Anyone hoping to see political protest on Tuesday night at the start of the NBA season turned off their televisions in a state of disappointment. Some teams did link arms during the anthem, a gesture whose significance was explained by Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra in the following way: “We felt as a basketball team that we would do something united, so that was our focus.” If that sounds like depoliticized mush that mentions nothing about black lives or police accountability, well, that’s the point.
The NBA has long branded itself as the NFL and MLB’s more politically conscious cousin: the “woke” sports league. Yet, as the Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg said a century ago, “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”
The one person on opening night who did “move” was not a player but the singer of the national anthem in Philadelphia. Her name is Sevyn Streeter and she was going to take the court wearing a jersey that simply said, “We Matter.” Somehow that was too controversial for the 76ers organization. They prevented her from taking the court, quickly giving the singing duties to one of the team dancers. Speaking to the Associated Press, Streeter said, [T]wo minutes before we were about to walk out…the organization told me that I could not wear my shirt…. I was never given any kind of dress code. I was never asked beforehand to show my wardrobe…. I was angry, extremely, extremely angry, and disappointed and honestly brought to tears by all of it. It broke my heart. Honestly, I was very excited about being able to perform the national anthem. I was really looking forward to that…I also felt it was important to express the ongoing challenges and ongoing injustice we face as a black community within the United States of America—that’s very important to me. Yes, we live in the greatest country in the world, but there are issues that we cannot ignore.
In response, the 76ers wrote the following in a press release:
The Philadelphia 76ers organization encourages meaningful actions to drive social change. We use our games to bring people together, to build trust and to strengthen our communities. As we move from symbolic gestures to action, we will continue to leverage our platform to positively impact our community.
This statement was similar to the corporate boilerplate language that we have also heard from league Commissioner Adam Silver about facilitating any kind of community action that players might want to do, as long as they keep it off the court. In a letter co-signed by Michelle Roberts of the NBA Players Association, they wrote, “Working together, [the league and the union] have begun developing substantive ways for us to come together and take meaningful action.”
Later, after rumored complaints by team members about the treatment of Streeter, the 76ers apologized and issued the following statement:
We are sorry that this happened. After receiving feedback from our players, basketball operations staff and ownership group, we believe that the wrong decision was made, and Sevyn should have been welcomed to sing. We apologize to her, and in an effort to move the conversation forward, we have reached out to offer her an opportunity to return and perform at a game of her choice. We are waiting to hear back.
The NBA is trying, in the words of Matt Moore at CBS Sports, to “support the players, but also…prevent incidents that could harm their image or sponsor relationships.”
In other words, players can be political all they want as long as it is on their own time and as long as it’s clear who controls the court. The NBA was clearly concerned that the multiracial WNBA anthem protests over the summer would travel like an electrical current into their league and—in conjunction with the union—moved swiftly to stamp out any kind of on-court action beyond “everyone linking arms” while both maintaining their “woke league” bona fides and keeping their corporate sponsors content. If you have ever been to an NBA game, you know that, in addition to the breathtaking physical poetry of the greatest athletes on earth, you are bombarded with corporate branding. It seems there is not an inch of space that isn’t designed to sell something. But Adam Silver has long been interested in taking it to the next level by festooning the players’ jerseys with even more corporate logos. It would be like Nascar except instead of branding cars, the brands will be worn by a league that is 75 percent black. This “revenue stream” idea is also deeply problematic in the current political moment. One doesn’t exactly have to be Elijah Muhammad to see the antebellum overtones of “branding” black bodies while censoring their political voice.
In a recent interview with Howard Bryant, one of the most political athletes in this extremely political season, Carmelo Anthony, said the following: “The NBA is very supportive. They want to team up with us and be behind it, but at the end of the day it’s still a corporation, so there’s only so far that they’re going to let you go. And one gesture’s not going to change anything. So regardless of if we stand out there and put our arms around each other to show unity and solidarity, on the flip side, at the moment somebody goes out there and puts their fist up, that’s going to be something different.”
He’s absolutely correct, and that is the point. The question of police accountability and whether this country values black lives will be won outside the arena by thousands of grassroots activists. It won’t be achieved by NBA players’ meeting with police chiefs and doing NBA Cares community service. Yes, it would be brilliant to see athletes as part of that grassroots struggle, but their value to the movement—as Colin Kaepernick has shown—is precisely those on-court anthem gestures that amplify struggle, disrupt the apolitical entertainment of white fans, and directly confront their corporate overlords. These gestures contain actual risk—just as people in the streets of Charlotte who confront tear gas and rubber bullets are engaging in actual risk—and that’s what makes them matter. Again, “those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” It would be an education for both fans and the NBA’s own professed beliefs that players should have a voice, if the players test just how far their chains can stretch until they break.