At one time, Michael Jordan was just the man who could fly, and the NBA was the collection of the world’s greatest athletes. And that was it, really. The images were that simple. If Jordan was criticized for anything, it was for his unwillingness to use his platform to stand up for something, anything, other than a Swoosh.
Today, LeBron James and the NBA have clearly flipped the approach. The NBA covered its courts with the words Black Lives Matter, and LeBron is The King of basketball and social justice.
But which one is first? I mean, what is James’ image now and how do people see the NBA?
A new survey by political scientists at Reality Check Insights suggests that the image of the NBA has changed into that of a political organization that plays basketball on the side.
“People are not even thinking about the NBA as a sport anymore,’’ said Ben Leff, CEO of Reality Check Insights. “They’re literally evaluating it as an overt political thing.’’
The NBA has a problem. It made a big mistake, not in supporting social justice messaging but rather in how it presented itself. That was, in part, why the NBA Finals had record-low television ratings despite holding the golden ticket of James and the Los Angeles Lakers winning a championship.
The NBA has tried to disconnect its social justice stances from its bad ratings. And it’s true that most other sports are suffering ratings drops too, including record lows for the World Series. The pandemic has thrown off everyone’s calendar, and that left the NBA to compete with the NFL and baseball playoffs. Still, these were record lows while having the superstar power of James.
And the NBA, more than other sports, pushed social justice messaging loudly. So NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said that the league plans to reduce the messaging, at least, next season.
“That might not even matter at this point,’’ Leff said. “One option for them is to say `We’re going to lean into this like we’ve been doing, and it’s totally fine if we don’t have a white Republican audience.’ I think they’re still trying to make this claim that they can be this sports league that appeals to everybody. I don’t think that’s sustainable.’’
Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based Sportscorp Ltd, a leading sports consulting firm, agrees that the NBA is going to need some time to fix this. But, he doesn’t think of it as insurmountable.
But Ganis, who is a regular adviser to NFL team owners, points out the difference in how the NFL handled the issue.
“Their slogan, which they adopted with the players, was End Racism,” Ganis said. “Not Black Lives Matter. It was End Racism. And the NFL has committed a quarter of a billion dollars (over 10 years) to support the social initiatives that the players say are important.
“That’s a lot of money. That’s almost a million per team, per year, and that comes right off the bottom line.’’
The NFL seems to have cleaned up its Colin Kaepernick mess, as well as its fight with President Trump over the national anthem. For so long, the NFL had wrapped itself in the flag, acting almost as a branch of the U.S. military.
To have players protesting around the flag was going to be a battle for the NFL. But the league has found its rhythm. It stopped turning off fans while making a major commitment to support its players.
The truth is, there is almost no way that a business can avoid choosing a political side, even a sports league. The media used to be about objectivity; no network could be accused of that any more.
If you take up social causes, you’re seen as a liberal, and if you choose to play above it all and not get involved?
Well, it’s actually a stance now not to take a stance. Meanwhile, everyone is so polarized that they really don’t want to hear or see anything that doesn’t align with their beliefs. So everything else is canceled.
Leff’s study was not about sports. His company, which he describes as non-partisan, polled roughly 1,400 people in the U.S. about race and policing. They asked about the NBA because the league’s social justice messaging was related to the issue.
The results showed that 67.1 percent of Democrats think favorably or very favorably about the NBA, while 75.9 percent of Republicans think unfavorably or very unfavorably.
The survey also showed that just 12.8 percent of Republicans described themselves as thinking favorably or better about the NBA, and a similar 12.5 percent said they think favorably of Black Lives Matter.
During the survey, he said, they showed half the people a picture of the NBA bubble with a court showing the words Black Lives Matter. The other half of the people saw a picture of a typical NBA court without social messaging.
The different pictures didn’t affect the outcome of the poll much.
“It didn’t matter,’’ Leff said, “which means it’s fully incorporated, the politicization of the NBA.’’
Politics are now baked into the NBA.
But Ganis blamed the political organization of Black Lives Matter, which he differentiated from the BLM movement.
This is one of the big issues. So many things are under the umbrella of BLM that people are confused whether it is actually an idea or a political body. Ganis said the NBA players and owners are intending to support a cause and not a political entity.
“We should all agree with the movement,’’ Ganis said. “But many of us don’t agree with the political organization behind it. And when you do that, they push back so hard that they try to and stop others from discussing the distinction.
“This is not the NBA’s fault. And it’s not the fault of the people who feel adversely toward the NBA either. The NBA is proudly a liberal organization, and it has never been an issue before.’’
Ganis believes the NBA will get past this, that feelings against a political statement now are supercharged because of the upcoming election. And once that has passed, and the league removes or alters its Black Lives Matter messaging, the NBA will be in position to swing its image back to that of being a sport.
Whether they will succeed remains to be seen.