Leadership and Solidarity Matter in Sports Off the Field

Casper     There was a fascinating discussion recently about why professional basketball players in the National Basketball Association were able to speak freely and publicly about issues, including race and politics, while the manly men of the National Football League were constantly being cowed into silence.  The reporter for the New York Times spent a lot of time on the back and forth, pros and cons.

There are of course similarities between the two dominant professional leagues.  Both are owned by mostly conservative very rich people, so that doesn’t explain the difference.  Both have longstanding unions, so that isn’t the difference either.  Both leagues are composed of extraordinary athletes who are predominately African-American, so that doesn’t solve the puzzle either.

The reporter rested his case on the fact that the NBA had leaned more towards promoting the brand of individual players, while the NFL had focused more on teams citing the 40 million followers of LeBron James versus the 4 million followers of Tom Brady among other things.  That’s just not persuasive to me.  The NFL nationally and locally has made big whoops of the Brady’s, the Mannings, Drew Brees, and others as spokespeople for the league and the team.  It has done less for its African-American stars in my view.  The NFL has plainly been behind on race.  It isn’t a coincidence that all the players I just named are white quarterbacks.  It took decades before the NFL embraced African-Americans as quarterbacks, frequently seeing them and their style of play as unsuitable for their sport in implicit racism.

Coming off of our Local 100 leadership conference, it was hard not to see the real difference starting with leadership of the respective unions.  The reporter, John Branch, made the point that the head of the union for the NBA players was Chris Paul and that the executive board of the union looked like a future list for the Hall of Fame including James, Curry, Paul, Durant, Anthony, and others.  In the NFL, Drew Brees from the Saints has consistently been a union leader, but often its more common to see rank-and-file players in such roles and not the superstars.  This is a perfect example of a failure of leadership with the stars sending the message that they are more important that the rest of the players and that the contract and the union are something for the journeymen and not the big dogs.  The experience of leadership and understanding of the value of the union and its ability to protect them, allows them freer expressions individually where the weaker solidarity has isolated Colin Kaepernick in his NFL protests.

In team sports the value of the team itself is a constant refrain from the first time one plays ball throughout the professional ranks, but a team is about solidarity, just as a union is.  One NFL player after another in their short career speaks of their work as a business, rather than a team.  Michael Jordan during his NBA career set the same role model of me first, team whatever that dominates the NFL still.  The new leaders in the NBA have changed the culture of the sport, while the NFL has made a mockery of team proving that they need to learn something about solidarity from the basketball stars and their teams.  There’s a mountain of difference there.

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Basketball Needs to Hold the Line in North Carolina

New Orleans   North Carolina is arguably one of the most basketball crazy states in the country. I would hate to get in an argument about whether it is first or second, but right now as one of its premier teams, the University of North Carolina, is part of the NCAA’s Final Four, they are poised to dominate again. They aren’t alone of course. The NBA’s Hornets are in Charlotte. Duke is in Durham. Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky are all on the list, but North Carolina is basketball crazy for sure.

It also turns out that they are bathroom crazy. The hard right, Republican dominated state legislature last year became obsessed about bathrooms and transgender men and women and where they should go. Aided and abetted by a Republican governor willing and excited to put the state at the forefront of this new battleground in the national culture wars, they combined to create a law that required transgender individuals to go to the bathroom assigned to them by their birth certificate. You’ve heard of voter IDs that are so popular with conservatives, well this was an effort I guess to suppress urgent bodily needs, rather than lower income and minority voters, by requiring the equivalent of bathroom IDs.

We love our sports and our teams, goodness knows. But the price is often sitting and squirming in shame as they cheat, ignore the physical damage to the athletes, create billionaires and deride the fans, and too often allow and ignore the worst possible behavior imaginable with each other, with women, and whatever as part of their worshipful entitlements. Huge scandals about drug use in baseball and bicycling and now sexual abuse in gymnastics endure years of cover-ups damaging the sports for decades.

When it comes to political and social issues, usually these are seen as distractions and are forced out of the arenas and stadiums and suffocated in silence. The North Carolina conservative cabal must still be in a state of shock that somehow a cherry bomb must have been hidden in the toilet after they passed their bathroom bill and now it has blown up all over them, and it has been big time basketball, first the NBA, and then marching behind them the usually slow footed NCAA, that have done it by refusing to allow high prestige and high dollar sports events to be held in North Carolina. The NBA’s All Star game was suddenly moved to New Orleans recently. The NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference have refused to schedule playoffs or championship games in the state. Athletes have stood firm. Coaches have spoken out against the bathroom bill.

The Republican governor paid the price when Roy Cooper, the Democrat, won a heartbeat close election, campaigning on the lost revenue of $3 billion plus over the next dozen or so years and making the bathroom issue a central part of his campaign among other issues. The legislature has been unyielding and tried to punish the governor for winning in one hyper-partisan move after another.

Now they have announced that they have come up with a compromise to repeal House Bill #2 as the bathroom bill is known in Carolina. They are hoping it ends the boycott, but it shouldn’t. The governor agreed to a weak bill, because it was the best he could do, but basketball is stronger and needs to hold the line. The bill would not offer any protect against discrimination for transgender individuals even though supposedly opening bathrooms. The bill also blocks the ability of local municipalities, like Charlotte, from enacting better protections until after 2020.

The governor did his best, but doesn’t have the clout to do better, but better has to be done, and basketball has proven that it is strong enough to force change. The NBA and the NCAA need to hold the line here, and send a message to crazy Carolina that they will not allow profit and playoffs based on discrimination.

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