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NBA governors will have to use their political capital to enact social change

The league is donating millions of dollars to the Black community, but money can’t solve every problem

In early August, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association announced they would be creating a charitable foundation that all 30 NBA governors, over the next 10 years, will collectively donate $300 million to provide economic resources for the Black community.

The NBA Foundation, according to NBA commissioner Adam Silver, is meant to use “the collective resources of the 30 teams, the players and the league to drive meaningful economic opportunities for Black Americans.”

He added: “We believe that through focused programs in our team markets and nationally, together with clear and specific performance measures, we can advance our shared goals of creating substantial economic mobility within the Black community.”

Skills training, job placement and overall racial equality are the end goals of the foundation, which will be implemented in cities where NBA franchises are located. If Black men and women are financially supported, the thinking goes, then racial inequality ceases to exist.

But a few weeks after the NBA Foundation was formed, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot in the back seven times by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer Rusten Sheskey as Blake was walking to his car. In response to the shooting of Blake, the protests that followed in its wake, and the shooting deaths of two protesters, allegedly by a 17-year-old militia member from nearby Illinois, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play Game 5 of their opening-round series against the Orlando Magic on Aug. 26.

At a hastily arranged news conference after protesting without playing, the Bucks said they were demanding the Wisconsin state legislature to reconvene to take up legislation that would hold police officers accountable for the very circumstance that led to Blake’s shooting. It was later reported that the Bucks held a virtual phone call with Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Attorney General Josh Kaul.

That call was organized by Bucks governor Marc Lasry and senior vice president Alex Lasry.

While the Republican-controlled legislature failed to vote on the bill, gaveling in and out of session in less than 30 seconds, that episode highlights what NBA governors — and executives across the entire sports landscape — must do if they truly want to effect change for Black people in this country: Use their political connections.

According to Forbes, nearly half of the league’s 30 team governors have a net worth of $1 billion or more. Which means that when a crisis arises in the league, they can just throw money at the problem, as they did with the NBA Foundation.

But in the governors’ outside ventures — and every team, save for the Los Angeles Lakers, is governed by a man or woman who makes their fortunes outside of team ownership — money can’t solve every problem. Where riches fail, political capital and connections step in.

The most recent example of that was in 2016 after then-North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law House Bill 2, which effectively required transgender people to use restrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates. The NBA, which opposed the discriminatory law, pulled the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, North Carolina, and Michael Jordan, governor of the hometown Hornets, released a statement saying the team is “opposed to discrimination in any form.”

A year later, North Carolina lawmakers repealed aspects of the law, in part due to pressure from the NBA and the NCAA. In 2019, Charlotte hosted the All-Star Game.

When it comes to police accountability and reform, though, the NBA and its governors have not been as proactive as the North Carolina case, even though they have used their political capital for issues that affect their other businesses.

Former Portland Trail Blazers governor Paul Allen, also the owner of Vulcan Inc., a conservation and climate-focused investment company, paid lobbyists to advocate against the Bureau of Land Management’s coal leasing program for the protection of endangered wildlife and for the reduction of carbon emissions, according to lobbying disclosure forms. (Allen died in 2018.)

Dallas Mavericks governor Mark Cuban, who got wealthy in the computer software industry before buying the team in 2000, so opposed “net neutrality” legislation that he traveled to Washington to meet with Republicans and Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee. While on Capitol Hill, according to Politico, Cuban also met with members of the Senate and House judiciary committees, and with “Republican chiefs of staff Wednesday to talk about his Wall Street Journal opinion piece on why he wants to be a Republican.”

New York Knicks governor James Dolan has lobbied Congress on behalf of tax policy, music licensing reform, privacy and security.

Magic governors, the DeVos family, who also own direct-selling company Amway and its parent company, Alticor, spent $700,000 on special interest lobbying efforts in 2019, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The issues the DeVos family, which includes current education secretary Betsy DeVos, seemed to care most about were Department of Defense appropriations, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the Preserving Direct Seller Independence Act and legislation that alters the tax classification of gig economy workers.

Though the NBA itself rarely lobbies at the federal level, major sports organizations such as the NFL and MLB spend millions of dollars a year on the practice. That being said, in 2014, the NBA spent $30,000 to lobby Congress, the White House and the Department of the Interior on “federal issues affecting professional sports leagues, including sports gambling, taxation of municipal bonds to include sports stadiums, terrorism risk insurance and sports sponsorships by government agencies.” That same year, commissioner Adam Silver wrote in a New York Times op-ed advocating for legalized sports betting.

Fans of the Seattle SuperSonics likely don’t want to hear this, but the owners of the now-Oklahoma City Thunder had it right when it came to throwing around political weight: If lawmakers don’t bow to your demands, leave. (That type of threat worked for the Bucks.)

To achieve nationwide police accountability, which is what last month’s protest without playing was all about, it will take more than each of the league’s 30 governors contributing $1 million a year to the NBA Foundation.

One of the fallacies of America is that capitalism will save us all. The best analogy is breast cancer awareness. Billions of dollars are raised every year for breast cancer research, yet there is still no cure for the disease. If anything, the breast cancer awareness movement has been so commodified that its original intention — removing the stigma of the disease — has been lost in the consumption of pink products.

Donating millions of dollars to the indiscernible “Black community” in the name of social justice and police reform is about as impactful as wearing a pink ribbon. If governors truly care about the betterment and protection of Black people from state violence, if Black lives really matter, then they have to put in the same effort and attention in, say, the prison industrial complex as they do music licensing rights. (A cynic could argue that’s impossible, seeing as, per The Ringer, NBA governors overwhelmingly donate to Republican politicians, who overwhelmingly oppose the Black Lives Matter movement.)

That means lobbying at the state and federal levels in ending qualified immunity laws that shield police officers from lawsuits when accused of violating civil rights; supporting legislation that does not shield police misconduct records from the public, such as New York’s section 50-a law; eradicating the federal use of for-profit private prisons; defunding and/or abolishing police departments and redistributing funds to social services; removing officers from K-12 schools and college campuses; and eliminating collective bargaining rights for police unions, similar to what state legislatures have done to other public unions for decades.

This would be difficult for many team governors, as they have close relationships with police who work their arenas, and in the case of Cleveland Cavaliers governor Dan Gilbert, own their own jails. According to TrueHoop, multiple NBA governors run private equity funds that manage the pensions for the New York Police Department.

But two sports teams — one in the NBA, the other in the NFL — have made first-step efforts. The day the Bucks refused to play the Magic, the Boston Celtics tweeted out information on how people could contact the Kenosha district attorney and mayor and Wisconsin Department of Justice about Blake’s shooting. A day later, the Baltimore Ravens released a list of demands, including but not limited to the arrest and charging of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor, the end of qualified immunity, choke holds and no-knock warrants, and for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 to a Senate vote.

But, in the end, NBA governors will have to want to enact this sort of change. Which may be the largest hurdle.

After NBA players sat out games out of protest in August, an anonymous team governor told ESPN that he or she didn’t know what more could be done after already pledging $300 million.

“What is it they think the league can do?” that person said. “We have been fully supportive.”

Martenzie is an associate editor for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"