Adzic of CBC News, stated it was sad that Kaepernick became the first pro athlete to lose his career for protesting during the anthem and openly confronting discrimination (her comments were removed from the final cut for time purposes). That’s when I interjected and said, “unfortunately he’s not the first.” In fact, he wasn’t the first to lose his job for doing either of those actions, yet how quickly we forget.

The first time in my life I ever saw a player lose his career for openly confronting discrimination, it was a young sharpshooting guard for the Chicago Bulls named Craig Hodges.

The first time in my life I ever saw a player lose his career for protesting during the anthem, it was a young, SUPER-TALENTED point guard on the Denver Nuggets named Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. (Hell, after Abdul-Raul, the NBA instituted a league-wide RULE that players MUST stand for the anthem – a rule which is still enforced today.)

As a young, MEGA NBA fan, the treatment of those two men taught me an invaluable lesson: white supremacy and pro sports are on the same side, and any athlete who chooses to deviate from that side will expose themselves to be discarded by their league. As a teenager, who was simultaneously making plans on going D1 in basketball and experiencing an awakening of my anti-Black social conscious, I understood plainly what these leagues are.

It’s that understanding that makes the current Kaepernick protest a little confusing to me. Whether Kaepernick is signed or not, that doesn’t disrupt the predominantly white, conservative Republican ownership of the NFL, nor does it stop them for shovelling millions into Trump’s campaign to boost causes that disproportionately harm the communities their players come from. So when I hear Black folks decry other Black people’s commitment to upending injustice ONLY because they haven’t tuned out the games, it gets weird. And it gets even weirder when the people who loudly boycott the NFL, are not only reticent to boycott the NBA, but are no framing the NBA as some sort of “woke” league – which is absolute, ahistorical bullshit.

To say I will start watching football again if Kaep is signed is a weird hill to fight on, because an act of performative “wokeness” could’ve easily put Kaep on a roster – and therein lies the difference between the NBA and the NFL: the former sees the value of performative wokeness.

On April 25, 2014, after TMZ released the Donald Sterling tape in which Sterling, then owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was privately recorded saying a gang of prejudicial bullshit to his sidepiece, the NBA swiftly kicked his decrepit ass out of the league by imposing a lifetime ban on him and forcing him to sell his team (giving him a $2 billion return on the team he bought for $12.5 million back in 1981).

For context, this scandal occurred days before the Clippers were scheduled to play game four of their first round series against the Warriors. Not only were players threatening not to play games if Sterling remained in power, but fans were threatening to boycott the games as well. This is what the NBA was dealing with just two and a half-months after the NFL hosted Super Bowl 48 which was, at the time, the most watched television broadcast of all time. To force an owner to sell his team in a month was an incredibly expedited process but if you think that’s just because the league was so anxious to rid itself of racial animus, without taking into consideration the financial aspect of it, you’re crazy.

Fast forward to December 2014, amidst the rise of Black Lives Matter and public demonstrations against police brutality, public player protests touched both the NFL and the NBA/WNBA. In the “un-woke” or “sleep” NFL, St. Louis Rams players who threw up the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protest gesture during pre-game introductions as a shout-out to the protests that were taking place just down the street in Ferguson, the team apologized to anyone who felt offended (including everyone from Mike “racism doesn’t exist Ditka, to the St. Louis Police Officers Association who claimed the protest perpetuated “a narrative that has been disproven over-and-over again” – well, until the DOJ came in and investigated to find out that the Ferguson police department is, in fact, rife with systemic racism). After carefully considering both sides, the NFL decided ultimately not to punish the players or the team. Clearly, supporting a movement that aims to see unarmed Black folks not gunned down arbitrarily in the streets wasn’t on the menu for them.

Over in the “woke” NBA, as various big name NBA players began wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during pre-game warmups to bring attention to the slaughter of the unarmed Eric Garner and the exoneration of the police officer who brutally murdered him, NBA Commission Adam Silver, who so vehemently decried the soft bigotry of Donald Sterling was, weirdly, tepid in his response to the player protest saying things like his “preference would be for players to abide by our on-court attire rules.” Once apparel contracts clashed with activism, Silver didn’t keep the same energy. The following summer, when WNBA players on the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever all wore black t-shirts during warmup to protest police shootings, all three teams were fined $5,000 and each player was fined $500.

Fast-forward again to August 2016, after Colin Kaepernick sat during the playing of the national anthem before the San Francisco 49ers third preseason game, the SLEEP NFL was in a full blown crisis. What must be stated here is that the fan-bases for both leagues are very different. While roughly 45% of NBA fans are Black, that number is about three times higher than the NFL, plus the NBA’s fans are also far younger. Not only did the old, white, Hank Williams Jr. crowd not want players protesting anti-Blackness on their field, they didn’t want to hear any dissent on police brutality period because, largely, they’re completely fine with Black men, women, and children being brutalized and murdered in the street by law enforcement agents, just as they’ve historically been. And seeing as how they’re the majority of NFL fans, league executives anonymously released comments about how much they hated him – for the same nonviolent protest they commend Rev. King for every MLK day.

And how did the NBA respond to the prospect that NBA players might kneel during the anthem to protest inequality? Well, first Adam Silver said he hoped players would stand for the anthem because “it’s the appropriate thing to do” and then sending out a memo to the players reinforcing the fact that there is a rule prohibiting them from not standing for the anthem. See, since the NBA initiated that rule, very little has changed with the league being OK with public protest.

While it’s become easy to target NFL owners for their support of divisive and discriminatory politicians, we can’t ignore the fact NBA owners are no less acrimonious. The Orlando Magic is owned by Richard DeVos, father-in-law of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary, who donated nearly a million to Trump during the general election. Knicks owner James Dolan and, despite the fiery rhetoric of their coach, Spurs owners Peter and Julianna Holt were significant Trump supporters. And while it’s easy to frame Trump as the sole arbiter of political, socioeconomic and racial divisiveness, the truth is there are many other politicians who represent shitty, anti-Black ideals from Jeb “suppress the Black vote” Bush, to Chris “stop-and-frisk” Christie whose super PAC received $1.3 million from Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert.

Throughout my lifetime, the NFL has been, at worst, a league tacitly supportive of white supremacy, and, at best, the living embodiment of Rev. King’s “white moderate.” But the NBA has never been any better. They are the league of blackballing Craig Hodges and Abdul-Rauf. They are the league that went out of its way to ensure players weren’t dressed “too Black.” They are the league that prefers undeclared militancy and private protest that doesn’t affect their bottom line. They too, are MLK’S “white moderate.”

 

The truth is, the NFL being, by far, the highest grossing professional sport in America, taking in $13 billion, has imbued the owners and executives with a feeling of economic invincibility while the NBA, the third highest grossing league in America at $4.8 billion, has been looking up at pro football for a while now, searching for answers on how to overtake them, financially and socially. As Albert Brooks said in Concussion, “the NFL owns a day of the week – the same day the church used to own.” While the NFL can smugly take hard-lines on activism for their helmeted, non-guaranteed contract having players, the NBA simply can’t do that to their athletes who have a direct impact (and to some extent, control) over the market value of the entire league. The NBA plays nice with their athletes and their athletes, in return, try not to disrupt the plantation. But the worst mistake that we could collectively make is assuming that the NBA doesn’t have a Colin Kaepernick because they’ve nurtured understanding and openness. The NBA doesn’t have a Colin Kaepernick today because they already blackballed the Colin Kaepernick’s that came decades earlier, and they enshrined rules to prevent another one from rising up. If you think the NFL isn’t woke, you’re right, but if you think that the NBA represents a stark contrast from what the NFL represents, you’re out of your goddamn mind.

This Is Your Conscience

Lincoln Anthony Blades can be found on Twitter at @LincolnABlades and on Instagram at @ThisIsYourConscience