National Basketball Association players have a unique opportunity to express their political views on the basketball court, said NBA commissionerAdam Silver at a panel discussion on Tuesday.
Silver spoke as part of a panel entitled “Political Expression and Activism in Today's NBA,” as part of a forum on sports, race and society. Besides Silver, the panelists included Craig Robinson ’83, former two-time Ivy League Basketball Player of the Year and analyst for ESPN, and Steve Mills ’81, general manager for the New York Knicks.
Silver said that NBA players, whether they like it or not, serve as role models for millions of people around the world, and while they aren’t obligated to express their political views, they did have the opportunity to do so every time they stepped on the court. Silver noted the example of Derrick Rose, who was the first NBA player to wear an “I Can't Breathe” T-shirt as he walked onto the court before the start of a game.
Silver added that some political issues can be incredibly divisive, and the NBA also had a responsibility to draw the line at a certain point.
“I have the responsibility to draw a line — if that platform became a daily forum, it would drown out particular issues, and it’s also a disservice to fans who come to see a basketball game,” Silver said. “It also makes some players uncomfortable — some of them may feel like they don’t know enough to express themselves as a billboard.”
Mills said that the league has always had an obligation to deal with issues that affected society and noted former commissioner David Stern’s handling of Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement as a watershed moment for the league’s involvement in societal issues.
Robinson said that, as a former college coach, he had an obligation to educate student-athletes in a way that felt safe for them to voice their opinions.
“It comes down to, ‘Can Coach Robinson be that role model to make them care more about others than the sneakers they’re wearing?’ ” Robinson said.
Silver explained that the one of the current issues facing the league is that of the age limit for players, which currently stands at 19 years old. Silver expressed his desire to raise the age limit, so that players would have to spend two years playing either in college, the NBA Development League or overseas, before transitioning to the NBA.
Silver noted that the additional year would make players more mature when they eventually made it to the NBA.
Mills said that the opportunity to spend a lot of time on a college campus would be very beneficial for a player, noting that people don’t understand how difficult it is for a young player to walk into an NBA locker room for the first time.
“You come from a world where you’re not used to having this kind of money — you don’t have anyone around you who’s used to having this kind of money,” Mills said. “When you get to the NBA, you walk into the locker room with 14 millionaires and you think you have to be just like them.”
Silver said that the age limit was not an issue that he viewed through the prism of race. However, he acknowledged that since 80 percent of the NBA’s players are African-American, any issue that affects the league would naturally be considered a racial issue.
Mills and Robinson commended Silver on his swift response to former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s recorded remarks in April, adding that they did not expect a resolution to come as quickly as it did.
“For me, I was able to do what I did because I wasn’t doing it in a vacuum,” Silver said, noting the help he got from Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, as well as Clippers point guard Chris Paul, president of the National Basketball Players’ Association.
Robinson added that it was extremely important for young athletes to see things being resolved the way they should, since most of them come from backgrounds where that isn’t necessarily the case.
Silver and Mills both said that the NBA was doing very well in terms of diversity in its teams’ front offices, noting the league’s high performance on Richard Lapchick’s Racial and Gender Report Card, which studies the hiring practices of sports leagues across the country.
Silver added that one of the things he is most proud of is that former NBA players are now team owners, citing Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Hornets and Shaquille O’Neal of the Sacramento Kings as examples.
Silver added that the NBA emphasizes in its rookie transition program that a player’s career in the NBA should not just be defined by how long he plays, because there are a lot of jobs in and around the league.
Robinson stressed the importance of education for young athletes and added that he tries to emphasize the importance of getting a college degree and being professionals even outside of a person’s chosen sport.
Silver noted the increased presence of the NBA in youth basketball and added that it tries to impart values like respect, hard work, teamwork and integrity on the millions of young basketball players around the world.
The panel was held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at Richardson Auditorium. It was moderated by Eddie Glaude GS ’97, Chair of the Center for African American Studies.