As the divide between politics and sport diminishes, the NBA is redefining the responsibilities of a major sporting body in 2019.
The old measuring sticks of a successful league – rules, schedule, and overall quality – retain their importance, but at a glance the NBA reveals the role of social progression and impact in identifying a league’s success.
During Commissioner Adam Silver’s tenure (2014 – present), the NBA has taken huge strides on social issues, using its popularity and impact to promote positive change.
In a nutshell, the NBA is blitzing every other major sporting league in this regard.
In a league consisting predominantly of African-American players – and with 80% of players being people of colour – racial issues are of utmost importance.
For starters, the crack-down on racial slurs and discrimination from fans and even team owners has been immense.
The decision to permanently ban ex-Clippers owner Donald Sterling after he was recorded making racist comments was made by Silver just two months into his role, immediately setting the tone for his leadership.
Clubs have reciprocated this stance. Just recently, the Utah Jazz handed a life ban to a supporter for directing a racial slur at former Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook.
Tackling systematic racism is another tremendous step the league has taken.
By all reports, the NBA is moving away from the use of ‘owner’ to describe someone who ‘governs’ a franchise, due to the racial connotations it possesses. Overboard or not, it highlights the league’s efforts to tackle any any prevalence of racism.
It would be amiss to write on the NBA’s battle against discrimination without touching on Martin Luther King Day.
On the public holiday that champions the diversity of America, not only are 11 games played, but each team is active in their communities, taking part in clinics, tournaments, museum visits and other social activities.
These actions and initiatives are implemented by the league and underline its commitment to social development and impact.
The ‘NBA Cares’ programme has played a substantial role in the league’s social progression.
Through the initiative, the league connects with programs including the Special Olympics, UNICEF, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to address community issues and educate and support youth and their families.
Linked to this is the NBA ‘Community Assist Award’, awarded to the player displaying the best community engagement and philanthropic activity each month.
The NBA is also progressively working on overcoming issues in gender equality and sexual identity.
It has been a goal for the league to promote the inclusion of women and there are now six active female coaches, all appointed within the last five years.
Among them is Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs, the first ever female full-time assistant coach. The Indiana Pacers also broke historic ground in December 2018 when they hired Kelly Krauskopf as the first ever female assistant general manager.
The NBA also has a female official, Lauren Holtkamp, who has been a full-time referee since 2014.
In the grand scheme of things, female numbers are not as prominent as the NBA would like, but Silver has continually expressed a desire for more women in major roles within the league, so we can expect this to progress.
Silver’s delay of the highly-anticipated 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte due to North Carolina’s disregard of LGBTQ rights was another trail-blazing move, setting an important blueprint for other leagues to follow.
The commissioner disallowed Charlotte from hosting the weekend for over a year in response to the passing of the ‘HB2’ bill, which forced people to go to the bathroom of their birth gender.
Only when this bill was repealed in 2018 did the NBA allow Charlotte to host the trademark event. Further, many teams have hosted ‘Pride Nights’ over the last two years in support of sexual identity and the LGBTQ community.
One of the most important steps the NBA has taken is the freedom of expression it allows its players and coaches on issues they are passionate about.
Expressive behaviour is nothing new in the NBA, league legend Bill Russell was extremely outspoken about social issues during his playing years.
However, it’s safe to say that players today have more leeway to express their views than ever before.
Star players and coaches have been extremely outspoken about political matters often involving current President of the United States Donald Trump. Not only have multiple teams rejected visits to the White House, but high-profile members of the league have openly opposed the President. Legendary coach Gregg Popovich comes to mind.
LeBron James has a well-documented opposition to Trump stemming over three years, while Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr is one of many staunch opposers of the lack of gun laws in the United States, consistently expressing his dismay with the country’s current situation.
The NBA’s willingness to promote personality is an important step almost no other major league has taken.
Not only does it impact how people around the world view certain issues, but it allows players to feel less restricted and more comfortable within the organisation they play in.
Silver has recognised this and in an appearance on ‘NBA on TNT’ said he was, “thrilled” that players in this league are comfortable speaking about issues that are important to them,” as they, “have this platform to show people they’re truly multi-dimensional, not just ball players.”
The NBA is miles ahead in these matters when compared to the rest.
Pointedly, it’s hard to find any male leagues around the world that include female officials and coaches in any meaningful way.
Fans would be familiar with football’s ongoing struggles with racism, both from players or fans. In Europe, you’re far more likely to see players making statements on racist remarks before any leagues or governing bodies react, if they react at all.
Closer to home, the AFL also has issues.
While it annually celebrates Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round, the price Adam Goodes paid in being outspoken about racism and a lack of action during the saga underlines a huge issue for the league to overcome.
The NFL has similarly widespread problems. A quick read on the league’s terrible treatment of Colin Kaepernick after he protested discrimination in America in 2016 is sufficient evidence of this.
While Kaepernick found himself without a role in the NFL soon after, NBA players were the first to voice their support, much to Silver’s delight.
The NBA has changed what it means to be a top-tier sports organisation. It’s now up to the other leagues around the world to follow suit.
Image by Ben Neale