The NBA purposefully made social justice central to its restart at Disney World. The league put social-justice messages on jerseys, allowed players to kneel during the national anthem despite a longstanding rule requiring them to stand and – perhaps most controversially – put “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on the court.
Also: Ratings were down.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, via Bomani Jones of GQ:
Now, some people might suggest that the words Black Lives Matter are causing massive amounts of people to tune out the NBA. There’s absolutely no data to support that. And in fact, as I said, there’s no doubt there are some people—and whether or not they were truly our fans to begin with is unclear—who have become further engaged with the league because they believe in our players and they believe in the positions they’ve taken, even if they don’t agree with everything they say. They respect their right to speak out on issues that are important to them.
Silver is absolutely right to point out that some fans have become more engaged because of the NBA’s political action. That group of people is far too often ignored. People complaining about the league’s politics are far louder and more listened to.
Ratings were down, but for numerous reasons – including cord cutting, increased viewing options, coronavirus altering the sports calendar and a diluted product.
That said, if Silver thought putting “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on the court only made some fans more engaged and no significant number of fans tune out, why is the league taking the message off the floor next season?
Silver during the NBA Finals, via ESPN:
In terms of the messages you see on the court, on our jerseys, this was an extraordinary moment in time, when we began discussions with players and what we lived through this summer. My sense is there will be somewhat a sort of return to normalcy, that those messages will largely be left to be delivered off the floor. And I understand those people who are saying, “I’m on your side, but I want to watch a basketball game.”
Do people who respond to the NBA’s social-justice push with “I want to watch a basketball game” exist at significant numbers or not? Silver can’t seem to decide.
Maybe there’s a narrow middle ground – that people welcomed the social-justice messaging during last summer’s protest movement but won’t continue to embrace it as time elapses since George Floyd’s death, that some people reluctantly tolerated it but won’t continue to do so for multiple seasons.
That’s a narrow needle to thread, though.