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Why Rubio’s complaint about the NBA and its message on guns matters

The more the sports world gets involved in the conversation — on the side of reformers — the more pressure the GOP will face.


Given the popularity of sports in American society, it stands to reason that major American political parties would go out of their way to align themselves with assorted leagues. Over the last decade or so, Republicans just don’t seem to agree.

One of the first key examples of this came to the fore after the Affordable Care Act was approved. The Obama White House thought teams and athletes could help promote new benefits available to families, just as Mitt Romney’s gubernatorial administration had done in Massachusetts in 2006, but congressional Republicans had a different perspective.

In fact, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell contacted the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, PGA, and NASCAR directly in 2013, demanding that they play no role in helping inform the public about health care benefits. Others on the right threatened to retaliate against leagues that partnered with the government on any kind of public-information campaigns.

In the years that followed, as we’ve discussed on multiple occasions, the connection between the GOP and sports leagues grew even more contentious. Donald Trump, for example, during his White House tenure, lashed out at professional football, professional basketball, and threatened a boycott of professional soccer.

More recently, after professional baseball took a stand in support of voting rights, an amazing number of Republicans responded with hysteria and threats.

Now, evidently, it’s Sen. Marco Rubio’s turn. The Miami Herald reported:

Sen. Marco Rubio offered a blistering critique of the Miami Heat after their playoff game Wednesday — and he wasn’t talking about their lopsided defeat to the Boston Celtics. In a trio of tweets sent late Wednesday and early Thursday, the state’s senior Republican senator criticized the Heat for a pair of politically themed messages about gun control and Florida’s new voting restrictions, asking why they hadn’t been similarly critical of China despite the country’s human-rights abuses.

Ahead of a playoff game this week, Miami’s NBA team held a moment of silence for the victims of the shooting in Uvalde, and then encouraged fans to call policymakers and “leave a message demanding their support for common-sense gun laws.” The over-the-loudspeaker message included the telephone number to the U.S. Capitol switchboard.

There were audible cheers from those in attendance.

Rubio, however, a fierce opponent of measures intended to address gun violence, apparently found all of this outrageous. (The Florida Republican whined some more a few hours later because the Heat was part of a separate information campaign about registering to vote.)

At least for now, there isn’t yet a policy dimension to this: When Republicans went after Major League Baseball, some GOP officials said the league’s anti-trust exemption was in jeopardy. As best as I can tell, Rubio hasn’t made any comparable noises about punishing the NBA for policy messages he disagrees with.

What we appear to have instead is a cultural dispute: The senator saw a basketball team encourage the public to get involved in a larger policy conversation by encouraging their elected representatives to help protect Americans from gun violence. Rubio wasted no time in pushing back — publicly and belligerently.

Of course, we’ll never know the degree to which the GOP incumbent — who’s up for re-election this year — was sincerely bothered by the message, though Rubio had reason to consider the broader context. As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote, “More broadly, the intersection of the gun debate with GOP attacks on the sports world could lead Republicans into dicey territory. What happens if the sports world becomes more vocal in calling for gun-safety measures?”

That is not a hypothetical question: Republicans already find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion in the debate over gun policy. The more the sports world gets involved in the conversation — on the side of reformers — the more pressure the GOP will face.

It was against this backdrop that NBC News reported overnight, “The New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday dropped the usual game coverage that appears on their social media accounts, opting instead to use Twitter to highlight the brutal toll of gun violence in the United States.”

I have a hunch this wasn’t what Rubio wanted to see.