Back in the day, when asked why he didn’t engage in politics, Michael Jordan replied, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” The quote is probably apocryphal, but it makes an important point. The appeal of sports transcend politics. Historically, the professional sports leagues have been hesitant to get involved in controversial issues that could alienate their fan bases. For example, in 2013, the White House sought the NBA and NFL to help promote Obamacare. With good reason, they declined. Obamacare was a contentious issue, and their shareholders no doubt said–“stay away.” In hindsight, with the horrible launch of Healthcare.gov, this was a savvy business decision.
In light of this history, I am struggling to understand why the NBA has decided to wade into an issue that is perhaps even more divisive than Obamacare–gun control. The NBA allowed four of its marquee stars–Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Joakim Noah–to appear in a commercial sponsored by Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety.(Ironically, these four players are from four of the cities with the strictest gun control laws–San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago). The spot will air throughout the NBA’s 5 Christmas-day games.
While the video does not openly advocate for any specific gun controls, the import of the advertisement is clear. Parents hold up photographs of children who were killed by gun violence. One parent says, “We are Americans. We don’t have to live like this.” The NBA has endorsed Bloomberg’s gun-control agenda. Millions of Americans who want to watch a basketball game on Friday will be turned off by these advertisements. On the Everytown website, the group solicits donations using the interviews with the players by Spike Lee.
In two articles today, the New York Times at once illustrates why this was a precarious financial decision, but why liberal activism prevailed over fiduciary concerns. First in the Sports of the Times opinion column, Michael Powell lauds Carmelo Anthony’s “toughness in a public arena.” Sure he is an overrated player who has never delivered for the Knicks, but he is a committed social justice warrior! If only Patrick Ewing was more active! (Jaded 90s Knicks fan talking here).
Carmelo Anthony carries an often unfair reputation as the jejune hoop star, the man with a smile almost too soft and a manner too easy.
Yeah, well, let’s give the Knick forward credit where due:
Last April, Carmelo donned a black fedora, marched in the streets of his boyhood city, Baltimore, and spoke against both police and random street violence.
“These are the streets that I walked when I was growing up,” Anthony said at the time. “As you can see, everybody wants justice right now, so we’ve got to be patient and start believing in our system. I know it’s hard to do that right now.”
“The gun should never be an option,” he says, his voiced joined with those of Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Joakim Noah.
The article goes on to discuss how Anthony, and the NBA, can serve as a powerful counterweight to the NRA.
The N.R.A. is more powerful than ever, its once ceaseless internal wars having long ago subsided. Those politicians who could fashion common sense harnesses for guns most often backpedal.
That said, of the professional sports, the N.B.A. and its players union have high-stepped most quickly into the 21st century. When an N.B.A. owner last year spoke in racist terms, the players bridled and bucked and threatened revolt. And the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, moved quickly and eloquently to exile him.
Making decisions that shine on the New York Times editorial page is often at odds with making decisions that shine in the Board Room.
The second article in the Times speaks to how this is a very risky financial proposition.
The N.B.A.’s involvement suggests that a bloody year of gun deaths — in highly publicized mass shootings and countless smaller-scale incidents — may be spurring even some generally risk-averse, mainstream institutions to action.
Unlike in homogenous circles (like academia) where group think prevails, publicly traded companies are required–and indeed have a fiduciary interest–to consider all sides of the equation. The normal pressures of corporate law seem to have been waived for this decision:
The N.B.A. said it held little internal debate about working with Mr. Bloomberg’s group. “We know far too many people who have been caught up in gun violence in this country,” said Kathleen Behrens, the league’s president of social responsibility and player programs. “And we can do something about it.”
But the decision may prove tricky for the league: While many of its teams are based in cities dominated by Democrats, a number of other teams — and millions of N.B.A. fans — hail from places where Mr. Bloomberg and his approach to guns are viewed with deep suspicion. Ms. Behrens said the league had not shown the ads to team owners, but added, “We’re not worried about any political implications.”
Over breakfast at the Loews Regency Hotel in Manhattan in November, not long before the movie was released earlier this month, Mr. Lee proposed the idea for the ads to John Skipper, the president of ESPN, who then took it to Adam Silver, the N.B.A.’s commissioner. Mr. Lee insisted on the participation of Everytown, with which he collaborated on a protest march down Broadway after the film’s New York premiere.
Without much debate, or even consulting the owners (?!), a person whose title is “president of social responsibility and player programs” made a decision that will alienate shareholders, millions of fans, not to mention conservative owners. This decision by the NBA reeks of seeking the affection of Michael Bloomberg and ESPN and the New York Times first and foremost.
If the NBA would like a guide of what could happen, look no further than the plummeting ratings of Stephen Colbert, whose liberal schtick has been unable to attract a wide audience. Republicans buy sneakers, watch late night TV, and follow basketball.