Out of the largest professional sports leagues in the world, the NBA is the most progressive.
They’re open to different people, different lifestyles and different opinions. They’ve openly shunned a racist owner. They accepted and supported Jason Collins when he came out openly as gay and have done the same for Billy Kennedy, who came out as gay after being called the “F word” by Rajon Rondo.
It was LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony who led the charge at the ESPYs this past year calling for togetherness and peace from everyone amid the killings of unarmed black people and police officers in the heat of summer.
This ain’t your dad’s NBA. This NBA does its best to enforce a culture of togetherness and openness that has never been seen in professional sports before. So when the Philadelphia 76ers canceled Sevyn Streeter’s performance of the national anthem in their home opening game last night because she was wearing a “We Matter” shirt, eyebrows were raised.
The team’s explanation was as follows:
The Philadelphia 76ers organization encourages meaningful actions to drive social change. We use our games to bring people together, to build trust and to strengthen our communities. As we move from symbolic gestures to action, we will continue to leverage our platform to positively impact our community.
Translation: This is about control. This is not an NBA employee or someone playing on a team taking a stance. Streeter is an independent entity. And that’s not good for the league’s public relations.
But since when was action against oppression about public relations? Change can only come from discomfort, which is clearly something the NBA is not trying to foster.
Since the Banana Boat crew made their plea for togetherness at the ESPY’s, the league’s stances on racism and social barriers have been action based. They want to get into communities and build bridges, which is all fine and good.
But what the league assumes here, and what makes what they did to Streeter so wrong, is that action and demonstration are separate. You can demonstrate with protest while taking action. And in some cases, demonstration can actually be considered action.
In trying to make everyone feel comfortable, [the NBA] has alienated its black audience to a point of discomfort.
By denying Streeter her ability to perform, the 76ers effectively took away her right to do just that — take action. Sure, the 76ers requested she sing the national anthem in their venue and they should have control of the different variables in that situation.
However, given the current climate of race relations in our country, this denial sends a bad sign to the public. What it says is anyone affiliated with the league can only take action on the league’s terms, not their own. Which, in essence, means there is really no action at all.
One cannot be prepared for true protest or demonstration. The means by which absolute change can be acquired cannot be negotiated. Protest should not be comfortable. There can be no give and take when lives are on the table and people of a certain kind are being regarded as less than.
At the core of everything is this: There are a disproportionate amount of black lives lost at the hands of police in America and there are still rights that are denied to blacks in this country each and every day. Streeter recognizes that, just as many of the players in the league have —including the ones who stood on stage making a plea for togetherness at the ESPYs.
But for the NBA, that message runs contrary to what their plan of action currently is. The 76ers statement makes clear they believe Streeter’s message would alienate certain people. The message of “Black Lives Matter” is not a plea for peace, but rather the demand of acknowledgement. That demand makes people of a certain kind uncomfortable. The NBA does not want to make anyone uncomfortable. But since when does comfort foster change?
The NBA is a business that has to profit. “Black Lives Matter” alienates white people with their demands and alienating the most affluent and largest part of its fanbase is not great for business. But this begs the question — how progressive is the NBA actually?
I’d still call the league progressive. They’ve done a lot for the sports world in bringing it from this hyper-masculine, macho world to its current state of understanding and thoughtfulness.
Still, this is the same league that, under the guise of progressivism and thoughtfulness, could not find Jason Collins another job in the NBA after he came out. This is the same league that still mandates its players to stand during the national anthem because it’s the “appropriate thing” to do. This is the same league that sent out a memo to its players essentially stating that they’d like to negotiate their protest if they were planning any at all.
The league gave its players an avenue to do good work and help in communities around the nation, but at the same time it has taken away their voices, just like they did with Streeter, all in the name of comfort.
The league does not realize the power of demonstration when it comes to change. It’s a shame what the league did to Streeter. Not only because it silenced her, but in trying to make everyone feel comfortable, it has alienated its black audience to a point of discomfort.
The NBA has to realize that not every situation has a middle ground. The value of demonstration can create understanding behind the conversation it sparks. The two are not avenues that run parallel, but rather two roads that lead to the intersection of change.
If the NBA is going to allow its players and itself to create change, it cannot be negotiated. It cannot be tempered. It won’t be comfortable. And, most importantly, it cannot be silenced.