Do National Basketball Association (NBA) teams really support Black Lives Matter?

The role corporate voices play in presidential and congressional campaigns often goes unnoticed by much of the public. However, given the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the efforts of corporate voices were under more scrutiny come election season. Weeks of protest and a summer of racial reckoning led several companies to release public statements touting their support of Black Lives Matter and committing to action that would address institutionalized racism. Sure, we had been here before, experiencing periods of reflection after similar fatal incidents; but, this time seemed different. From Amazon, IBM, and Facebook to NASCAR, Adidas, and Nike, never before had we seen so many big-time corporate voices take a stand in the fight for racial justice in the United States. But was it genuine?

The National Basketball Association (NBA) has garnered much attention in recent years with regard to Black Lives Matter. Like many companies did in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the NBA and its member organizations communicated their anger and condolences. What made the NBA different from many other corporate entities during this time was that they already had programs in place to address social justice concerns. For example, take the league’s NBA Voices program, or other programs such as the Boston Celtics’ Playbook Initiative, and the Milwaukee Bucks’ Barbershop Mondays. Meanwhile, for the restart of their 2019-2020 season, Black Lives Matter was painted on the NBA courts and players were also allowed to replace their names on the back of their jerseys with league-approved social justice messages.

However, what if I told you that the same league that is considered to be leading on social justice also has team governors (formerly called owners) whose actions don’t really align with the messaging coming from the league and its teams? For instance, there was not a consensus from all of the NBA governors concerning Black Lives Matter being painted on the court, as revaled by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on his podcast [around 25:40]:

Not every owner in the NBA was enthusiastic about having ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the court. I know they all weren’t. Some are extremely supportive. Some less so. None of them publicly [critical].

In terms of the campaign, many of these same governors donated to Donald Trump, who has referred to Black Lives Matter as “thugs”“discriminatory”, “bad for Black people” and a “symbol of hate”, among other characterizations. Trump also called companies that support Black Lives Matter “weak” and that they are led by “weak people.” This would mean that he is criticizing the very same NBA governors who may have signed off on public statements in support of Black Lives Matter. John Gonzalez, a staff writer for The Ringer, highlighted the contradiction of governors sending one message with public statements but another with their giving:

“Some of the owners who purport to be allies in the fight against systemic racism and police brutality have also contributed massive amounts of money to Trump and the GOP [Grand Old Party], a president and a party that stand in direct opposition to a specific position the players want to see advanced—law enforcement accountability and reform…”

The Nation’s Dave Zirin further emphasized the contrast between statements versus reality in the NBA. In his article, he focuses on Detroit Pistons governor, Tom Gores, who recently resigned from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Board of Trustees. His resignation came after mounting pressure from people and organizations about his role in profiting off of prisoners and their families. Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, stated the following in response to the news: “As owner of Securus, Gores has exploited incarcerated people and their families — who are overwhelmingly Black and low-income — with exorbitant fees for prison phone calls.”

What’s more is that Securus was sued (and settled) for illegally recording 14,000 attorney-client conversations, providing these calls to police and prosecutors. It doesn’t stop with Gores, though. Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers), the Devos Family (Orlando Magic), James Dolan (New York Knicks), Tilman Fertitta (Houston Rockets), and Micky Arison (Miami Heat), among others have all given massive amounts to Donald Trump, the Republican Party and/or Trump super political action committees. EPSN and FiveThirtyEight did a breakdown of this giving across professional sports.

Yet, given the applause the NBA has received for their social justice efforts, it’s surprising that more attention has not been given to Gores and other team governors whose contributions are incongruent with messages coming from the league and its teams. These financial contributions and the means through which NBA governors underwrite their wealth should give us all reason to pause and ask critical questions. While public statements portray support of Black lives, their financial giving suggests otherwise. Yes, statements and current programs serve as great optics, but a look beyond the surface will keep observers skeptical as to whether the NBA’s efforts are authentic or merely social marketing.