With Politics, NBA Speaks Its Mind

Feb 15, 2017
Originally published on February 15, 2017 8:23 am

Athletics as escapism makes sense. A recent New York Times op-ed writer reminded us that that talking sports offers a "way for people who have diametrically opposed politics to share a beer at a bar."

Well, if you enjoy sports only as an escape from political give and take, there's some bad news: You can no longer enjoy the NBA.

Take this past Wednesday, which began with LeBron James — the defending NBA champ — addressing Donald Trump's travel ban head on. "I stand with the many, many Americans who believe this does not represent what the United States is all about," James told The Hollywood Reporter. "We should continue to speak out about it."

That same day, Steph Curry — the defending MVP — publicly parted ways with the CEO of Under Armour, his corporate partner, who'd called Trump an "asset" to America. "I agree with the description," Curry told The Mercury News. "If you remove the '-et' from asset."

At first, this might just sound like defiance from a couple of athletes. But listen to their bosses.

Listen to Golden State coach Steve Kerr, whose own father was killed in a terror event in Beirut in 1984, discuss the travel ban two weeks ago.

"Having lost my father, if we're trying to combat terrorism by banishing people from coming to this country, it's the wrong way to go about it," Kerr said.

And there's San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich taking on America's racial divide this month.

"It's a tough one because people don't really want to face it. And it's in our national discourse," he said. "I mean, we have a president of the United States who spent four or five years disparaging and trying to illegitimize our president."

Now, basketball has not always been our most political sport. In the 1990s, Charles Barkley offered a rather different assessment of his public platform: "I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model."

NBA was where Michael Jordan, Barkley's teammate on the '92 Dream Team, reportedly backed away from endorsing a Democrat, saying, "Republicans buy sneakers, too." [Editor's note: This Jordan quote has been questioned as apocryphal.]

But '92 was actually a turning point.

That Olympic "dream team" exported basketball across the planet, bringing about a new age for the game and making basketball our most cosmopolitan and personality-driven sport.

Three-fourths of the league today is black. One-fourth of the league is foreign-born. Two NBA players, Luol Deng and Thon Maker, were born in Sudan, but to us they're just NBA players.

Yes, baseball may be our national pastime, and football our national addiction. But the NBA is our nation itself: an outspoken, melting pot of a family — whether you enjoy that, or not.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many Americans would like a break from political news. But that is no longer quite so easy for fans of one pro sport. Here's ESPN senior writer Pablo Torre.

PABLO TORRE: I totally get athletics as escapism. A recent New York Times op-ed writer reminded us that talking sports offers a, quote, "way for people who have diametrically opposed politics to share a beer at a bar." Well, if you enjoy sports only as an escape from political give-and-take, I have some bad news. You can no longer enjoy the NBA.

Take this past Wednesday, which began with LeBron James, the defending NBA champ, addressing Donald Trump's travel ban head-on. I stand with the many, many Americans who believe this does not represent what the United States is all about, James told The Hollywood Reporter. We should continue to speak out about it.

That same day, Steph Curry, the defending MVP, publicly parted ways with the CEO of Under Armour, his corporate partner, who'd called Trump an asset to America. I agree with the description, Curry told The Mercury News, if you remove the E-T from asset. At first, this might just sound like defiance from a couple of athletes. But listen to their bosses. Listen to Golden State coach Steve Kerr, whose own father was killed in a terror event in Beirut in 1984, discuss the travel ban two weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE KERR: It's a horrible idea, and I'm really - and I feel for all the people who are affected. Families are being torn apart. And I worry, in the big picture, what this means to the security of the world.

TORRE: And listen to San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich taking on America's racial divide this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREGG POPOVICH: It's a tough one because people don't really want to face it. And it's in our national discourse. I mean, we have a president of the United States who spent four or five years disparaging and trying to illegitimize our president.

TORRE: Now, basketball has not always been our most political sport. In the '90s, Charles Barkley offered a rather different assessment of his public platform.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES BARKLEY: I am not a role model. I'm not paid to be a role model.

TORRE: The NBA was where Michael Jordan, Barkley's teammate on the '92 Dream Team, reportedly backed away from endorsing a Democrat, saying Republicans buy sneakers too. But '92 was actually a turning point. That Olympic Dream Team exported basketball across the planet, bringing about a new age for the game, making basketball our most cosmopolitan and personality-driven sport.

Three-fourths of the league today is black. One-fourth of the league is foreign-born. Two NBA players, Luol Deng and Thon Maker, were born in Sudan. But to us, they're just NBA players. Yes, baseball may be our national pastime and football our national addiction, but the NBA is our nation itself, an outspoken melting pot of a family, whether you enjoy that or not.

INSKEEP: Commentator Pablo Torre, senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.