The Politics Behind a December 22nd Restart

The fanbase of the National Basketball Association does not look like the Halls of Congress which is mostly white and wealthy. The fanbase of the NBA has the highest percentage of African Americans and Latinos compared to the fanbases of other popular sports, such as baseball and football. Half of the NBA fanbase, 42%, self- identify as Democrats. 38% of NFL fans self-identify as Democrats and 36% of baseball fans call themselves Democrats. In a perfect world, political party would definitely not matter but the values of parties seep in as human behavior demands fairness and equality, or human behavior fights for the status quo.

In the NBA, a particularly friendly league to people of color, the hypocrisy over perception is rife with manufactured responses. The owners of NBA teams don’t look anything like their fanbase however perception creates racial solidarity when it is far from the case.

Black Lives Matter was splashed all over the NBA bubble not because NBA owners were woke and empathic. They were practical. The mood in the country had changed as BLM was normalized after George Floyd’s murder. NBA owners themselves did not change. They were the same ownership group that protected Donald Sterling (kind of like the GOP protects Donald Trump) until his racism went too far and they were indicted. NBA owners are billionaires, not a collection of liberals and progressives. They are moneyed, resourced, and pragmatic.

Two things can be true concurrently. NBA players care deeply about social justice issues because it is what directly affects them and their children. NBA owners care deeply about their money, particularly financial losses as their net worth takes a dive.

NBA owners aren’t victims by any stretch of the word but their financial portfolios took a punch to the gut because of Covid-19. It cost $180 million to live and breathe and play basketball in the bubble. $1.5 billion was saved. When you hear NBA owners spin the bubble experience through gritted teeth they wax poetic about no new infections and lives being saved.  But for them, health mattered like peace on earth matters. In theory. The bottom line is always the bottom line when billionaire investors are looking at their returns.  Plan B stopped a little bit of the bleeding. But you can’t recoup losses when 40% of revenue dried up because fans were locked out of arenas.

The politically biased like to say the blame rests on black players and their black agenda and their black problems keeping white folk away. But all sports ratings are in the toilet. The Stanley Cup Final was down 40%. U.S. Open Tennis tournament was down 45%. The Kentucky Derby was down 43%. U.S. Open Golf tournament was down 42%. Even college football has suffered. Its ratings are 30% worse. NFL television ratings are down 10%.

Covid-19 paused all sports and the return hasn’t been smooth.  In particular, the NBA was like that happily married couple, happy until the husband lost his job and the wife was pregnant and his mother in law moved in. Then things started to go south in a hurry. That was the NBA. The China divorce. Kobe’s death. The virus. 177 games without fans. And the bubble costs. It led to a lot of bickering.

NBA owners want their money and that matters more than whatever body aches and pains LeBron James is dealing with. They want to get in a 70 game schedule, hoping that for the last 45 games fans can come and things will be normal again. NBA owners have always cared about money before the product because money enables the product.

If owners could be guaranteed that an MLK holiday start would include fans, they’d be on board with a later date but Covid-19 is spiking again and with 9 million infections it’s hard to know what is up and what is down. There won’t be a bubble in 2020-21 but there will be players infected. What then?

2

One of the annoyingly persistent gripes white fans have about NBA players talking about social justice is that they, the fans, don’t want politics and sports to intersect. They want players to voice their own concerns, opinions, and politics away from the court. But the myopic narcissism about that point of view is what it omits: the hypocrisy of owners. They donate to race-baiters like Donald Trump and then turn around and pretend they care about the players on their roster who fear the police. NBA owners are just being expedient in public but behind the scenes owners like Dan Gilbert are writing checks to the GOP, the same GOP that doesn’t believe systemic racism exists.

NBA owners have given over $8 million to the Republican party over a six-year period while they have given 77% less to the Democratic Party, over $2 million. They are entitled to write checks to whomever they see fit; it is their money. However when they pretend the players interests are theirs, and then behind the scenes monetize the people who are openly hostile to people of color, they are manipulating the system.

3

American professional sports are very singular and cold: it’s the money stupid. NBA players and owners both want prosperity. But they are talking about checkers and chess at the very same time. You cannot in good faith support Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump.  Jim Buss (Los Angeles Lakers), Dan DeVos (Orlando Magic), James Dolan (New York Knicks), Tillman Fertitta (Houston Rockets) wrote Trump a check. Add to the list many others who shield their name(s) and donations to avoid the red herring conflict of interest. Dark money will grow even larger during a Biden administration if he manages to defeat Trump. Sports owners don’t want the publicity and the perception that comes with supporting the GOP who are collectively perceived as racist enablers.

One anonymous NBA owner said, “I’m so worried about Biden’s regulations, so I’m funding as much as I can privately and confidentially to get Trump reelected. I know he’s crazy, and I hope Democrats take the House and Senate but then Trump can block stuff and protect us on taxes and regulations.”

The honesty revealed in his gripe is refreshing until you really listen to what he is saying. All politics are local. In his life taxes and regulations are the thing. He rarely breathes the air of xenophobia, misogyny, and racism. He’s immune to it. Lucky him.

Mark Cuban has a healthy outlook. “There are many things in life bigger than the NBA. Some things are bigger than the business. So I can see why owners like myself would make choices that may not be popular today.”

But that is what the players are saying. Things are bigger than NBA business. Like racism and its effects. Why is it acceptable coming from an NBA owner and childish when it’s an NBA player? Why is it that an NBA owner has every right to want to start December 22nd  to recoup losses but players are whining millionaires when they are concerned about the status of their mind and body?

If it is true that the NBA bubble was the hardest title to win then it is also true it is the hardest to recover from. In this case, the owners are not operating on greed. . They had a bad night at Vegas and in one try with $10 billion on the roulette wheel, they want to get it back. But where they are obtuse is in how the prioritization of money, the bottom line, debits, and credits are slanting their perspective. It’s not show friends. It’s show business.  The well-being of the players in the labor force is a secondary concern.