Looking back at an activist off-season

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Illustration by Markia Van de Kamp

The NBA off-season of 2017 has been unlike any other of the past. For one, we saw superstar players get traded in lopsided fashion at a faster rate than anyone ever thought possible. The NBA is scrambling to find the right mixture to compete with one team and one team only. It’s probably for naught. And yet, the gathering of superstars makes for much better stories and exciting publicity than it would have otherwise.

The potential firepower in combining the otherwise solitary iso-talents of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony is a recipe for fantastic post-game interviews and boldly entertaining on-court antics. It will no doubt get sports broadcasters like Stephen A. Smith falling out of their chairs in anticipation. Charles Barkley will be absolutely thrilled to proclaim the Cavaliers’ new veteran-filled lineup as the best team to ever face the Warriors in the finals, and he might even jump to the conclusion that Lebron and co. could win.

I’ll tell you what these reporters will not be as excitedly talking about: the boldest move that happened in the history of the NBA, and perhaps, the boldest move to happen in professional sports since Jackie Robinson crossed the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers to forever change professional sports as we know them.

The move I am talking about is this: the athlete’s political turn. In 2017, the athlete has become a force within political protest and the democratization of the sports industry like we’ve never witnessed before. Not only is this an important move for political change and activism, it is also a collective good riddance to those who have participated in these sports in the last century.

Sure, it is easy to write off sports stars as merely glorified members of the bourgeoisie, as spectacles that don’t deserve the public acclaim and affection that they so easily and often take for granted. It’s so easy to look at basketball stars like Lebron James and Steph Curry as overpaid children playing a game. On the other hand, however, stars like these have effectively become brands in themselves, and thus they are players in a market that can influence social conditions and public morale.

In a world where corporations are considered people and can thus can have unwarranted influence on public policy in Washington on top of Wall Street, isn’t it only reasonable that superstar athletes can do the same with their brand?

I am not arguing that the politicization of the NBA is or should be considered the same as someone who actively protests in the streets or gathers signatures to oppose unfair law. Change in our pseudo-democracy happens most effectively and swiftly through opposition within market participation, and thus if an athlete chooses to shift their brand to something that is reformist-minded, it acts as a direct resistance to an economic space that wouldn’t normally allow for such open thought.

If we are to put these humans on a pedestal and allow them the space in our society to stand as something more than the everyday individual, we might as well allow them to speak for us in our American brand of capitalist democracy. It might be time for sports fans and politically active citizens alike to realize the true nature of our social predicament of 2017 America: that there cannot be actual legislative, political change without market disruption, and there cannot be an American sporting culture without everything capitalistic that comes with it. All parts of American culture are subject to their market value, and thus those who drive the culture represent market actors, and important ones at that.

Overwhelmingly, it is the owners and investors who drive this culture to its market effect, but this summer we saw the emergence of what we might call player power within the market. Take Kevin Durant’s contract, for example. Kevin Durant chose to take a significant amount less than his actual market value in order to put himself and those around him on the Warriors in a better situation to have a repeat championship run.

As citizens in today’s United States, or maybe even of the Western world, we cannot expect actual change to happen at the legislative level or even in the arena of public opinion without wealthy people who play as market actors influencing this change. It might be a sad reality, and it might be an unfair reality, to both the player and the fans or perhaps all citizens alike, but most importantly, it is one that has the potential to benefit social justice on all fronts.

We live in a climate where every public space is subject to radical right politicization, and the sports arena and the ESPN newsroom is no exception to this rule. Player Power and politically minded branding might not be a revolutionary stance in combating this, but it is a pragmatic method of influence on public opinion.

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