Wednesday evening’s “Inside the NBA” pre-game show on TNT caused some consternation following the cancellation of games by NBA players in reaction to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. Most paid attention to host and former NBA player Kenny Smith walking off the show in support of the players, saying “right now my head is ready to explode,” and that “as a black man, as a former player, I think it’s best for me to support the players and just not be here tonight.”
But what co-host Shaquille O’Neal said next was perhaps more important. “November is coming up,” O’Neal said. “Make sure you get a new D.A. Make sure you get a new chief of police. Make sure you get a new mayor. Make sure you get a new president. Make sure you get a new sheriff. It’s in our hands. It’s always been in our hands.”
O’Neal’s focus—getting out to vote and electing a new president—is almost unheard-of for a player-turned-analyst. They usually talk about the effectiveness of the pick-n-roll and make funny quips like he does on his weekly “Shaqtin’ a Fool” segment, but not much more.
Athlete activism comes and goes in cycles. In the 1960s and 1970s, athletes like Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Mohammed Ali were actively engaged a variety of cultural and political issues. Later superstars like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods passed on all that. Jordan’s famous line—“Republicans buy sneakers too”—explained why he and others stayed uninvolved.
The pendulum has swung once again. It began with the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Then the deaths of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Eric Garner in 2014. Then Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020. Combined with the perception that President Donald Trump is aligned with white nationalist groups, and a number of black athletes no longer wanted to stay silent.
The rise of social media has given athletes an avenue to reach fans that are free from interference by ownership or the media. The ability to communicate with the public on their own through Instagram or Twitter has moved the content distribution of their personal views out of the mainstream sports media orbit, where commentary on groin pulls has always been more important than players comments on police brutality.
Most pro athletes, particularly NBA players, make so much money now that any controversy over their involvement in political issues cannot hurt them substantially in any monetary way.
Professor Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University, explained in an interview this summer how this change in media could have a big effect in the influence athletes have in future politics.
“I think because of the huge vacuum that exists in leadership in the White House — and no matter what you think of Donald Trump, he’s certainly not uniting the country — so in the absence of that, it is a tremendous opportunity for these people: athletes, sports figures, leagues that do have the attention and do have the respect of people to hopefully say some of the right things and do some of the right things as people are looking around for some wisdom,” Shropshire said.
Lebron James was a little more succinct in how he filled that vacuum. This is what he sent out in a tweet just after the NBA game boycott was announced last Wednesday.
Needless to say, Trump thinks the players should shut up and dribble.
“It’s terrible. I think what they’re doing to the NBA in particular is going to destroy basketball. I can’t—I don’t even watch it,” he said to the press after his New Hampshire rally on Friday. “You know when you watch sports, you want to sort of relax, but this is a whole different world. … You don’t want to stay in politics. You want to relax. … It’s going to be very bad for football and I think it’s very bad for the NBA. Maybe even NBA threatening. And it’s going to be very bad for baseball if they don’t get smarter.”
If Magic Johnson campaigns for Joe Biden in Michigan, Michael Jordan does the same in North Carolina, and Marlins owner Derek Jeter chips in in Florida, their participation could have an impact in swing state races. The question is whether or not this will alienate voters on the fence who might be getting tired of their hero athletes getting involved in politics. This will be especially true in the Midwest “Blue Wall” states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
White House senior advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner suggested this is how the White House might spin their newfound political awareness in a CNBC interview last week, noting that NBA players are fortunate “they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off from work without having to have the consequences to themselves financially.”
But it’s been more than a one-day work stoppage. James’s “More Than A Vote” campaign is encouraging voter registration and turnout in minority communities. It will concentrate in swing states (Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, and Ohio), and some arenas and stadiums in big cities will be used for both registration campaigns and actual places to cast votes.
Activism has found a place in management as well. In the past, coaches like Doc Rivers would have been encouraged by the team owner and league to avoid controversy — especially political controversy.
But this is what Rivers said after the Jacob Blake shooting in a post-game press conference this week. “All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear,” Rivers said of the Republican National Convention. “We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear.”
“It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back,” Rivers said. “It’s really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. We got to do better. But we got to demand better. It’s funny. We protest. They send riot guards. They send people in riot outfits. They go up to Michigan with guns. They’re spitting on cops. Nothing happens.”
Whether or not the articulation of a man like Doc Rivers has influence in the voters’ minds in November is anyone’s guess right now. But there is a change going on as we speak. The racial issues at play and critical mass of athletes choosing to get involved seems to have more public support than not at this time. The media platforms used now give their voices more weight. The only question is whether or not the voters will listen to them—or change the channel.