Aug 28, 2020 - Sports

The NBA wades into politics

An illustration of a basketball hoop and a ballot.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Amid a national reckoning on race that has consumed the sports world, NBA players are poised to shape the conversation — and perhaps even influence the upcoming election.

The state of play: The NBA bubble has been politicized from the start, with social justice messages everywhere. But the Milwaukee Bucks' strike on Wednesday set a new bar and made the NBA a leader in a movement it had previously only participated in.

  • President Trump responded on Thursday, saying the NBA has "become more like a political organization."
  • "They've put a lot of slogans out, but I think what we need to do is turn that [into] actual action," added Jared Kushner.

Driving the news: LeBron James has already taken action by heading up More Than A Vote, an athlete-led group devoted to fighting voter suppression in Black electoral districts and turning stadiums into polling sites for Election Day.

  • The non-profit organization, which is made up of Black athletes from the NBA and other leagues, just launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to address poll worker shortages.
  • Since voting site volunteers are typically older, there's concern about them staying home this year due to COVID-19 risks, so election officials are grateful for the spotlight athletes are bringing to the issue.
  • "This is the ballgame," Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told NYT. "This is not just an important partnership. This is critical."

The big picture: While their Black activist predecessors acted alone or in small groups, today's NBA players have strength in numbers.

  • When Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, he couldn't stay in the same hotels or eat at the same restaurants as his teammates.
  • When the Bucks went on strike, they were inside a different kind of bubble — one that has brought players closer together and unified the league.
"In a college campus-like environment they've studied history, discussed politics and watched the news — doing all this as a group, undistracted by travel and personal lives to an extent that would not have been possible outside the bubble as illness, violence and chaos have swirled outside."
— Jonathan Eig, WashPost

The bottom line: As a new generation of athletes gets more involved politically, the role of sports changes. This comes at a cost, and NBA writers have already suggested that it's hurting viewership.

Listen: WNBA's Renee Montgomery on More Than A Vote

Go deeper