NBA cancels Election Day games to encourage voting and discourage protests

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the NBA was as political as an episode of “Saved by the Bell.” That is to say, not at all. A league that once punished players for being political — hello, Craig Hodges — now sometimes gives the impression that it’s a civic engagement organization where people play basketball. Consider NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s news this week that the league would cancel all games on Election Day, Nov. 8, to encourage people to go to the polls. Perhaps even more significantly, all 30 teams will play the night before and encourage public participation.

A league that once punished players for being political now sometimes gives the impression that it’s a civic engagement organization where people play basketball.

As the league said Tuesday, “The scheduling decision grew out of the NBA family’s focus on promoting nonpartisan civic engagement and encouraging fans to make a plan to vote during the midterm elections.” . None of this should be too surprising. In 2020, with no vaccine against Covid-19 and concerns about overcrowding at polling places, the NBA allowed its arenas to be used as voting centers. During that pandemic year, teams were playing in a bubble. in Orlando, Florida, also encouraged their supporters to register to vote.

The NBA, led by Silver, now has an established commitment to not being “just sports” and to modeling the primacy of elections in a country that is one of the few democracies in the world that does not make the day we do the our call votes as a national holiday. But this push for “nonpartisan political engagement” is also an effort by Silver to regain some control over the league’s political messaging.

An inability to maintain any kind of wall between sports and politics has characterized Silver’s tenure as NBA commissioner, a drastic departure from how things were under his predecessor and mentor, the late David Stern. In many ways, Silver exemplifies the quote from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” that “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” This mandate to use his league as an instrument of civic engagement was thrust upon Silver almost as soon as he ascended to the top of the league in April 2014. One of his first tasks was to respond to the leak of racist audio recordings of Donald Sterling, a stone-cold racist who was then the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. The players were preparing to boycott a playoff game in disgust, but Silver was able to appease the players and the union by doing something Stern would have been reluctant to do: force Sterling to sell his beloved franchise and leave the sport .

But this taste for politics and power only made a new generation of gamers more willing to be political, especially after the murder of Michael Brown in August 2014 and the continued growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, which electrified a generation of NBA players from superstar LeBron. James on the bench.

Silver, unlike some commissioners in other professional leagues, did not try to punish or punish blackball players for speaking out. Considering some of the league’s biggest stars were raising their voices, he really couldn’t. Instead, from the beginning, he tried to encourage and support the players, in part as a way to have some control over how they presented this activist, anti-racist, and polarizing perspective.

When players took the previously unimaginable step of going on a wildcat strike during the 2020 playoffs in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., Silver not only canceled all games, but immediately, with the help from some friends, they pushed the players to take all their anger and all their radical energy and move it away from work stoppages and polarizing protest and toward pro-voting.

Not scheduling games on election day provides political cover for players who don’t want to take controversial political positions but want to present themselves as engaged.

Not scheduling games on Election Day 2022 is best understood as part of that effort. It also provides political cover for players who don’t want to take controversial political positions but still want to present themselves as politically engaged.

Silver has proven politically adept at navigating these stormy waters. But there were times when he looked like a dove that fell on the back of a buck. Even if this dove is balanced on the wild horse, it should not be deceived into thinking that it is directing the mighty steed. “Non-partisan political engagement” and formally canceling games on election day is preferable to players canceling the games themselves out of disgust at racism and police violence.

The NBA is above all a multi-billion dollar global business with an eye always on public relations. To the extent that this campaign encourages voting, what Silver’s NBA is doing fits its pattern of engagement. But it should also be seen as a means to prevent players from voicing even more dissent.

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