More Than A Game | English Columnist Kevin JS Lee
March. For basketball fanatics like myself, this is the month we’ve all been waiting for. March Madness, the biggest event in college basketball, starts today and all basketball fans across the nation have their eyes on the tournament. Anything can happen. Historical performances, broken brackets, and biggest upsets highlights this one month of basketball. Even after the madness ends, April brings us the NBA Playoffs, which just as, if not more, exciting as March Madness.
Today, basketball is the second most popular sport in the world after soccer. It generates about $4.75 billion a year in revenue. In the United States, football and the National Football League (NFL) is still the most popular sport but the National Basketball Association (NBA) is starting to take over as the league of America’s future. Obviously, it’s impossible to say that one sport is better than another. And it is by no means that the athletes in each respectable sport are superior to those of the other. However, statistically, basketball has been on the rise, while other sports have seen a decline*. Each sport has its own charm and appeal, but, as Kareem Abdul Jabbar** put it, “some are more inspirational, more exciting and more entertaining to the general public than others and those sports take on a symbolic meaning for Americans”.
Basketball has become just that- a symbolic representation of the American lifestyle. This is what made the NBA more inspirational to the American public. With a growing popularity and viewership, NBA players have more influence across the nation and the world. Jalen Rose, a former player and ESPN analyst, argued on ESPN First Take that the popularity of the players on social media “dwarfs” those of the NFL players. LeBron James alone has more followers on instagram than the top 5 most followed NFL players combined. This is no secret as the NBA players themselves acknowledge their spotlight. Stephen Curry claims that players “are actually doing stuff on the back end and using their platforms and their connections and their networks and money to actually (make a difference).” In a time of a political division and many protests, the NBA, as a league of predominantly African-American players (around 74.4% in 2015), and its players have not been shy of talking and protesting about the social and political events around them. On USA Today, Kareem claimed, athletes “want to fully embrace their responsibility as role models to children and representatives of their communities to speak out whenever America veers off the road paved by the US Constitution.” That is true for any sport, especially in the modern day, but the NBA, with its growing popularity, has been at the forefront of this demonstration.
The NBA has exhibited more freedom of speech compared to other professional leagues. From players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in response to Eric Garner’s death, or wearing hoodies for Trayvon Martin, the modern NBA players have been more active and outspoken about social and racial issues. Most importantly, these actions have been supported by coaches and owners from many different teams across the league. Gregg Popovich, a coach in the league, supported the movements and said the players have “the organization’s full support to speak their minds”. Stan Van Gundy, another coach, also described the players as “models of American patriotism”.
With the recent flare of political controversy in the United States, NBA players and teams have been more expressive against President Trump. It has always been a tradition for the championship team to be invited to the White House. However, the Warriors, who won the 2017 NBA Championship, declined the invitation and instead visited the African American history museum with local kids. With players expressing their stance, it’s no wonder the NBA has been increasing in popularity. Of course there may be many different factors to the rise but, the past five years in the NBA have seen many athletes protesting and taking a stance in social and political issues compared to those of the past. Whether it's simple but meaningful gestures such as linking arms during the anthem or using social media to express their concerns, NBA players have earned the praise and empathy of the American public. More recently in February, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, arguably the two best players in the league, both expressed discontent against the Trump presidency in an interview with Uninterrupted. The next day, Laura Ingraham, a Republican anchor, came on Fox News to bash LeBron James for making “uneducated” remarks and told them to just “shut up and dribble.” Despite the remarks by Ingraham, LeBron and many other athletes, took to social media and addressed her remarks claiming “we will not shut up and dribble” which led many other athletes to follow the #WeWillNotShutUpAndDribble” movement.
Of course the NBA isn’t the only sport like this. The NFL is also predominantly African American and also had many protests. In fact, NFL players can be seen as the pioneers of protesting in their sport. Led by Colin Kaepernick, the leader of this movement, many players, coaches and owners joined the protest by refusing to stand for the national anthem during a time of many social protests. Instead they would kneel to show their displeasure with the nation. However, the gestures were met with controversies, and many backed off from the movement once the protests affected ticket prices and TV ratings. According to Bloomberg, the prime-time NBA games and NFL games. Last year, the prime-time game, a game between the Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles, drew an overnight rating of 6.7, a 9% decrease from the average Monday night football. On the other hand, the NBA has been a 20% increase in their prime-time matches this past December.
As Dylan Gwinn stated in his article for Breitbart, the NBA’s way of protesting differs from an outright demonstration. While the individual players have “minced no words when it comes to their distaste for President Trump,...the NBA as a league has not made politics a part of their in-game experience”. NBA realized that kneeling during the anthem have been met with controversies and therefore implemented a rule stating that players must stand. While player have been outspoken, they, and the NBA, have found ways to demonstrate their disdain outside of the basketball game itself.
The NBA, and basketball as a sport, is increasing in popularity around the world. As many ESPN analyst and former NBA players predict, the NBA will soon take over as America’s sport in the near future. There are many factors to this. Football is a more physical sport that has raised many health concerns not just during the plays but also after retirement. However, with the growing popularity of the sport itself, the NBA players have also helped by drawing empathy and relating more towards the public. As I’ve mentioned before, the NBA isn’t the only league with players speaking up on these issues. However, the NBA league as whole, have been able to find the fine line between freedom of speech and basketball. The NBA has not restricted players from speaking out, but have implemented rules so that players won’t stir controversies. With the nation more visibly divided than before, sports can be one of the only place where people can come together despite their political views and cultural backgrounds. As basketball gains more spotlight, the players have more impact on the public than they have before. It is during times like this that players are becoming more than just basketball players. They are becoming role models not only us, but also for the future generations.
*Over the past five years, the popularity of football has went from 67% in 2012 to 57% in 2017. Baseball has over seen similar trends as the number of people who claimed to be fans of the professional sport declined by 2%. Only basketball, out of the four major professional sports in the States, has increased in fan base by 3%.
**An NBA legend and Hall of Famer who played in the NBA from 1969 to 1989.