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The NBA Is White Conservatives’ Favorite New Target for Racial Dog-Whistling

With Covid-19 throttling the entertainment industry, basketball is caught in the crosshairs of the culture war.

Ashley Landis/Getty Images

In the political paradigm created by the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump and the Republican Party are having a harder time than usual executing some of the standard fare from their electoral playbookand not just because the rising death count and unemployment rates create some inconvenient storylines. As the party swings into the heart of the election season, Republicans would typically rely on their ability to pump out a steady stream of culture war red meat simply by reacting sanctimoniously to the outspoken liberalism of celebrities and pop culture mainstays. This has long proven itself an efficient means for the GOP to distract the cable news industry while giving their base reliable grist with which to rally ’round the GOP banner.

But Republicans, like the rest of us, are living in a cultural desert as nonessential celebrity appearances, press events, award shows, and the like are all on pause and no longer churning out reliable sound bites. With so much of the entertainment industry on hold, there just aren’t as many easy marks at which to take aim, and the vacuum is being filled by news and political rhetoric from Democrats that cast the consequences of their disastrous handling of the pandemic into stark relief. However, one organization from the wide world of sports has recently found itself in the crosshairs of the right as a suddenly convenient, catch-all target: the National Basketball Association.

Trump has complained of “a nastiness about the NBA,” warning that the league is in “bigger trouble than they understand.” Right-wing Twitter celebrities have followed his lead: Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk called for the NBA to kick out players who protest, wrongly claiming that they “take a knee to try and tell us black people can’t succeed in America.” Conservative media outlets as varied as National Review and Breitbart News have joined the pile-on, spewing high-brow and low-brow versions of the same argument: that the outspoken liberalism of NBA athletes, coaches, and executives is the real source of the league’s woes, proving that “wokeness” is a turn-off to ordinary Americans. In this way, the NBA has become a convenient stand-in for deeper anxieties among white conservatives about the growing narrative that America is plagued by systemic racism.

Conservatives have caught the NBA at a vulnerable moment. The venerable basketball league’s television deal is its primary source of profit, and the pandemic has already jeopardized it in a way that’s going to have huge long-term consequences; the president of the NBA players’ union, Michele Roberts, has already told players that she believes their current collective bargaining agreement is soon to be all but void. So in an attempt to salvage the current season, the NBA embarked on a shortened season played within a “bubble” on the Disneyworld campus in Orlando, Florida. This strange arrangement, which created a regular season that felt almost perfunctory, has now entered the postseason playoffs. In mid-August, this is about five months later than normal.

It’s even more convenient that, after negotiations between players and owners about the bubble broadcast infrastructure, the league has instituted a series of decidedly liberal messaging gestures for this one-off pandemic season. The resulting rhetoric is not exactly the stuff of Frantz Fanon. In fact, it’s all rather mushy and hollow: “Black Lives Matter” is perhaps the most radical of the slogans that the NBA has permitted players to wear on their jerseys, along with some of the more popular protest chants—“Say Her Name,” “How Many More”—on the approved list of in-game political rallying cries. Beyond these feints, there is little else to represent the well-polling concrete policy goals of the movement the league is gesturing toward. The league’s stars aren’t exactly leading a teach-in on ending qualified immunity for police or law enforcement accountability; the disarmament, defunding, and abolition of police forces have also been deemed too spicy. Most of the jersey messages are so bland and unspecific that it seems wrong to even call them political: “Equality,” “Vote,” “Peace,” and “Education Reform.” But this is all political enough for the right.

National Review published three columns about the NBA last month, all of which centered on the way the league’s wealth and financial well-being are inextricably bound to China, a relationship that became briefly strained after a single “Stand With Hong Kong” tweet from NBA executive Daryl Morey touched off a standoff between the league and the Chinese government. National Review’s Cameron Hilditch had the league dead to rights in characterizing it as “an amoral money-grubbing cult” over its supine display, though it’s worth pointing out that ridiculing the league and its athletes over l’affaire Morey was hardly confined to right-wing circles. Observers of all stripes homed in on the league’s kowtowing and the window it provided into the economics and ethics of a global brand that was all too quick to snuff out the political speech of an employee who got in the way of everyone’s money.

Not content with the clean shot at the NBA’s hypocrisies, though, National Review’s writers strain to shoehorn in other complaints in an effort to loosely connect the acts of Black American celebrities to the human rights abuses of the Chinese Communist Party. So before Hilditch’s brief is complete, he works in a rant about the “the sheer hypocrisy of taking a ‘moral stand’ against gender-specific restrooms”—reflected in the NBA’s decision to relocate the 2017 All-Star game from North Carolina because of that state’s transgender bathroom laws—but “not against cultural genocide.” Elsewhere, Victor Davis Hanson assails the league’s “woke talk about BLM, the ‘Jews,’ eugenics, Farrakhan, and the usual totems of ‘resistance,’” along with its athletes’ “selective agendas.” In another instance, Zachary Evans forced National Review to publish three tweets’ worth of grievances about his inability to get a customized “Free Hong Kong” jersey. As inconveniences go, it’s a slight one and predictable given the league’s well-established bootlicking. But the larger hypocrisy is, of course, the fact that were the NBA to cut ties with China tomorrow, these writers would find another way to carp about the league’s social justice pretensions.

Besides, the NBA’s sometimes unwholesome dependence on the Chinese market is little different from that of the entire post-NAFTA American corporate economy—hardly a sinful frontier in the day-to-day eyes of National Review. It’s no encumbrance, though, to the outlet’s columnists, who have synthesized a sloppy Frankenstein-canvas onto which they project more ideology than a collection of world-class basketball players can reasonably bear, a whirling mixture of racism against Black Americans and jingoistic fears about the rise of power in the East.

Such cognitive self-pretzeling is not uncommon for National Review, a privately funded publication that’s influential within Republican circles despite usually acting as a dead-end laboratory for effective populist appeals. But elsewhere, right-wing actors have simplified the conversation into a concise “own the libs” dog-whistle that centers on one matter: ratings. Breitbart, which lacks National Review’s scruples but surpasses the venerable outfit in its ability to speak directly to ordinary conservatives, has been ahead of this curve, populating its ersatz sports section with a buffet of culture war offerings that lampoon the liberal politics of sports figures. Its recent output has included disparaging posts about the NBA’s well-documented struggle to maintain its ratings, which has been typically attributed to the challenges of broadcasting the “bubble” season.

As Optimum Sports president Tom McGovern recently told Variety, “There is no proper context to compare the current NBA viewership post-COVID to any regular season,” owing to its “increased number of broadcast windows” and anomalous start times for games. “The number of windows alone is going to dilute your average rating,” McGovern said. This hasn’t prevented Breitbart, and even some creeping reactionary voices at more apolitical publications like The Athletic, from pinning the league’s ratings woes onto the tepid liberalism expressed on the players’ jerseys. To Breitbart’s Warner Todd Huston, it’s an article of faith that the league’s ratings problems are due to an “intrusion of ... political activism” in the form of “an avalanche of sloganeering on signs, stadium floors and fields, and on player jersey backs” and players making “one woke proclamation after another” on social media. The ne plus ultra of this synthesized culture war is probably the new T-shirt slogan that right-wing sports media personality Clay Travis is marketing to his followers: “Get Woke, Go Broke.”

But all this talk of ratings and “going broke” is rarely approached by these commentators with anything approaching nuance. Trump, useful as he often is in his unwittingly frank exposure of what lies beneath Republican talking points, served as a fitting example during a recent interview with Fox Sports Radio in which he took up the matter of the NBA’s recent ratings. As is his wont, once he got started on the topic, he quickly lapsed into what sounded like some veiled threats against the league: “They don’t want—they have enough politics with guys like me,” he said. “They don’t need more as they’re driving down, going up for the shot. They don’t need it. And there was a nastiness about the NBA, the way it was done too. So I think that they—the NBA is in trouble. I think it’s in big trouble, bigger trouble than they understand.”

There’s no saying what sort of “big trouble” Trump was alluding to during his diatribe. It’s more likely that he was simply puffing his chest out in the NBA’s general direction. He is not the only Republican politician to indulge in this. Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, infamous for her controversial stock divestments ahead of the pandemic-induced crash of the market, is a part-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream; she’s recently characterized the league’s activism as “out of control cancel culture” because many of the players on the Dream’s roster, after Loeffler bashed their support for Black Lives Matter, have publicly supported her upcoming electoral opponent. Also getting in on the act is Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who stuck his stake in this territory last October with a letter to NBA commissioner Adam Silver criticizing the league’s relationship with China and is now urging him to add “Support Troops” and “Back The Blue” to the glossary of approved jersey messages.

Knives are out for the NBA in conservative social media circles as well. Daily Wire editor Ben Shapiro has weighed in on the messaging of the NBA’s bubble season, characterizing the players’ support for “Black Lives Matter” as “semantic overload” and implying that the phrase is a kind of rhetorical mouse trap that doesn’t mean what it purports but rather exists to promote the belief in a systemic racism in America that is, in Shapiro’s view, nonexistent. And then there was the broadside, leveled on the bubble season’s first night, from Kirk of Turning Points USA: “Hilarious to see Black NBA players who make millions a year take a knee to try and tell us black people can’t succeed in America. Kick them out of the league. Done watching the NBA.” Kirk knows full well that players aren’t saying that Black people can never succeed in America, but it’s much easier to misrepresent a social justice movement by attacking “millionaire” athletes rather than, say, people who’ve been murdered by the police.

Taken as a whole, the rhetorical fusillade that’s been aimed at the NBA runs the gamut, from the unsubtle dog-whistles of the Breitbart set—and the president himself—to the pseudo-intellectualism of National Review’s roster of thinkfluencers. But with hardly any new cultural content on the wing that might provide fresh election-year fodder and even Republican electeds like Hawley and Loeffler getting in on the act, we can probably expect repeated and increasingly refined use of the sport as a metonym for racial justice movements, the Chinese government’s assaults on human rights, and whatever other issues conservatives can make stick to it for as long as the NBA playoffs last. It’s not exactly Meryl Streep grandstanding at the Golden Globes, but right now there aren’t many other pop cultural targets for right-wing insecurities and grievances to glom onto, and there is a real need among conservatives to misdirect voters from their colossal, demonstrated failures. For the time being, the NBA will likely bear the brunt of these harangues, serving as a central character in the long-running conservative morality tale about American values being under attack.

The NBA and its glittering array of global stars will likely survive to play another season. It’s a pity, though, that many of the things that the right accuses the league of being and doing aren’t actually true. The NBA is all but guaranteed to never attempt anything radical in its politics, and its civic-minded messaging, such as it is, has been vetted to ensure it won’t inspire anyone else to act in too radical a fashion either. For the NBA’s top brass, the lukewarm sloganeering of the bubble season is just a tidy diversion to keep fans from recognizing that the sport is too entrenched in capital to truly challenge the societal forces it nods weakly against. For the moment, however, the notion that the league could be some sort of ideological change agent is as good a bogeyman as any for this failed Republican regime.