Since taking over for David Stern as NBA commissioner in 2014, Adam Silver has enjoyed a bit of a honeymoon phase with basketball fans. In his first season, Silver brought the hammer down on Donald Sterling, the long-time former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers who, in addition to being the subject of a federal investigation into racist housing practices, was recorded grousing about black fans attending Clippers games. Sterling was banned for life from the NBA, and Silver, a stone-faced crusader against discrimination and racism was, indisputably, the Good Guy.
Silver wants the NBA to stand for something, and in his time at the helm, the league has been more than accommodating in allowing players to speak their minds on social issues, and has taken stances on gun control, feminism, and, of course, racism. And all of this is happening as a new slew of superstars, led by Steph Curry, keep the game’s popularity at a peak.
Last week, the NBA elected last week to move the 2017 All Star Game out of Charlotte in responses the North Carolina’s passing of House Bill 2, a law that eliminates
The NBA had been working behind the scenes with the Charlotte Hornets ownership, led by Michael Jordan, to try and “foster constructive dialogue and try to effect positive change,” a deeply vague sentiment that doesn’t really explain what the negotiations to stay in Charlotte actually included. But in the end, the NBA pulled next February’s All-Star Game out of Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena, a stadium owned by the city and where the “bathroom bill” would apply (and, well, discriminate attendees). The league said they hope to return the game to Charlotte in 2019, so long as the law is changed.
Said the league in the statement: “While we recognize that the N.B.A. cannot choose the law in every city, state and country in which we do business, we do not believe we can successfully host our All-Star festivities in Charlotte in the climate created by the current law.”
It would seem that Silver and the NBA, in deciding to stand up against discrimination at the most star-studded event of the league’s regular season, had continued the important work that he’d begun with Sterling. Silver was the Good Guy, and Governor Pat McCrory, who called the decision “total P.C. BS.,” was the Bad Guy.
And yet, in this latest stand against discrimination, it’s not quite as cut and dry as it had been with Sterling. North Carolina’s House Bill 2 eliminated Charlotte’s local ordinance that included protections for LGBTQ residents and allowed for freedom to use the bathroom of one’s preferred gender, putting the city at odds with the state law—meaning it’s fair to assume local fans were by and large against the new law.
It’s great that the NBA wants to make a political statement and stand for equal rights for all people. But in doing so, I would argue that Silver is doing more to punish fans (and local businesses) who had nothing to do with the law that superseded their city’s own laws which upheld protections based on gender identity.
There’s also the matter of consistency. Speaking with Breitbart, North Carolina congressman Robert Pittenger wondered why the NBA had acted so forcefully against North Carolina on the basis of civil rights violations while also hosting preseason games in China, a country not exactly known for its respect for individual liberties or freedom of expression, gender-related or otherwise. In other words, how can Silver and the NBA punish Charlotte for the sins of North Carolina while continuing to hold games in China?
Therein lies the catch-22 of corporate social justice. It’s all well and good that Tim Cook wants Apple to have a focus on philanthropy and social activism, but how do you reconcile that with suicide prevention nets at its factories? And how Rihanna can decry Indiana’s discriminatory RFRA laws during a concert in Indianapolis, and yet still perform in the UAE, where homosexuality is punishable by law?
Instead of punishing fans, why not remind everyone why we play sports? Basketball is supposed to transcend politics, race, gender, class, etc. Presumably, the “constructive dialogue” the NBA was having with the Charlotte Hornets organization was in pursuit of an arrangement that would enable people to use the bathroom they feel most comfortable using. Obviously, that discussion fell apart, and the NBA felt that the time was now to draw its line in the sand. However, the NBA should have kept the game in Charlotte while continuing to hone its image and fight for human rights rather than abandoning the city altogether. You can be pro-basketball and anti-discrimination.
If the NBA is going to start making decisions based on local laws, then there’s no way they can continue to hold games in China with any explanation other than that of a not-yet-completely tapped market. Silver should remember that basketball is for the fans, not for the government, and that the NBA, the first American league to feature—and actively celebrate—an openly gay player; the league that was (usually) far ahead of most on cultivating a diverse fan base; and the league whose early pioneers and players were largely Jewish, can be a symbol of resilience in the face of discrimination, rather than be cowed by it. Play in North Carolina and play in China, not because “North Carolina say[s] men shouldn’t use the girl[s’] locker room,” as Pittenger so disingenuously puts it, but because the fans deserve it.