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The NBA's record of standing up for the oppressed comes to a disappointing end

The NBA abandons trans kids while they're under relentless attack.
Image: Players in action during a NBA game in New Orleans in 2009.
Players in action during a NBA game in New Orleans in 2009.Greg Nelson / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images file

The National Basketball Association earned a reputation for sticking up for transgender children in 2016 by moving the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte, N.C., to signal its opposition to the state's Public Facilities Privacy & Securities Act, better known as HB2. That law limited anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people and was described by its supporters as a way to keep trans people out of their preferred restrooms (hence its nickname, “the bathroom bill”).

With the attacks against trans children more fierce than ever, the NBA has decided that standing for trans children is not the fight it wants.

But now, with the attacks against trans children more fierce and overt than ever, the NBA seems to have decided that standing up for them is not the fight it wants. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said this week that the 2023 NBA All-Star Game would go ahead as planned in Salt Lake City, even though Utah passed anti-trans legislation by overriding the veto of Republican Gov. Spencer Cox. Utah’s legislation, targeting trans kids and preventing them from playing on sports teams that clash with the sex assigned to them at birth, makes the North Carolina bill seem tame and quaint.

“Every situation is unique,” Silver said. “We don’t want to be in a position where we’re chased from state to state around the country." Instead of boycotting or protesting states that discriminate against trans people, the NBA will now, in Silver’s words, make an effort to “create an inclusive environment for our game, rather than take the position that we have somehow an independent ability to change the minds of the voters of Utah in this.”

Silver has been a leader in the sports world on questions ranging from gambling to racial justice. He undoubtedly is setting a precedent here as well, a tragic one that others in the sports world will likely follow.

Transgender children have been under relentless attack by the political right. It’s not just the laws that Republicans are enacting in state after state aimed at keeping trans kids off sports teams and outlawing discussion of their existence in classrooms. It’s also the unhinged fascistic rhetoric that until recently stayed at the edges of the Republican Party but has now gone mainstream with meteoric speed. Violently bombastic fools like Marjorie Taylor Greene have led an entire party into believing — or being cowed into agreeing with — the idea that parents or doctors giving gender-affirming care should be thrown in prison and that standing with transgender kids is akin to pedophilia.

In the face of such slander and in response to legislation aimed at transgender erasure, the NBA could be a credible and powerful voice in defense of such children. But these anti-trans bills could soon be passed in half the states, and the last thing professional sports organizations and the NCAA want is to be taking political stands every five minutes and ruling out states that could potentially compete with other states for the privilege to host various “mega-events.” These mega events, of course, come with the economic boost that tournaments and championships can provide. Trans kids, then, become just another casualty of the ugliest possible prejudice on one side, and, on the other, pointed indifference in the name of profit.

In 2017 North Carolina was a bit of an outlier in its plan to further marginalizie trans people.

In 2017, North Carolina was a bit of an outlier in its plan to further marginalize trans people. HB2 shocked liberal sensibilities, and the NBA’s reaction was part of a larger response. “In the years since 2017, we have witnessed the normalization of anti-trans attacks in state legislatures and public discourse,” Chase Strangio, an ACLU lawyer immersed in the fight to defend trans youth, told me Thursday. “What is clear now is that much of the outcry over HB2 was connected to the fact that it more broadly targeted the LGBTQ community. With bills more narrowly targeting trans people, and particularly trans youth, the public resistance has waned considerably, and trans youth have been left largely on their own to fight unrelenting attacks on their access to restrooms, sports, school and health care.”

Strangio said that “we have all let the right dupe us into a disingenuous debate about ‘women's rights’ and ‘protecting children’” while their threats include taking trans kids away from their parents. He called the NBA’s inaction “part of this normalization and terrain shifting that has led to the current legislative contexts wherein votes are systemically suppressed, abortion banned, trans youth criminalized and classrooms censored. At this point it is disappointing yet unsurprising to see such feckless behavior from powerful people and institutions.”

Cox, in his veto message, pointed out that of 75,000 kids playing high school sports in Utah, four are transgender athletes, including one trans girl: “Four kids and only one of them playing girls’ sports. That’s what all of this is about. Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few.”

Cox added, “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly.”

In that Tom Paine quote that begins "These are the times that try men’s souls,” he says, “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” will “shrink from the service of his country.” Trans kids desperately need winter soldiers: people who will be present in this perilous moment and not shrink in the face of a tidal wave of hate. Instead they’ve got Adam Silver, a summer soldier whose focus on his league's bottom line will lead to the suffering of trans children as a result.