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In new-style athlete activism, NBA leads the way

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Stephen Curry’s pointed response to Under Armour boss Kevin Plank’s praise of Donald Trump solidifies the league as a trailblazer on social-justice issues in professional sports, and lifts the Warriors to the role of exemplars.

Stephen Curry (left) and Steve Kerr (right) take their serious faces off the court.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Golden State of Mind's Nate Parham said it best: “The NBA is becoming the No Bullshit Association.”

Warriors’ star guard Stephen Curry certainly didn’t mince words after learning that Under Armour’s Kevin Plank sang the praises of Donald Trump, calling him an “asset” to the nation.

“I agree with that description — if you remove the ‘et’,Curry said. In other words, he called Donald Trump an “ass.”

No bullshit, indeed.

Athletes in most major sports have shied away from taking stances on political or social-justice issues. There’s a lot of money at stake — from player contracts to endorsement dollars — and no one wants to ruin their career over a comment mumbled to a media scrum or sent via 140-character tweet.

For athletes, whose careers are typically short-lived, the concern is understandable. Yet, while other professional sports leagues remain stone-cold silent on pressing issues of the day — or even censor their players through financial penalty or unspoken intimidation — the NBA has gone in the completely opposite direction, taking the concept of corporate responsibility to a new level.

The Chris Paul effect

It wasn’t long ago that David Stern, perhaps best known for impeding a Chris Paul trade to the Lakers, ruled the NBA with an iron fist. The league had taken over the Hornets which, as expected, led to many conflicts of interest. As Donald Trump is finding out now, conflicts of interest make terrible business sense and usually tend to backfire. Just ask the Nordstrom executives who are smiling today about the positive effects of his mal-intentioned meddling in support of his daughter’s business interests (which is, indeed, a conflict of interest for a president).

In the Paul case, Stern wanted to keep the star player in New Orleans to support the smaller-market team, while Paul had the right as a grown man in a free society to go elsewhere. Stern’s heavy-handed approach gave rise to chatter about the racial context of a white boss dictating the decisions of a black player — slave owner and slave.

People often dismiss this line of thinking because of the obvious: Chris Paul, like all superstar players, are millionaires. But the dynamics of owner-player roles can still feel oppressive, thanks to our country’s rich history of oppression and slavery.

When Chris Paul finally made it to Los Angeles — as a Clipper, not a Laker — race-based issues greeted him in sunny CA. By this time, David Stern had handed over the commissioner reins to Adam Silver, who had very different ideas about the tone he wanted to set with players — a likely result of having witnessed the unpleasant fallout of Stern’s domineering style.

So, when former Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling was recorded using racial slurs to describe African Americans, and the media outside of LA caught wind of the many discrimination lawsuits that had been filed against his apartment leasing company by black and brown people, and stories emerged of other discriminatory incidents that occurred with players, coaches and staff throughout Sterling’s rule over the Clippers, Silver acted swiftly.

Commissioner Silver was socially aware enough to realize a team made up primarily of African-American men simply could not work for an owner who secretly called them “n*ggers” behind their backs. In any workplace, Sterling’s behavior would have been considered harassment, discrimination or intimidation and, therefore, subject to legal action. If it wouldn’t fly in an office in Anywhere, USA, it shouldn’t fly on a professional sports team either.

Clippers’ players and Coach Doc Rivers had taken a stand as well, threatening to stop playing games if Sterling was not ousted. There was talk by other teams of joining their NBA brethren in a work stoppage. But, thanks to Silver’s organizing of team owners against Sterling to push him out of the league, it didn’t come to that.

Not only did Silver’s actions in the Sterling debacle avert a crisis, they demonstrated to everyone — players, coaches and fans alike — that a new sheriff was in town, and that his tenure as NBA commissioner would differ greatly from that of his predecessor.

No bullshit here.

And no cowards either

Adam Silver’s actions against Donald Sterling were impressive to many. However, as the new NBA commissioner, no one really knew if this was a moment or a movement, whether he took those actions solely to build a positive rapport with players, which Stern never seemed to even strive for, or if he was committed to issues of social justice.

The answer came in July 2016 when Silver announced the league’s decision to move the NBA All-Star Game from Curry’s hometown of Charlotte in protest over North Carolina’s HB2 law, which discriminates against transgender citizens. This move certainly didn’t sit well with those who support the law, but Silver was clearly ready to double down on using his platform as commissioner of a billion-dollar sports league to promote justice and equality at every turn.

Some would call Silver’s actions “risky,” or a “gamble.” But wouldn’t it have been more of a risk or gamble not to promote justice and equality in a league where 74.4% of players identify as black or African American, 23.3% identify as white, and a league-record 101 players come from 37 other countries?

Add in that the league now has its first female assistant coach in the Spurs’ Becky Hammon, female referees, a now-retired openly gay player and an openly gay referee (who came out after being called a homophobic slur by Rajon Rondo), the mandate for inclusion is clear, and the league is on the right side of history in fostering equal rights for all — not just in its locker rooms and executive offices, but in the communities in which the teams have the privilege to play.

The effect of the league having a commissioner committed to justice/equality issues has been an opening of the floodgates for coaches and players to exercise their First Amendment rights to speak on important topics in interviews and via social media — to draw attention to matters that are much bigger than basketball.

Within the last year, Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr has been no stranger to speaking his mind on a host of issues, including:

As for Golden State players, the following have seized opportunities to engage in this new-style, often media- and social media-driven athlete activism:

But it was Curry’s most recent comments about Trump — and a sincere expression of concern about his Under Armour boss’s support for a president most of the world opposes due to “controversial policies and comments that have [enraged] women, Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans and the impoverished across the nation” — that set a new standard for the National Basketball Association being the No Bullshit Association.

Curry is the reigning two-time MVP, NBA champion and current face of the league. He is a devout Christian and devoted husband and father to beautiful wife, Ayesha, and adorable daughters Riley and Ryan, respectively. If you left this guy alone in a room with a wallet stuffed with big bills, when you returned, it would still be there — untouched. This isn’t because he is rich and has enough money for a lifetime, it is because of his character, which is motivated by family and community over self, and concern for others.

In fact, this is so not about money that Curry has not ruled out fleeing Under Armour if he comes to feel that the company does not have his best interests in mind or support his “core values,” stating:

“If there is a situation where I can look at myself in the mirror and say they don’t have my best intentions, they don’t have the right attitude about taking care of people … If I can say the leadership is not in line with my core values, then there is no amount of money, there is no platform I wouldn’t jump off if it wasn’t in line with who I am.”

Alert: bullshit-free zone here, too.

“Occasion demands speaking out”

Mahatma Gandhi stated that people are cowards if they remain silent when “occasion demands speaking out.” Clearly, Curry, Kerr, other Warriors’ players, Adam Silver, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich and others affiliated with the NBA feel our society is faced with dire circumstances, and deem them to be such an occasion.

What could be so urgent that Curry, who for most of his career skirted political topics in interviews, would speak so boldly and, yes, put his career and endorsement-gaining potential on the line?

Politics aside (the following would be true whether the person occupying the Oval Office is a Republican or Democrat), the United States of America now has as its leader a person who:

  • has condemned entire groups of people as being bad or dangerous, specifically Mexicans and Muslims;
  • enforced an immigration ban on Muslims on the premise that all people of the Islamic faith are potential terrorists — which is keeping an Oscar nominee away from the Academy Awards ceremony and has interfered with a child’s ability to enter the country for surgery on his badly burned face;
  • refuses to condemn an actual terrorist act — the slaying of Muslims at a mosque in Quebec by a white man purporting to have committed the crime in the name of Donald Trump;
  • has zero political experience, a limited understanding of the Constitution and very little insight into how the three branches of government are supposed to work;
  • is saddled with many conflicts of interest involving his businesses and those of his relatives;
  • repeatedly demeans women and has bragged about sexually assaulting women;
  • states and repeats outright lies that can be and are refuted easily with credible evidence;
  • stereotypes all African Americans as living in inner city, crime-infested ghettos;
  • recently settled a lawsuit for millions of dollars to students who were defrauded out of thousands of dollars at his fake Trump University;
  • refuses to show his taxes to prove he is as wealthy as he claims to be;
  • in response to the police killings of unarmed African American men who were stopped for minor traffic violations, and the Black Lives Matter movement, affirmed only that he would be the “law and order president”;
  • has several pending lawsuits against him;
  • has filed for bankruptcy several times on crumbling businesses;
  • believes LGBTQ people should be denied basic human rights;
  • filled his cabinet with billionaires and admitted white nationalists who are out to protect only one segment of society; and
  • has the temperament and impulsivity of a petulant child and access to nuclear codes that could end civilizationas in, kill every living thing on the planet, including himself and everyone who voted for him.

No matter the political party the candidate came from, these should be crisis points for all Americans. Had a Democrat been elected with the same baggage, who posed the same direct threat to the safety and well-being of entire segments of the population, many Democrats with basic reasoning skills would oppose that administration in support of country over party.

So, this isn’t about politics — but humanity, empathy and compassion. It is about ethics, morals and basic issues of right and wrong. Many Trump supporters claim to believe in these values because of their Christian faith. It’s just too bad that their actions do not match up with their supposed beliefs.

As Trump aims to turn his presidency into a regime, and clamps down on anyone critical of him, his administration or his administration’s corruption, many in society — from the ACLU and NBA, to average citizens — are doubling down with resistance, choosing to uphold true American values, like compassion for others.

Lest we forget

The United States was founded by immigrants from Europe who came to this land in search of a better way of life. In many cases, they were fleeing strident British rule and religious oppression. But colonization of the United States came at the expense of those already here — Native Americans. Thus, to make American great again, we’d need to go back to the time before the colonizers stole the land from the people who were native to this land. Clearly, this approach of stealing the land we now call the United States of America did not get the country off on the right foot. (And the present-day events at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation serve as a bleak reminder of the nation’s founding and its history repeating.)

Knowing the country was founded by those escaping harm and seeking a better life, the forefathers deemed open entry a core value of the nation. In the late 1800s, Emma Lazarus wrote a poem that encapsulates this ideal. It includes the lines:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Surely, Muslim refugees from war-torn countries fall into the description of those who should be welcomed through “the golden door.”

Finally, this is the allegiance American citizens are to pledge and stand by:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Indivisible, rather than divided.

Liberty, rather than oppression.

Justice for all, not just for some.

Members of the Golden State Warriors’ organization and the NBA at-large have shown themselves to be exemplars in upholding and promoting the great American values that were laid down centuries ago. It would be excellent if our government did the same. And if the league, players and the writer of this article are viewed as peddling a bunch of “liberal” hogwash, then perhaps it’s time to look in the mirror to figure out why decency and compassion are politicized and opposed, because neither is a political concept.

Better yet, visit the graves of Minister Francis Bellamy (who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892), William Maxwell Evarts (who commissioned Emma Lazarus in 1883 to write the poem “New Colossus” for the base of the Statue of Liberty) and, Lazarus, herself (who wrote the poem based on her own experiences as a Jewish immigrant of Portuguese descent) — and have it out with them.