NBA

A group of women and men, members of the Washington Mystics, stand on a basketball court wearing white t-shirts that spell out the name Jacob Blake
Members of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man shot in the back seven times by an officer in Kenosha, WI. (photo from CNN)

Sport sociologists like Harry Edwards have long fought against the notion that sports and politics can be kept separate, battling back against assaults by people like Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, who in February 2018 told NBA star LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” In the midst of the NBA and WNBA finals, and at a time of intense political polarization, basketball fans ought to be aware of the stakes that exist for Black athletes and listen to their voices. How else can you as a fan ethically focus on the games if many of your favorite players say that they themselves cannot? In this brief essay, we offer some considerations for basketball fans today, building upon the work of many sports sociologists who have come before us.

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NBA Player Delonte West
Former NBA player Delonte West’s mental health was a prominent topic in media coverage of his career (photo via Slam).

Professional athletes in the United States and Canada are increasingly discussing their personal struggles with mental health on commercial media outlets. Notably, National Basketball Association (NBA) star Kevin Love has received praise for his “courageous fight” to combat the stigmatization of mental illness in sports. In a March 2018 essay for The Players’ Tribune, Love detailed his bouts with panic attacks during the NBA season, writing, “Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing.” As a successful athlete, Love has accrued lucrative endorsement deals with Banana Republic and the Built with Chocolate Milk campaign. Following the public stories of other NBA players like Channing Frye and DeMar DeRozan, national media outlets framed Love’s essay as a “courageous decision to speak candidly on mental health.”

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Kevin Durant faced criticism for his lack of “loyalty” when he decided to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and join the Golden State Warriors prior to the 2016-17 NBA season. (Photo from NBA.com)

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
– Karl Marx, The Manifesto of the Communist Party

Last year, Reggie Miller criticized Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors in order to win a championship. While many others made similar critiques, I find that Miller reveals a broader issue in professional sports. Miller expresses this point through the article’s title, “Kevin Durant Traded a Sacred Legacy for Cheap Jewelry.” Framing his critique through the sacred (legacy) and the profane (cheap jewelry) reveals what I see as two inter-twined, mutually-dependent yet contradictory elements that structure professional sports.

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