The NBA, set to play the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte, North Carolina, has been at the center of debates about whether companies should move their business out of the Tar Heel State. The pressure for businesses to flee has been sparked by recent legislation aimed at codifying discrimination against LGBT people, with a particular focus of the transgender community.
The face of the NBA is coincidentally enough, Charlotte’s favorite son, Steph Curry. And sure enough, he has been asked repeatedly to comment on the legislation. After initially declining to weigh in, Curry said the following:
I knew I would be asked about my views on the situation in North Carolina and potential ramifications on next year’s All-Star Game in Charlotte, which I hope can be resolved. While I don’t know enough about the North Carolina law to comment more fully, no one should be discriminated against. My faith and beliefs have always been the bedrock of my life. As a Christian, I am taught that we are all equal in the eyes of God. So I treat everyone the way I want to be treated—fairly, justly and equally. I hope that is how we all treat each other.
Some have already described these words as “neutral” or “tepid” or “blah.” One site suggested that “he bricked it.” I would argue that these analyses miss something crucial: Curry’s words stand as a tribute to a movement that has refused to let LGBT and particularly trans people be the new demons—the “unwed mothers,” the “welfare queens,” the “crack babies”—of the religious right. People expecting straight athletes—particularly male athletes—to lead LGBT struggle are living in a fantasy land. They won’t lead, but they can be led, and make no mistake about it: Steph Curry is being led.
The starting point for understanding why Steph Curry’s soft condemnation matters is his current place in the pop-cultural firmament.
As the Golden State Warriors stand on the brink of a record breaking 73-9 record, it is worth noting Curry’s meteoric rise in stature both on and off the court. Most NBA stars—think LeBron James or Kevin Durant—had marketers and sneaker-pimps drooling before these hoop-gods were old enough to see R-rated movies. Curry, in his mid-20s, has traveled the distance from little-known three-point specialist—with a first name that Nike mispronounced while trying to sign him as an endorser—to a true king. He’s a prospective back-to-back MVP and ratings gold. According to an analysis for Morgan Stanley, he is worth an estimated $14 billion to his upstart sneaker sponsor, Under Armour, a company that before Steph was best known for form-fitting shirts. A player who can barely dunk has become, in terms of cultural capital, the closest thing we’ve seen to fellow North Carolinian Michael Jordan.
Given all of this, it was not surprising that Curry’s first words on North Carolina’s law were milquetoast. There are now corporate pressures on Curry to be the bland pitchman of advertisers’ dreams. Add to that the fact that Steph Curry is a Pentecostal Christian whose church in Charlotte, North Carolina, houses a preacher, as reported by Bob Silverman for Vocativ, who rails against “the homosexual lifestyle” and said that the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down bans on same-sex marriage made him “so sick on my stomach.” Lastly, there is the fact that the 2017 game in Charlotte is supposed to be Steph Curry’s hero’s homecoming.
All of this makes Steph Curry saying something progressive about as unlikely as the point guard dunking from the foul line.
That is why his comments that “no one should be discriminated against” matter. These are powerful words, certainly stronger than anything Michael Jordan ever said about anything. I disagree strongly with the Sporting News analysis of his comments, which read, “No matter how Curry answers those questions, he won’t win. There will always be someone who doesn’t agree or says Curry is wrong. For now, all he can do is maintain neutral ground.”
What poppycock. There is nothing “neutral” about a Pentecostal NBA player with a massive platform going against his church and saying “no one should be discriminated against.” In fact, doing so is useful for North Carolina NAACP leader the Reverend William Barber, who is calling for sit-ins in the state capital against HB2 and attempting to build a movement of solidarity linking LGBT issues with black civil rights.
Maybe it’s not Charles Barkley or Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy calling for the All-Star Game to be moved out of Charlotte. But I would also argue that the words of Steph Curry matter a hell of a lot more, especially to young people. And above all else, they are a tribute to the work done by LGBT activists and allies. The politicians of North Carolina, in attacking trans people in particular, misjudged the amount of groundwork built by LGBT people to fight this kind of garbage. As Bill Clinton is learning this week, the 1990s are over. In 2016, Pentecostal superstars call for the end of codified discrimination. It’s getting better.