Progress can feel like a trudging, stuttering march through mud. It can feel like a bullet train skimming over the earth. It depends on the lens through which you view the progress.
Just a few years ago, who would have thought a major American sports league would relocate its signature event over a piece of legislation regarding LGBTQ rights? The sports leagues have long been anodyne on the national social stage, focusing their politics (such as they were) on soft patriotism that never asked any hard questions about our country. This was, in many ways, the corporate blueprint in the modern United States of America: don’t alienate any potential customer. It was Michael Jordan’s "Republicans buy sneakers, too" quote in policy form.
How ironic that Jordan’s NBA franchise is at the center of this saga. MJ has a front row seat to the turning point of the NBA’s social consciousness, a moment in which the league has crossed a Rubicon for which retreat is impossible. By moving the 2017 All-Star Weekend out of North Carolina because of the state’s horrific House Bill 2, the NBA is center stage as a social actor. There’s no putting that back in the box.
This is why it was appropriate for the NBA to move slowly through its motions from the start. To some of us, moving the All-Star Game in the wake of HB2 is something like a no-brainer. You have an event that promises to spark tens of millions of dollars in economic activity. You have an odious piece of legislation that legalizes and in fact mandates discrimination based on gender identity. You move the event! It seems so simple when laid bare.
But it’s not. Because there will be another HB2, or something like that.
The NBA has acted, and it will be very difficult to not act next time. Already there are concerns about the potential landing spot for the 2017 All-Star Weekend. The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the league is looking at New Orleans as a replacement host. (The NBA loves visiting New Orleans, and New Orleans is always ready to host a party.) One problem: Louisiana is among the 11 states suing the federal government over the Obama administration’s guidance on public school bathroom access for transgender students. Louisiana doesn’t have a law like HB2 on the books, but neither is it a bastion of LGBTQ acceptance.
This is why the NBA moved methodically: first assessing the consequences of the law, then announcing its concern, then working with state officials to pursue reforms that would make the league’s top officials feel comfortable holding the All-Star Game in Charlotte. This is why the NBA waited for months before officially withdrawing from North Carolina. The NBA is making a broad social statement about discrimination, yes, but it is basing every decision along the way on details, on discrete policy points.
Some have questioned the NBA’s altruism by flagging this week’s announcement the Phoenix Suns will play two regular season games in Mexico, not exactly a human rights paradise. This is not a fair critique. The NBA is not in position to affect policy change in Mexico. The NBA is in position to protect its employees and ensure its signature event does not occur in the discriminatory environment created by the North Carolina legislature and adopted by its governor. This is from the NBA’s statement on the decision:
While we recognize that the NBA cannot choose the law in every city, state, and country in which we do business, we do not believe we can successfully host our All-Star festivities in Charlotte in the climate created by HB2.
Again, this looks and feels like a social broadside. In many ways it will have the effect of one. But Adam Silver is nothing if not a lawyer, and this process has been methodical and focused strictly on one law, one event, one decision. Where many asked for quick decisiveness from the NBA, Silver approached the issue carefully. That makes it fully defensible and helps guide the league forward when the next social firestorm erupts.
Does that sound cynical? Don’t blame me: multi-billion-dollar American corporations typically don’t even go this far. For all the credit the NBA deserves — and it does — let’s not ignore the fact that the league isn’t moving outside the mainstream public consciousness. In fact, a true cynic might bring MJ’s famous quote back into this with a twist.
In 1990, staying silent on the political question of the day could earn you business from everyone who buys shoes. In 2016’s partisan climate, we pick sides. The NBA happened to pick the position that is clearly on the right side of history. It’s also the side with more buying power, a stronger voice and demographics (young, urban, progressive) far more likely to support the NBA than those bigots and fear merchants pushing laws like HB2.
As the NBA basks in this well-deserved afterglow, remember that it will also bask in the sustained financial windfall from a fandom that feels good about supporting the league. You can’t buy this kind of goodwill, and you can’t sell pride t-shirts to your audience if they don’t believe you mean it. This isn’t just a laudable social move for the NBA. It’s smart business, too.
For the sake of our spirits, let’s believe the priorities fall in that order: social responsibility first, dollars and cents second. Given the fact that this is a groundbreaking moment in American sports — in the year 2016 — cynics will be forgiven.