It was a small imposition of authority by the NBA in the grand scheme of things, but a revealing one.
Over the summer, J.R. Smith, the oft-shirtless Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard, added a brand new tattoo to some of the few square inches of canvas available on his person. This time he went with a literal brand, inking the logo of the lifestyle and clothing company Supreme across the back of his right calf. The NBA refused to let this combination of self-expression and unpaid sponsorship go unpunished. Should Smith fail to cover up the logo while on the court, he’ll be subject to ongoing fines.
Smith isn’t alone. Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball has the logo of the Big Baller Brand, the company founded by his ur-sports dad, tattooed just above his right elbow. During the preseason, Ball avoided a fine by neatly concealing it with a square bandage.
Why is the NBA micromanaging players’ body art? Well, the NBA has a slew of corporate partners and advertisers, many of whom have their logos embossed directly on team jerseys. Per league rules, players rocking potentially conflicting trademarked imagery is a no-go, either via a tattoo or creative haircut. It could interfere with the direct flow of commerce, you see, and so the NBA won’t stand for it, even if it means making it perfectly clear that this business retains the final decision-making power over its employees’ skin.
Cold, hard financial realities aside, that’s still a terrible look for the NBA, which over the last half-decade has leaned into the skid of progressive politics. More to the point, the sport has been packaged as a place where #Resistance-minded folk who’ve grown weary of the NFL’s honking militarism and inherent brutality can park their entertainment dollars without sullying their conscience.
This, of course, is a branded lie. As the 2018-19 season kicks off tonight, what better way to celebrate than by letting go of the notion that a sports league is somehow woke. In reality, the NBA is a multi-billion-dollar entity whose sole motivation is profit, full stop. This should be self-evident and yet the myth is persistent and pervasive. A simple Google search results in article after article praising its commitment to progressivism. Even the NBA’s relaxed attitude toward social media and the sharing of gifs and highlights is framed as a form of progressive marketing.
The word in that sentence to concentrate on is the last one: marketing. As Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida told The Atlantic, the NBA has consistently received higher grades than all the other male major pro sports leagues when it comes to race- and gender-based diversity. They do so partly because such practices are viewed as a “moral imperative,” he said. But also, “[the NBA] was the first league to understand that diversity and inclusion are also business imperatives.”
Lapchick is right. The NBA’s target audience is both younger and concentrated in urban centers, groups that tend to skew left. Commissioner Adam Silver and a passel of NBA officials clearly took a gander at the demographics and churned through piles of market research before coming to the painfully obvious conclusion that a gauzy, snackable form of leftism, one that would broadly appeal to its customer base, was very much in the NBA’s best financial interests.
To be clear: Many NBA players now put their politics front and center—but beyond the now-retired Andrew Bogut, it’s hard to find a prominent and outspoken conservative in the league. This generation of players has taken a stand against police brutality, as have their WNBA brethren. They’ve spoken out against President Trump’s proposed Muslim ban and called for increased gun-control legislation. During the 2016 ESPYs, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony called on their colleagues to join the fight for a litany of social-justice issues. Odds are, the NBA will be the first major men’s league to boast a female head coach; and Jason Collins’ decision to come out while playing was hailed by the league. And that’s before we get to head coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, who will undoubtedly find themselves staring down a microphone to address any hot-button issue. (For those still clinging to the dream of a Pop/Kerr 2020 candidacy, it will never happen. Sorry.). But the players and the league as a whole should not be conflated.
It’s all well and good that the NBA, unlike, say, the NFL, doesn’t throw a conniption fit when LeBron calls the president a “bum” but as Albert Burneko noted at Deadspin, no league powered by an actual ideology would continue to work with a credibly accused rapist like Kobe Bryant. That they’ve done so is damning—a cynical cash grab aimed squarely at the hearts and minds of still-fervid Kobe stans.
I keep thinking back to an interview Malcolm Gladwell conducted with Silver way back in 2014 during the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. Before an eager throng of basketball cognoscenti, Gladwell asked the commish why it was a good thing the New York Knicks haven’t paid property taxes since 1982, a form of “corporate welfare,” he said, which has cost New York City over $400 million. Silver replied that the Knicks had recently undergone a billion-dollar renovation of Madison Square Garden. This “spectacular show palace,” as he described the arena, directly had an “economic impact” which could make losing out on $50 million per year worthwhile. Gladwell’s eyes practically rolled back into his head. Unlike Silver, he wasn’t willing to peddle the shameful fiction that public money spent on sports stadiums accomplishes anything beyond lining the pockets of team owners. It’s a grift, according to every economist not on a team’s payroll.
Unsurprisingly, this so-called progressive league has stood back and watched while owners have crammed through stadium-funding scams in cities like Milwaukee, Atlanta, Detroit, Sacramento, and Cleveland, municipalities that can’t afford to keep giving freebies to billionaires. Nor would a truly progressive league continue to suborn the wage suppression of college basketball players and fudge the numbers while insisting that teams aren’t earning money hand over foot. It would pay minor leaguers a living wage and have a union that didn’t cave to ownership in exchange for a slightly higher percentage of revenue (and that agreement was largely seen as a win in comparison to the drubbing the NBPA received in 2011). Even when they agreed to fund an expanded mental health program, the NBA still demanded access to players’ mental health records.
It’s worth recalling when the NBA’s progressive marketing campaign actually began. For decades, politically active former greats like Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar advocated for social justice causes and railed against systemic racial inequalities, while the league itself built a firewall between sports and politics. That such a barrier could be erected at all was itself a form of willful blindness, but in 2014, the blinders came off. TMZ published audio tapes in which Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers’ reptilian slumlord of an owner, unpacked his full bigoted thoughts to his then-mistress.
Silver banned him for life and forced his now ex-wife to sell the team—but not for the decades Sterling had spent pursuing nakedly racist housing practices and treating the team as if it were a plantation, with black bodies put on display for his amusement. Rather, he was given the boot because players threatened to hold a wildcat strike in the middle of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Rich DeVos, who pumped millions into the coffers of deeply homophobic hate groups, remained an NBA owner in good standing until his passing in September.
Since then the NBA has given players enough freedom and personal license, particularly when it comes to political expression, while downplaying both its and league owners’ actual political behavior. Like Nike’s Colin Kaepernick-centric ad campaign, it’s an effective branding strategy and not a political ethos, one that would be chucked into the bin the instant the NBA had an inkling it could earn a dollar more by donning a MAGA hat. It makes you wonder why the league hasn’t torn up its antiquated National Anthem policy which requires players to stand, just to hear the shouts of “yas kween slay.” (The policy was created in 1996, when then-Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf chose to remain in the locker room during the anthem. Abdul-Rauf received death threats and his home was torched. Then the NBA blackballed him, according to Abdul-Rauf.)
It’s fine, though. Really. You can enjoy Giannis Antetokounmpo'sdownright rude flouting of the laws of gravity, or James Harden’s dancerly feints and jab-steps, or the Golden State Warriors’ near-certain third straight title without demanding that the NBA itself aligns with your political beliefs. Kitty-corner enough of your ethical concerns and you can flop down on a couch on the weekend—like I often do—and enjoy twelve hours’ worth of NFL or NCAA football. This, too, is fine.
There will come a moment during the NBA season—multiple moments, in all likelihood—when our big soggy president will say something ghoulish or mind-numbingly stupid (or both) while cribbing a few white supremacist talking points from 4chan. LeBron and any number of the NBA’s brightest lights will undoubtedly clap back. Squint hard enough and maybe you can squeeze out a drop of optimism here: If a brand has crunched all the available data and determined that soft progressivism is profitable, maybe there’s a glimmer of hope to be found. Still, there is no more grim condemnation of late-period capitalism than believing the consumption of a particular product serves to buffer anyone’s political bona fides.
But the brands are not your friend, and they are certainly not a comrade ready to take up arms in a political struggle. Depend on them at your peril. J.R. Smith, at least, seems to get it.
When asked if he’d gotten any NBA officials on the blower to see if there was any wiggle room vis-à-vis his tattoo, he said: “I don’t talk to the police. That doesn’t do anything for me.”