Recently, social issues and politics have become especially prominent in the NBA. Basketball has always found itself intrenched in cultural issues, but over the past year it has become increasingly noticeable.
One prominent social issue that came to light earlier this year was regarding the use of marijuana in the NBA. Frequently outspoken coach and former player Steve Kerr made headlines when he admitted to using marijuana to help with his back pain. Kerr, 51 years old, also mentioned that hopes the NBA will soften its stance on marijuana. Interestingly, the NBA already refrains from testing for marijuana during the offseason.
The NBA has a much more lenient position on pot usage than the MLB and NFL. The NFL is notoriously strict on players who test positive for marijuana and bans players for a full season after testing positive three times.
Kerr specifically spoke out against the NFL’s policies.
“If you’re an NFL player, in particular, and you got lot of pain, I don’t think there’s any question that pot is better for your body than Vicodin,” Kerr said.
Former NBA player Jay Williams said that he believes 80% of NBA players use marijuana. He also expressed his support for leniency on marijuana also citing the benefits of marijuana over painkillers.
Marijuana has proven to be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of NBA personalities expressing their beliefs. This became especially clear in the months surrounding the 2016 election.
On November 6th, in Cleveland, LeBron James spoke out at a rally for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Rather than spark a controversy, his endorsement brought support from his peers on both sides of the aisle.
Milwaukee Bucks center Spencer Hawes, a known conservative, spoke out on James’ endorsements in October. Hawes was asked whether James’ comments regarding Clinton made him uncomfortable in an interview with Sporting News, eliciting this response:
[su_quote]No, I like it. Obviously, I don’t agree with LeBron there. And that’s fine. But the ability to not agree and put that in one compartment and not judge someone’s entire character based on how they view the world or what their political beliefs are, that’s what makes us great. So yeah, I disagree with LeBron. I would love to have a discussion with him or anybody that wants to talk about it. But at the end of the day, there’s two parties, there’s two ways of doing things. Each one has been in power many times over again, and we’re still where we are.[/su_quote]
The political statements from big NBA stars only continued after the election. Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr and Stan van Gundy all made huge political statements in the days following the 2016 election.
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The NBA’s social involvement does not end with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In 2014, across the league, players showed their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Led by stars Lebron James, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose, many players wore shirts that said “I can’t breathe” during warmups. The NBA broke their protocol and decided not to fine the players who wore the shirts.
In another politically charged act, the NBA pulled the All-Star game from Charlotte, North Carolina earlier this year. This came in response to the “bathroom bill” that had been passed in the state. The NBA also became the first professional American sports league with an active openly gay athlete when Jason Collins came out in 2013.
This article from Bleacher Report explains how Donald Trump was causing turmoil in NFL locker rooms because of political divides. Similarly, the NFL was the focus of a huge nationwide media controversy as a result of Colin Kapernick kneeling during the national anthem earlier this year. The political statements that come out of the NFL have simply not been received kindly by fans and the media alike.
As we can see from the comments from Hawes and those three coaches, the NBA has clearly had a much better reaction to the social issues that have become so deeply entrenched in this sport.
Additionally, while some more mediocre players in other sports leagues have spoken up, marquee players in other leagues have been mostly silent about social issues. Meanwhile, some of the biggest stars in the NBA have been politically outspoken.
Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are undoubtedly the two biggest 21st century basketball stars and both have been remarkably outspoken about social issues. Additionally, stars such as Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose and many others have let their voice be heard. And, as mentioned, three of the top coaches in the league spoke very strongly about their political beliefs this year.
So, what allows the NBA to foster so much more activism than other American sports leagues?
One of the key factors is commissioner Adam Silver. Silver has fostered an environment in the NBA that has allowed players to be comfortable expressing their beliefs politically and on social issues.
Since becoming the commissioner of the NBA, Silver has set the tone for creating a welcoming environment and has hastily stood up for the things he believes in.
Silver delivered a lifetime ban to former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his racist comments. He instituted the removal of the All-Star Game from Charlotte earlier this year. And earlier this year, Silver expressed outright that NBA players were free to use their celebrity to express their political views.
Silver has emphasized the importance of sports bringing people together and he has certainly not been afraid to put his beliefs to action. Silver also remains an incredibly liked commissioner, proving a sharp contrast to the commissioners of other sports leagues such as Gary Bettman and Roger Goodell.
The NBA’s ability to intertwine relevant social issues and sports has proved successful so far. With one of the most liked and respected commissioners in sports at the moment, it seems likely that they will continue to succeed. And as long as it’s working, why not?