In a digitized world that demands an almost cult of personality, the NBA provides. A game where individuals dominate is better built for it. This dates back to the 1960s, when Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson went against the grain with their never-ending march for civil rights and the rights of players, despite the potential negative effect it could have on their careers.
In recent years, however, the NBA as an organization has finally allowed those characters to flourish and given players the opportunity to be their honest selves.
Gone are the days of a racially motivated dress code in response to Allen Iverson’s sense of style. These days, Russell Westbrook usually looks like he walked through a tornado in a costume department and players like Kelly Oubre Jr. and J.R. Smith wear Supreme accessories on the court.
Would the NBA blackball a player for being politically outspoken, like the NFL? LeBron James called the president a bum on Twitter. It was the most retweeted tweet by an athlete in Twitter's almost12-year history. It also got 1.5 million likes and was the No. 7 most retweeted message of 2017.
There are people who think James shouldn’t speak his mind and shouldn’t be bigger than the NBA. The truth is, for the past 10 years, LeBron has been the NBA. He doesn’t quite have the raw commercial power of Michael Jordan, the second greatest athlete of the 20th century (all respect to Muhammad Ali), but he’s played a much bigger role as a cultural force in society.
Jordan is claimed to have once infamously said the reason he didn’t speak out on social issues was because “Republicans buy sneakers, too." In the past, the commercial brand took precedent over activism.
Today, James' outspokenness on social issues is his brand. During the 2016 ESPY Awards, he appeared with Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, four of the biggest stars of their generation, in a plea to end gun violence. In 2014, James wore an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt during warm-ups in solidarity with the protests over the death of Eric Garner. James brands himself as “just a kid from Akron.” James grew up knowing the odds of life were against him. It’s those challenges that make James and his story so singularly great.
The NBA is a league that lends itself to stories. More so than any other sport, there are heroes and villains. But those personalities extend off the court. People can resonate with the story of Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Greek-Nigerian immigrant who was born the son of refugees and shocked by the simple wonders of a smoothie. A man who plays with such fervid emotion that every block, euro-step and dunk where he seems to takes off from behind the free-throw line feels like his physical assertion that he willed his way to where he is now.
Today, America has politics intertwined in everything. It’s impossible to believe otherwise. And my generation does not just expect cultural figures to address it. We demand it. As of right now, the NFL probably thinks it's resolved the “issue” of anthem protests. There was a meeting with players and owners, where owners essentially agreed to donate money to charities of the players choice with the implied hopes of stopping the protests.
But something as complicated as race relations in America doesn’t have an easy solution, like donating to charity. And if the NFL continues to be as inflexible as it has about players having a voice, the league will find more and more people turning away from the touchdowns. Those people will instead be watching the greatest athlete of my generation throw down impossible dunks. And then after the game, using his Twitter to call the president a bum.