NBA's commitment to free speech activism ends when bottom line suffers

NBA's commitment to free speech activism ends when bottom line suffers
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Fox News Channel commentator Laura IngrahamLaura Anne Ingraham90 percent of full-time Fox Corp. employees say they're fully vaccinated: executive Texas lt. governor faces backlash after claiming unvaccinated African Americans responsible for COVID-19 surge Fox News requires employees to provide vaccination status MORE took flak from the outrage corner of social media three years ago when she told NBA players LeBron James and Kevin Durant to “shut up and dribble.” Ingraham’s admonishment came in response to James and Durant doing online political commentary she didn’t like. Backlash against Ingraham focused on how athletes should be able to speak freely as they choose.

Now, however, the NBA hierarchy is taking a page out of Ingraham’s playbook. The NBA has backtracked on the activist messaging it supported just last summer when NBA courts and players’ jerseys displayed social justice slogans. The expression “Black Lives Matter” is no longer painted boldly on every court. Players no longer display slogans such as “Say Their Names,” “I Can’t Breathe,” or “How Many More” on their jerseys. Essentially, the NBA wants players to again just be quiet and play basketball. The cultural referees are apparently OK with this stifling.

It is now clear that NBA management didn’t greenlight last season’s activism out of any sense of commitment to free speech principles. The NBA was merely responding to public pressure to do something in response to the social unrest of that time. It wanted the expected image building that would accompany public displays of ideology.

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Then the television ratings for NBA games hit the skids. In fairness ratings for all sports have been down during the pandemic, but even the NBA finals were a ratings thud — even though the league’s highest profile player, James, and highest profile team, the Lakers, were winning the title. While there was plenty of competition for viewers — including a fractious presidential campaign —some have seen a direct connection to the “social justice” messaging. It certainly looks like the NBA brass surmised that politically and culturally charged basketball just isn’t as watchable to the average fan as just good basketball itself.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in an interview at the start of this season that the league is still “completely committed to standing for social justice and racial equality.” He went on to acknowledge, however, that forcing social activism into the sports arena had diminished fan support, “I understand those people who are saying ‘I’m on your side, but I want to watch a basketball game.’” In short, a decline in television ratings hurts the NBA’s revenue stream. The pull-back from displays of political expression speaks for itself.

The NBA maintains that it’s moving on to focus on action rather than words.

Polling reported recently in the Morning Consult supports the notion that fans want to watch ball games without accompanying political lecturing. Of fans who have watched fewer sporting events on television this year, a fifth say it is because of politics blending into the sports. A pandemic ravaged nation should have been ready to release the anxiety of COVID while watching sports. After all, most people had time on their hands and were stuck at home. But the NBA shot a brick, so to speak, and instead of gathering a nation together around sports, further split it with a fake salute to free expression.

The bottom line is that the NBA is all for free expression when it believes it is good for business.

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Last summer’s social justice messaging was supposedly to give players a voice, but even then the league negotiated what messaging was to be allowed. Further, it only allowed statements related to one cause. If the NBA really wants to empower players, let them choose their messages and their own causes.

The NBA’s confused approach to freedom has been on display for a while. In October of 2019, Houston Rockets general manager Darryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong demonstrators. The Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta, and top scorer, James Harden, distanced themselves from Morey, as did the NBA front office. China is a growing market and revenue source for all things NBA. The NBA saw no need to ruffle China’s power structures by supporting a little thing like freedom in Hong Kong.

The NBA tipped off a new season last week, and early indications are that the fans are not ready to come back. Ratings for the early season games are down, including for the high-profile Christmas day matchups. To the extent political messaging was a turn-off, fans might not come back until the NBA decides which principles it wants to follow.

If the NBA wants to just run a basketball league, that is fine. Focus on dribbling and dunking and stay out of the public affairs arena. But if it wants to run a free expression operation for its players and executives, it can’t be picking and choosing based on which posture looks financially feasible at the moment. Free speech is a fundamental principle that remains fundamental regardless of making money or the topic of any moment.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to add context about the ratings for NBA games and to note that NBA says it is moving from words to focus on action.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.