Content warning: police brutality, sexual assault
“I CAN’T BREATHE” was seen written on the clothing around the league in late 2017, as the shirts of stars including Lebron James and Kobe Bryant quoted the last words of Eric Garner during his arrest and murder by New York police officers. Their actions were lauded by the sports media, and rightfully so, as these athletes made use of their platform to support an important movement.
Beyond the individual actions of players, NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, received media-wide commendation for his dramatic fining and expulsion of owner Donald Sterling for racist comments he made at LA Clipper’s games.
He similarly received adulation after moving the All-Star Game from North Carolina following the state’s passing of anti-transgender legislation.
The NBA has long held the mantle of one of the world’s most progressive sports leagues. A litany of examples offer evidence of an organisation that’s consistently at the forefront of issues of social justice and miles ahead of competitors like the NFL, whose owners recently blacklisted anthem protestor Colin Kaepernick.
However, it appears the league’s social awareness does not extend to issues of sexual assault.
It’s a poorly kept secret that the NBA has had numerous instances of high-profile stars face serious sexual assault charges.
Most notably, in 2004, league star Kobe Bryant was accused of rape by a 19-year-old hotel worker.
The case was eventually dropped more than a year later after the victim declined to testify, an unsurprising decision considering Kobe’s legal team’s relentless effort to publicly air her mental health and sexual history, and death-threats and hate mail from delusional Kobe fans.
Kobe apologised to the victim in a public statement, and then returned the next season to adoring crowds, an MVP award, and continued stardom on league’s most popular team.
He received a 7-year $136 million-dollar contract, sponsorships from Nike, Spalding, and Coke, and more than 15 years on he still holds an almost-mythical place in the basketball community.
He was forgiven, embraced, and lionised by the same community that now so valiantly stands together on issues of social injustice time and time again.
Kobe Bryant’s case does not exist in isolation.
Former MVP Derrick Rose was accused of participating in a gang-rape. While found not guilty, his testimony included the admission that the alleged victim never gave consent, and that he didn’t even know what consent was. He returned this season with a performance described as “an inspiring resurgence” by Forbes and was met with nothing but praise and adoration on fan forums and social media, including Lebron calling him a “superhero.” More recently, former LA Laker coach Luke Walton and Dallas Mavericks star Kristaps Porzingis have been accused of sexually problematic behaviour.
Undoubtedly, the NBA’s support for players taking important political stances is positive, especially relative to other sporting leagues both in America and globally. However, the fact that this support stops dead in its tracks when it comes to the sphere of sexual assault is worrying to say the least.
It suggests that there may be more insidious motivations behind the NBA’s seemingly “progressive” attitude than meets the eye.
The NBA wants to be seen as the alternative for sports fans repulsed by the conservative streaks of the NFL, MLB, and NHL. This selective approach is grounded in the NBA’s understanding that their profit margins are boosted by supporting only causes which have existing social capital amongst their fan base.
In the case of sexual assault (where many of its stars have a deeply troubling history) this social capital doesn’t exist.
Cutting ties with these athletes would do intolerable damage to the bottom line, and for that reason, the NBA chooses not to extend its supposed progressivism to this sphere.
Their selective support of particular social justice issues is something that continues to be problematic, and if the NBA truly wants to hold the mantle of America’s most progressive men’s sports league, it needs to call out its own problem.