Whoa. Stop the presses.
“NBA Lends Its Name and Its Stars to Campaign Against Gun Violence.” Front page of the New York Times just before Christmas. Now, that’s news. Far more staggering than ongoing accounts of Donald Trump’s xenophobia and bellicosity; the bloody conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Turkey; the latest report of America’s top one percent exploiting tax loopholes to further enhance their filthy-richness.
For a sports league to wade into the contentious national debate surrounding firearms is truly astonishing. By definition, sports is escapist entertainment, primarily concerned with expanding its clientele and therefore averse to ruffling feathers. As Nathaniel Friedman pointed out on Salon, “The NBA has put itself in a position that major sports leagues—multibillion-dollar operations dependent on broadcast revenue—should in theory try to avoid. They’re in the business of attracting new fans, not alienating them. Using the league as a platform for unpopular ideas is deeply counterintuitive…”
New Jersey’s Record newspaper noted how “professional sports leagues usually promote causes that won’t cause a backlash, such as fighting breast cancer or supporting Habitat for Humanity.” Traditionally, the standard for big-time athletes to avoid damaging their marketability is Michael Jordan’s reported explanation for declining to support black Democrat Harvey Gantt’s senatorial campaign against race-baiting GOP incumbent Jesse Helms in 1990: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
So this is a big deal, what a Washington Post editorial called “a brave decision…charting a new course in civic responsibility.” Partnered with former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety project, the NBA-endorsed TV spots do not mention the phrase “gun control” or call for specific policy or legal action. Instead, they lament the loss of innocent lives, at a time when—according to polls—the need for more reasonable access to weapons is something that the majority of Americans favor.
The NBA appeal, then, hardly casts it as a cultural infidel, and Everytown for Gun Safety’s Jason Rzepka stressed to SBNation that the project is “neither pro-gun nor anti-gun,” but “about gun violence.”
Predictably, though, the NBA/Everytown effort is being interpreted by some trigger-happy Second Amendment vigilantes as an assault on their constitutional rights. Fox News correspondent Ed Henry expressed dismay that the public service announcements spoiled some citizens’ Christmas joy. (“Shouldn’t people have a chance to celebrate with their families and not what is seen clearly as a political message?” he asked.) The online site northwestfirearms.com used its message board to ask, “Are you ready to boycott the NBA?”
And Larry Pratt, founder of Gun Owners of America, somehow perceived racial and religious implications, telling Henry, “Privately-owned guns have become the last line of defense of true white Christian Americans. And now they’re going on about how ‘we can stop gun violence together?’ What does that have to do with white people when black Americans are twice as likely to die from gun violence in this country? And gun violence is committed by predominantly black people, not white people.”
Clearly, the NBA’s resolve to get involved in such a touchy topic is a revelation. Big news because of the passionate—and anticipated—pushback, the inclination to choose up sides and apply a full-court press to the NBA’s business model. Still, in terms of shaping attitudes about illegal firearm trafficking, it has been pointed out that young people watch sports and hear what their favorite players say. And NPR commentator Frank Deford said he was willing to bet “there are more sports fans in Congress than there are gun fans.”
Hey, don’t shoot. I’m just the messenger.