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Survey: BLM-Driven NBA ‘Not Even . . . A Sport Anymore’

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.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

36 Comments

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  1. Greg, I agree that there’s almost no way a business can avoid choosing a political side, even a sports league. like you said, “it’s actually a stance now not to take a stance.”………….That said, the NBA has gone off the rails with their race baiting, hate, and lies. Here are a few examples that stand out to me:
    1)Popovich standing in front of the press and Blatantly lying about police shooting details. Blatantly contradicting autopsy details of one of the most well known cases(MIchael Brown) and promoting myths that have led to riots across the country
    2)Lebron refusing to state that it is wrong to shoot police officers (the case where two LA police officers were shot) while at the same time promoting resisting of arrest and celebrating criminals who attack officers
    3)The entire NBA bubble and media harassing James Harden when he wore a face mask which they thought might have shown solidarity with police. They didn’t want him showing any form of support for police at all.
    These are just a few examples that stand out to me but we all know that the list of NBA race baiting and stirring of hate goes on and on. Everyday one of their players is celebrating someone who charges police with a knife(like the guy in PHiladelphia), someone who points a gun at a pregnant woman’s stomach (George Floyd), or a rapist who shows up to harass a woman and then fights with police and goes for a knife in his car (Jacob Blake). And at same time the NBA promotes violence, they ignore fact that more whites are killed by police and that reform can help us all if they didn’t keep celebrating violent criminals

  2. I think athletes in general have a bad persona among Americans. It’s not just the NBA, is pro athletes in general. The NBA just has a poor product they are displaying on top of poor messaging and poor personalities. The NFL has a good product, but if quality falters it will encounter the same problem as the NBA. Their personalities also suck.

    I believe the main issue with pro athletes is this. Athletes are insanely wealthy, privileged, pampered, sheltered, celebrities who live in a literal fantasy world. All of them. It’s condescending and insincere to hear people from such a position lecturing on social issues that they themselves are completely removed from and don’t understand or experience. They can’t relate to anyone. Most of them never have experienced anything like we see in the news, because they have always been big, great, popular athletes who were pampered. With that in mind, please just shut up. It would be like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates lecturing people who live in a trailer park or ghetto about how hard life can be in America. Save it. Who wants to listen to that BS? It’s condescending and tone deaf. It should be the other way around. Athletes and celebrities need to shut up and listen to the people. Stop talking. They aren’t famous for their social or political opinions, and they all desperately need someone to clue them in on that fact. Shut up and dribble, run, hit, throw, etc; but most importantly shut up.

    • In their defense, a lot have grown up and still have friends and relatives in bad neighborhoods. But your point is spot on. Same with the elitists in Hollywood who talk about pollution while flying on their private jets. Hypocrisy at its finest.

  3. I used to love the NBA. It was by far my favorite sport as a kid growing up in the 80s. I see the NBA going the way of And1, as it’s already street ball. Unless it changes drastically after LeBron retires, I see it dying a slow death. The players’ salaries will go down in the next few years. They have no one to blame but themselves for being the useful idiots that killed their golden goose.

  4. Hey Greg,
    You know, I wrote some comments here about Ben Leff, the CEO, mistakenly thinking the American Black Community is a monolith of thought, as so many white liberals just assume.
    I wrote a few questions for him that should make him question his belief system. I wrote a few questions about his apparent belief that it’s ONLY white republicans who are boycotting the NBA.
    And then I said, “WTF”…because it’s a waste of time.
    Thank you for the information and for your commentary. Neff is correct in his polling and analysis that “balling” is now considered secondary in the NBA’s current mission statement…and that’s a very significant difference from the way things used to be. But if he assumes it’s white republicans alone that caused the ratings to plummet and the brand to wind up in the dumpster, welp…you missed the dart board completely.

  5. Interesting result about the court with/without BLM logo not really influencing perceptions much. Perhaps it’s because the NBA was so clumsy and over the top with their all out barrage of social justice messaging throughout the playoffs, a message painted on the court hardly even registers anymore.

    I was actually more irritated that the NBA began heavily using ‘virtual’ company logos overlayed onto their video streams to squeeze out yet more advertising revenue when their video tech for hiding the logos as players walk in front of them was utter garbage. It’s just a poor viewing experience. Cutting to quick adverts in a sidebar during free throws also shows insane levels of greed when NBA broadcasts are packed so full of commercials already. If these are their preferred solutions for combatting declining revenue, I’m not optimistic they can make a full recovery.

    Just to add to the good points already made in comments, for me one of the most off-putting things about the NBA’s messaging efforts was just how organized and scripted it all was. No room for a commentator or analyst to have any opinion other than that prescribed by the league. Mark Jackson even tried to play the victim after they finally realized the messaging wasn’t being well received, saying “some people want us to shut up, but we’re not going to because this is so important”. No, Mark. It might be important if we were having an honest conversation, but you’re just following a script founded on dishonest interpretations of various police encounters and pushed for political reasons.

    • Wow, they seriously were doing that during free throws?! That’s insane. Very glad that I cut them out completely hearing that, on top of everything else. Other sports do that when there’s no action. NBA apparently is implying that free throws don’t matter. I guess only the 3 ball matters anymore!

  6. I was definitely turned off by all the politics of the NBA in the bubble. It made it seem like basketball was secondary and I think the quality of play suffered. It’s well-documented that there were players, even whole teams, that didn’t want be in the bubble and playing at all. But what really turned me (and my TV) off of the NBA was when the Bucks chose not to play because of the Jacob Blake incident, without even waiting to find out the facts of the case, or see the video of what happened. They basically canceled sports for 2-3 days and for what? And then once the video came out, we hardly heard a peep out of the players and the NBA about Jacob Blake.

    • To me, the real travesty was that they didn’t get hit with a forfeiture. The Magic should have been awarded the win in that series. We’re now seeing the same thing with Wisconsin saying NAH BRAH and unilaterally canceling their game against Nebraska this week, and hiding behind idiots in the sports media that sputter about ‘how dare you take advantage of this HeAlTh CrIsIs!!!’

      These leagues have NO FUCKING BALLS.

  7. The fake protesting communist Chinese government ball licking drama queen bitches of the NBA just need to go ahead and move to China. That seems to be their main revenue source now. The glory days of Dr J, Bird, Magic, Jordan, Dtroit bad boys, etc. are long gone, as is my interest in the NBA. They can thank the top bitch, DramaQueenJames for killing the league.

  8. LeBigot James has become an NBA cancer. Add bowing to China, kneeling for our Anthem, along with promoting BLM and you have a recipe for a well earned disaster. I can’t see a recovery. If Ganis actually thinks taking BLM off the court will be the cure he’s clueless.

  9. Greg the article resonates with me, 50+ yr old life long NBA fan with two boys who were starters in HS bb. I was an AAU coach as well. Love the game. I have mentored many young men bc some didn’t have dads. I still meet with several of them who are in college or working and look to me for input. I love helping, but the victim message from NBA players has set the young men back and hurt their mindset. Because of that, I did not watch any NBA for the first time ever. It made me sick and was a huge turn off. Athlete and announcer distortions and lies and I will not be back until the NBA comes back to the facts.

    • Each successive generation seems to get more and more stupid. Or maybe they just become more and more indoctrinated, as over time the craziest far-left conspiracy theories about how the world works and about history get more and more normalized by these Neo-Bolsheviks.

  10. Consumers rarely “get past it” when an organization screws with its core mission and brand positioning. At that point, it becomes a different brand, and it is selling a different experience. The NBA now will need to cultivate new fans to replace those they have alienated and lost. Hello China!

  11. “So many things are under the umbrella of BLM that people are confused whether it is actually an idea or a political body.”

    There’s really no confusion. The movement, and political body are fighting for the same thing, socialism. Are there some people that are confused within the movement (NBA players) yes, but at the end of the day the media MSM has created all this division to try and get our President out of office. The players got played. It will take time for this bad taste to go away.

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