There was a time in the not too distant past when the NBA was about as political as an episode of "Saved by the Bell." Meaning, not at all. A league that once punished players for being political — hello, Craig Hodges — now sometimes gives the impression that it is a civic engagement organization where people happen to play basketball. Consider the news from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver this week that the league would be canceling all games on Election Day, Nov. 8, to encourage people to go vote. Perhaps even more significantly, all 30 teams will play the night before and encourage civic participation.
A league that once punished players for being political now sometimes gives the impression that it's a civic engagement organization where people happen to play basketball.
As the league said on Tuesday, "The scheduling decision came out of the NBA family's focus on promoting nonpartisan civic engagement and encouraging fans to make a plan to vote during midterm elections.” None of this should be too surprising. In 2020, when there was no Covid-19 vaccine and concerns about crowded polling places, NBA allowed its arenas to be used as voting centers. During that pandemic year, as the teams were playing in a bubble in Orlando, Florida, they also strongly encouraged their fans to register to vote.
The NBA, as led by Silver, now has an established commitment to not be “just sports” and to model the primacy of elections in a country, which is one of the few democracies on earth that doesn’t make the day we cast our ballots a national holiday. But this push for “nonpartisan political engagement” is also an effort from Silver to regain some control over the league’s political messaging.
The inability to keep any kind of wall between sports and politics has characterized Silver’s tenure as NBA commissioner, which is a drastic departure from the way things were under his predecessor and mentor, the late David Stern. In many ways Silver exemplifies the quote from Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night" that “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” This mandate to use his league as an instrument of civic engagement was thrust upon Silver almost as soon as he ascended to the top of the league in April 2014. One of his first tasks was responding to the leak of racist audio recordings of Donald Sterling, a stone-cold racist who was then the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Players were preparing to boycott a playoff game in disgust, but Silver was able to placate the players and the union by doing something that Stern would have been loath to do: force Sterling to sell his beloved franchise and leave the sport.
But that taste of politics and power only made a new generation of players more willing to be political, especially after the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown and the continued growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, which electrified a generation of NBA players from superstar LeBron James on down the bench.
Silver, unlike some commissioners in other pro leagues, didn’t try to punish or blackball players for speaking out. Given that some of the biggest stars in the league were raising their voices, he really couldn’t. Instead, from the beginning, he attempted to encourage and support players partly as a way to have some measure of control in how they presented this activist, anti-racist, and polarizing perspective.
When the players did take the once unimaginable step of actually going on a wildcat strike during the 2020 playoffs in response to the Kenosha, Wisconsin, police shooting of Jacob Blake, Silver not only canceled all games, but he immediately, with the help of some friends, pushed players to take all their anger and all their radical energy and steer it away from work stoppages and polarizing protest and into voting advocacy.
Not scheduling games on Election Day provides political cover for players who don’t want to take controversial political stands but would like to present themselves as engaged.
Not scheduling games on Election Day 2022 is best understood as a part of that effort. It also provides political cover for players who don’t want to take controversial political stands but still would like to present themselves as politically engaged.
Silver has shown himself to be politically adept at navigating these stormy waters. But there’ve been times l when he has looked like a pigeon who has landed on the back of a bucking bronco. Even if that pigeon remains balanced on the wild horse, it shouldn’t delude itself into thinking that it is steering the mighty steed. “Nonpartisan political engagement” and formally canceling games on Election Day is preferable to players canceling games themselves out of disgust over racism and police violence.
The NBA is above all else a multibillion-dollar global business with one eye always on public relations. To the extent that this campaign encourages voting, what Silver’s NBA is doing fits its pattern of engagement. But it should also be seen as a means to keep players from voicing even more dissent.