The most powerful live TV moment during an NBA broadcast this week didn’t come when 21-year-old phenom Luka Dončić made history with a buzzer-beating deep three-point shot to become the youngest player to score a 40-point triple-double in the playoffs.
It actually happened about 30 minutes into NBA TV’s broadcast of a first-round game five between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic that was no longer going to happen due to a players strike.
Former NBA player Jim Jackson, the on-air analyst who was supposed to offer in-game commentary, instead reacted in real time to news of the Bucks’ protest against police brutality, spurred on by last weekend’s police shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. By sharing his own experiences of discrimination as a Black man in America. Jackson instead spent what would have been gametime speaking about the deep roots of historical racism in the United States, what it’s like to be racially profiled while shopping, and the experience of talking to his son about how to de-escalate situations with potentially violent police officers.
“Why should I have to even put myself in that situation where he’s fearful and not being respectful of law enforcement?” he said, adding later: “It’s always difficult as a Black father, as a minority father, the things that you have to impart to your children early on in their life.”
Indeed, what began as standard televised pre-game vamping over an hour’s time had bubbled over into a discussion across sports broadcasts about racism, police brutality, and the nature of activism in America.
Professional sports and politics are often (wrongly) portrayed as two mutually exclusive worlds with rare overlap, but the Trump-versus-Kaepernick era has made clear that it is impossible to view them as separate. The result has been that sports reporters, commentators, color analysts, and their corporate overlords are now forced to wrestle—often awkwardly and very publicly—with how much they can discuss the political stories that have engulfed professional sports, and what the proper tone should be.
Since the beginning of the NBA restart’s bubble in Orlando—which was conceived amid nationwide uprisings over the police killing of George Floyd earlier this summer—the league and its partners’ on-air personalities have struck a careful balance. Players’ uniforms were emblazoned with political slogans pre-approved by the league, “racial justice” pins were sported by coaches, and vague videos were broadcast about social change with brief on-air discussions about the politics of our moment, and the NBA’s role in bringing attention to racial injustice.
But Wednesday’s broadcasts, many of them on TNT, which was set to host the night’s slate of games, went far deeper.
In the raw, unscripted, and largely unplanned moments, some of the most high-profile on-air sports figures paid respect to the striking players and took their actions a step further, sharing personal anecdotes, and expressing their anger and frustration about racism in America.
Chris Webber, a former player and current analyst on TNT, appeared Wednesday evening on Inside the NBA, and seemed to get choked up while offering an at-times rambling but heartfelt declaration of support for the striking NBA players and their call to end police violence against Black men.
“We understand it’s not going to end, but that doesn’t mean you don’t do anything,” he said. “Don’t listen to these people telling you don’t do anything because it’s not going to end right away. You are starting something for the next generation to take over.”
Just minutes after speaking to CNN about the strike and cancellation of games, Kenny Smith, a former player and current co-host of Inside the NBA, walked off the TNT set in solidarity with the players—a move that went viral almost instantly, further bringing attention to the issue.
Former Los Angeles Lakers star Robert Horry seemingly choked up on Spectrum SportsNet as he recalled telling his sons how to act if they encounter law-enforcement officials. Other broadcasters with limited airtime used their brief moments on camera to send a message: Yahoo Sports reporter Chris Haynes appeared on television wearing a “Black is Dope” face mask and a black tee shirt reading “All We Ever Did Was Be Black.”
In the aftermath of the players’ strike—which ended Friday with an agreement for the league to be much more aggressive in promoting civic engagement and voting access—TNT analyst and former coach Stan Van Gundy lived up to his reputation as one of the more explicitly political voices (throughout the coronavirus pandemic, he has frequently used his Twitter account to criticize the Trump administration’s blunderous response).
On Wednesday and Thursday, Van Gundy tweeted in support of his colleagues speaking up on the air and in support of the players’ actions: “There are no blue lives. There are no blue people. Being a police officer is the job they chose,” he wrote. “It is a public job, paid for by us. It is the civic responsibility of the people to hold public officials accountable. Protesting against police brutality is not hating police.”
Elsewhere, the basketball analyst lambasted Fox News primetime host Tucker Carlson for defending Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old vigilante who shot and killed two protesters earlier this week.
In a telephone interview with The Daily Beast, Van Gundy said that while he largely does not see many people in the media bubble besides his coworkers and his brother—ESPN analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy, who he meets for a walk every morning—this week’s cancellations offered a somewhat rare opportunity for some of the rival broadcast teams to come together, discuss the issues, and share on-air moments that moved them.
Generally, the major sports networks trade off national broadcast nights, making inter-media meetups in the Orlando media bubble rare. But with the games and national broadcasts on hold, some on-air talent were able to spend more time together and discuss the almost-surreal events of the past several days.
“Chris Webber was on the bus going back [to the media bubble], and a lot of people were talking to Chris about how their phones were blowing up from people they knew about how great it was,” Van Gundy said.
Many of the broadcasters were able to draw on their own personal experiences to speak openly about the political issues that now consume the sports leagues.
Van Gundy, who is white, said his perspective was informed by his years of coaching in a predominantly Black league, hearing stories of players and staff experiences as Black people in America. But he also continued to do his homework: During the hiatus, following the league’s suspension in mid-March, the NBA coaches association allowed him to sit in on group calls where they discussed the current state of racial politics in America. Van Gundy heard from various speakers like Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, as well as representatives from the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit which aims to end mass incarceration and racial disparities in the justice system.
And it seems as though non-sports networks have taken notice of the intense interest in the role sports now plays in shaping public political conversations. On Friday, CNN announced that Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green has joined the network as a paid contributor, speaking about issues affecting the sports world and current events.
Green’s addition to a cable-news network heavily focused on politics further closes the door on an era where pro athletes are expected to remain politics-free. “Shut up and dribble,” right-wing Fox News host Laura Ingraham commanded of LeBron James several years ago, echoing the reactionary, often right-wing criticism of athletes getting involved in social justice causes in recent years.
But now it is quite clear that pro athletes and the booming-voiced broadcasters who cover their games are no longer afraid to take stands that may alienate their “stick-to-sports” viewership who may prefer not to hear painful truths about racial injustice and police brutality in the United States.
“They just don’t want to hear anything from people they don’t like,” Van Gundy said of such critics, adding: “What these people are really saying is athletes shouldn’t speak out. And let’s be sure we understand that saying ‘Shut up and dribble’ is: Black people should shut up. There’s a racial undertone to it.”