Before a panel event about sports and activism, a young man asked me a question: "Why do you think the NBA is more accepting of political athletes than the NFL?" Near me was Grant Farred, a brilliant author and Cornell University professor who studies these issues with a scholar s attention to detail. He replied, "Why do you think that is even the right question?"
Professor Farred's comments have been turning in my brain like a rotisserie chicken ever since.
There is a baseline assumption that the NBA as a corporate institution is more accepting of outspoken players than the NFL. People who make this argument invariably point to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has expressed support for athletes letting "their political points of view be known"--albeit with reservations about them wearing "Black Lives Matter" T-shirts.
They also look at the much more supportive atmosphere in the NBA among fans for players and coaches who have criticized Trump, from Le-Bron James calling him a "bum" to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich referring to him as a "soulless coward." Neither man has felt much backlash from the NBA faithful.
And yet, the question itself--why is the NBA better?--assumes that the NBA is a more benign corporate institution than the NFL; that it puts the political desires and imperatives of its players on equal footing with its own profit margins, saying "damn the latter if it impedes the former."
The NBA has been happy to spread this idea, contrasting itself to the NFL as the sports home for younger, millennial fans who are much more left-leaning and outspoken than their older counterparts. But comparisons are not appropriate, because NFL players have protested in a way that NBA players have not--for instance, by taking a knee, sitting, raising a fist, or otherwise protesting during the national anthem.
This protest, launched by Colin Kaepernick in 2016, is still reverberating at high schools and colleges around the country in sports ranging from football to soccer to cheerleading. In February, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Wisconsin basketball player Marsha Howard remained seated for the anthem in silent protest of gun violence.
In an interview with ThinkProgress, Howard explained her action: "I...