Friday, August 28, 2020
Is the NBA Wokewashing?
Two weeks ago, I wrote about wokewashing and the board of directors. I discussed companies that tout their social justice credentials to curry favor with consumers but in fact treat their employees differently. I touched on the difference between companies jumping on the “anti-racism” bandwagon and those like Nike, which took an unpopular stand in 2018 by supporting Colin Kapernick, who at the time was considered a pariah for taking a knee during the national anthem. Some commentators predicted boycotts but in fact, Nike had a 31% increase in sales following the ad campaign. One sporting good store owner who publicly called for a boycott actually went out of business.
Four years after Kapernick took a knee, professional basketball, hockey, soccer, and tennis players took a walk protesting a police-involved shooting of a Black man. Although the Milwaukee Bucks spurred the walkout by refusing to play against the Orlando Magic in the playoffs on Wednesday, LeBron James reportedly led what could have been a season-ending strike of the West Coast teams. One hundred league staffers also temporarily walked off the job today in support. Michael Jordan, basketball legend and team owner, helped broker a deal for the NBA teams to resume play tomorrow (Saturday).
What does all of this have to do with business? According to Forbes, “since 2010, the average NBA team value is up nearly sixfold and growing at a much faster rate than the other three major U.S. sports leagues, thanks to strong international growth prospects and blockbuster media deals.” The NBA’s 30 teams generated over $8 billion in revenues and several teams are worth $4billion each. NBA players aren’t doing too badly either. LeBron James earns almost $40 million a year from the NBA but is worth almost $500 million from endorsements and other deals. Athletes and entertainers are big business -- as rapper/producer Jay-Z once sang, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”
Remember that store owner who went out of business after boycotting Nike products? He apparently realized that "being a sports store and not having Nike jerseys is kind of like being a milk store without milk or a gas station without gas." Being a sports league without marquee players is the same thing. Although the players received threats and vitriol, they chose to follow the example of the Bates 7 of NYU, Muhammad Ali refusing to go to VietNam, Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the Summer Olympics in 1968, the Boston Celtics in 1961, and countless others.
While some have argued that ball players should “shut up and dribble,” tennis legend Billie Jean King has stated that athletes must lead. No one complained when football player Aaron Rodgers took a stand on conflict minerals at the height of his playing career. But arguing for a law that prevents rape, murder, and child slavery isn’t really controversial. The Milwaukee Bucks did more than walk out. They apparently called the Wisconsin Attorney General from the locker room. The NBA players led and the NBA followed. League Commissioner Adam Silver stated that he supported the players, even though they initially took action without notifying the league or the union.
Is the NBA wokewashing? Not likely, even though NBA fans tend to be younger and more diverse than other sports fans. Today, the NBA and NBPA issued a statement promising to establish a social justice coalition to advocate for “meaningful police and criminal justice reform,” promote voting in ads, and work with cities to convert arenas into polling locations. Time will tell. I’m the mother of a Black 24-year old artist. He wouldn’t hurt a soul. But I worry every single day that he could be the next George Floyd or Jacob Blake. I thank the athletes who risked being “Kapernicked” or blacklisted. The NBA and other leagues know that if they don’t live up their commitments, they may not just lose fans, they’ll lose the game.