Ever since Laura Ingraham dismissed LeBron James’s political views on Fox News in 2018 by telling him to “Shut up and dribble,” the spotlight on athletes using their voices for activism has only been amplified, approaching proportions not seen since the 1960s. In recent years, the empowerment of Black athletes has been a major source of contention in modern sports. For instance, it’s been six years since record-setting quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem at an NFL game, to bring attention to continuing police brutality and racial inequality in America—and five years since he last worked in the NFL, a situation that can pretty safely be attributed to political pressure to keep him off the field, after the league eventually settled a wrongful termination suit with the former San Francisco 49er.
In the basketball realm, political engagement is more positive. For the NBA, Election Day, November 8, won’t be just another date on the calendar—it will be a day of service. Over the past half-decade, there has been a rise in violent political rhetoric and divergent philosophies that have caused a massive divide not seen since the civil rights movement. This has highlighted the importance of every national and local election, demonstrated by the fact that the past two presidential elections have seen record turnouts. The NBA and the WNBA have for some time recognized these trends, with an eye toward getting more young people involved.
“It’s important to make a plan for people to vote. One of the long-term cherished values of the NBA community is encouraging civic engagement,” James Cadogan, executive director of the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition, which oversees collective efforts with the players and Players Association on voting efforts and rights, tells the Voice in a phone interview. “To be able to create a schedule where we’re not playing on Election Day and having all 30 teams play the night before is a way to help drive attention toward the importance of voting.”
Over the past 40 years, the NBA has been a trailblazer in fighting for social justice. Even in its infancy, during the 1940s and ’50s, the NBA sought to be a sporting nirvana when it came to racial issues, and, more recently, gender equality. Before LeBron James, Chris Paul, Jaylen Brown, and others led the charge against social injustice during the summer of 2020, after Geroge Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin, some of the greatest players in NBA history had already built a foundation in social activism. In the ’60s, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and countless others fought for African Americans during that volatile decade.
This generation of activist players is getting some help from the NBA in making their voices heard.
“I think all people had the responsibility to stand up,” Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson tells the Voice in a phone interview. “And following Dr. King’s movement, his legacy, and what he did, we just followed his nonviolent philosophy and spoke out. At that particular time in the ’60s, a lot of schools that had a tradition of excluding Blacks from their sports programs started to recruit Black players, and that was a big change.”
The turbulent ’60s were indelibly marked by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and feminist demands for women’s equality. Citizens began to realize that society didn’t have to be as fixed as those in power wanted it to be—racially, culturally, musically, spiritually, or sexually. “During those times, you knew where you could go and where you couldn’t go, you knew you couldn’t go on this side of town or in certain places,” Hall of Famer Earl Monroe tells the Voice in an interview. “So we just didn’t go, which was fine, because we didn’t want to go to places where we weren’t welcome. We didn’t let that break us because we knew that social change was on the horizon.”
One of the first times that NBA players used their voices politically was during the 1964 All-Star Game, the first one scheduled to be televised in prime time, when the players almost refused to play because of disputes over the formation of a union. “There were some difficulties,” Robertson says. “We almost boycotted the game because we wanted to be recognized by the owners. We wanted a pension after retirement, schedule rearrangements, etc. I’m glad it worked out in the end and all sides came to an agreement.”
Times do change, yet in too many ways they remain the same, 50-plus years after Robertson, Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, halfback Clem Daniels, and other athletes fought for equal rights. But a big difference is that this generation of activist players is getting some help from the NBA in making their voices heard.
As Cadogan describes, this year the NBA will not be playing any games on November 8, as a way to encourage fans to get out and vote in the midterm elections. Furthermore, as NBC’s Shaquille Brewster reported in August, “All 30 teams will play the Monday before on a themed ‘civic engagement night,’ to encourage fans, players, and staff to vote in this year’s midterm elections.” Expect to see PSAs at arenas and during TV broadcasts, in the form of commercials by various NBA players about the importance of voting.
“This whole process took months to nail down. It started with basketball operations, who set the schedule, communication of the social justice coalition and the Players and Coaches associations. It was so many people at the table that asked, ‘How can we continue to deepen our commitment to civic engagement?’” Cadogan explains. “And that’s by encouraging fans across the country to exercise their civic commitment to vote. Once it was decided that this is what we wanted to do, we moved toward making it happen.”
The NBA has a history of encouraging voter turnout: During the 2020 presidential election it opened up a number of NBA arenas as polling sites. Superstar players across the league used their platforms to encourage young people to vote. That political message carried through during the pandemic-induced “NBA Bubble” schedule in a number of regular season games and all of the playoff games in 2020, held in Orlando, where players wore messages on their jerseys such as “BLM,” “Freedom,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Say Her Name,” and “Equality.”
According to Cadogan, the NBA’s decision to make November 8 a day of service has been well received. “I’m very pleased with the response so far, you can’t ask for a better response, but we had our eyes on the prize and thought about how to make the best out of this opportunity. That’s one of the things we can contribute to this space, with so many organizations who are focused on voting and civic engagement. We want to do our part and focus on November 8.”
This year the stakes are as high or higher than they were in the 2020 presidential election. As always every two years, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are being contested, and 35 of the 100 Senate seats are on the ballot. And 36 out of 50 states will elect governors, races that have become even more crucial as Republicans across the spectrum promote—or remain silent about—false assertions that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. This has ramifications in the Senate and House races; the Democrats currently have slim majorities in both chambers.
Like Game 7 of the NBA Finals, voting is of paramount importance. Just as every point or rebound matters in the playoffs, every vote matters in choosing the local and federal officials who create our laws. Like a key rebound or a crucial free throw, voting this Election Day is essential to the health of our democracy. Turnout for the 2022 election is expected to be strong, with roughly one-fifth of voters being young people. Importantly, 50% of young people, ages 18 to 29, voted in the 2020 presidential election, an 11-point increase from 2016.
“I’ve been a lifelong NBA fan since I was a kid,” says Cadogan. “I grew up a fan of ’80s and ’90s basketball to become a part of the NBA family, focused on the impact of basketball—and what happens off the court is what I love most.”
The country we live in isn’t perfect, but it is our home; as citizens, it’s our civic duty to help institute positive change. The NBA community is doing its part to energize voters during a time when democracy is under siege. ❖
Jammel Cutler is a veteran NBA reporter who has covered the league for 10 seasons. He loves everything about New York City.