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May 31, 2020

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For too long, the league was interested in making itself palatable for a white audience. Under Adam Silver it is listening to its black players

If there is one thing clear about the current NBA, it is that it is no longer the league of David Stern. As a businessman, the league’s former commissioner was a visionary, building a booming operation that now reaches around the globe. But on social issues he stumbled, creating policies that almost seemed designed to make a league of mostly African American players appear palatable to a white audience.

It was Stern, after all, who 11 years ago created professional sports’ first sideline dress code that he called “business casual”. It came at a time when a phrase thrown around the league was “middle-class values,” which was basically code for “white values”. And while many of those using these words would never consider themselves to be tone deaf to the struggles of people of color, their zeal to keep the money machine going clouded a deeper social understanding.

Who knows how Stern would have handled today’s climate of athlete activism. Perhaps he would have embraced the actions of players such as Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. Times are different and Black Lives Matter has given many sports stars a voice they lacked a decade ago. But the current commissioner, Adam Silver, does appear to understand his players. The culture that he is creating around the NBA is one of tolerance and openness rather than catering to white corporate interests. A glimpse into his thinking came early in his tenure when he moved quickly to force out Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after Sterling was recorded making racist comments. There was a strong sense around the NBA that Stern would not have done the same.

Now the first sports league to introduce business casual has become the first pro sports league to open a conversation with their players about issues such as police shootings and racial inequality. On Wednesday the NBA and NBA Players Association sent a letter to their players saying they want a discussion about the problems raised by Anthony, James, Wade at the ESPYs this summer.

“The league and players association, working together have begun developing substantive ways for us to come together and take meaningful action,” the letter signed by Silver and players association president Michele Roberts said. “These ideas are based on the actions many of you have already taken or supported, including convening community conversations in NBA markets to engage young people, parents, community leaders and law enforcement in a candid dialogue, using our game to bring people together and build bonds of trust in our communities; and supporting mentoring and career development programs that help bring economic opportunity to young people of color.”

Rather than passively tolerate the protests of their players the way the NFL has done with the movement started by Colin Kaepernick, or condemning them as US Soccer has done with Megan Rapinoe, the NBA is welcoming the discussion. And while the league’s decision is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that many of the NBA’s players will favor some form of dissent during the anthem, Silver is drawing a blueprint for other commissioners and association heads to follow.

For too long the leaders of sports leagues have run from the uncomfortable voice of protest, fearful of upsetting advertisers. Harebrained edicts like business casual and the NFL player conduct policy were born from the terror that non-white players were out-of-control and therefore alarming sponsors. Instead of hiding from a revolution Silver is searching for ways his league can be part of the solution to real problems.

Last week, Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American studies at Duke University, told the Guardian that last year’s strike by Missouri football players – which resulted in the resignation of the school’s president – has given athletes a new power. They realize they can make change with their celebrity. Why wouldn’t a sports league want to aid their players in raising awareness? US sports organizations should be leaping at the opportunity to showcase their athletes as intelligent, caring people and not just magnificently-conditioned robots carrying out their coaches’ game plan.

Back when he invented business casual, Stern mocked the players who objected, directing an especially-pointed dig at the Denver Nuggets Marcus Camby, who had suggested that if the commissioner wanted his players dressed a certain way the league should provide a clothing stipend.

“We don’t know where the cutoff is – maybe if you earn less than $8m you’ll get a scholarship from the commissioner,” Stern said at the time.

The NBA has moved a long way in 11 years. Maybe the rest of sports can come along too.

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