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The NBA’s Culture War

Management wants to soften the league’s image. But will fans buy what they’re selling?
Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat - Game Two

The NBA is typically derided as the “wokest” of the major sports leagues, but you wouldn’t know it from the on-court product. 

Games are billed as mano-a-mano contests between star players. Macho posturing after a dunk or a clutch three-pointer is commonplace. Schoolyard taunts—“He can’t guard me!” He’s too little!”—are routinely beamed into the living rooms and sports bars of millions of viewers. This year, playoff audiences have been treated to thunderous chants of “Whoop That Trick,” the semi-official rallying cry of the Memphis Grizzlies. The Last Dance, arguably the most successful entertainment product of the lockdown era, portrayed the league’s greatest player as a borderline sociopath who alienated teammates and opponents alike with his win-at-all-costs mentality (compare this to the studied inoffensiveness of Tom Brady, the aging face of the NFL). 

Yet there is a contradiction at the heart of the NBA’s business strategy. A league that is now run by the same left-leaning technocrats who manage our universities, federal agencies, and corporations is stuck marketing a product that appeals to fans’ basest competitive and tribal instincts. From its entanglement with China to basketball’s evolving style of play, the NBA has struggled to manage this tension.

Over the past decade, the NBA has tried to balance domestic popularity, international expansion, and its burgeoning reputation as the most progressive and forward-thinking of the major sports leagues. Several incidents have upset this delicate juggling act. The beginning of this era dates back to 2012, when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was forced out of the league for making racially incendiary comments on a leaked audiotape. 

The Sterling affair, now in development as a prestige television drama, was the first major challenge of newly minted commissioner Adam Silver’s career. Silver was widely hailed for getting rid of Sterling, a reviled figure whose crude racism and shady business dealings made him an easy target for ostracism. But the controversy was a foretaste of an era of political upheaval, erratic ratings, and league-wide controversy that would prove more difficult to manage than one obnoxious owner. 

In 2019, Houston Rockets General Manager Darryl Morey provoked an uproar in China for tweeting his support of Hong Kong protesters. Morey has since moved to the Philadelphia 76ers, and it has been reported that his job with Houston was in serious jeopardy for endangering the Rockets’ lucrative foothold in the Chinese market. Meanwhile, the NBA’s lukewarm defense of free speech, and the criticism of Morey’s tweet from NBA superstar LeBron James among others, provoked a massive domestic backlash. 

Since then, the league’s embrace of Black Lives Matter activism and left-wing sloganeering has coincided with a notable dip in ratings, a connection that few want to admit to publicly. The league has also been dogged by Covid controversy. Eccentric Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving’s public refusal to get jabbed cost him a season’s worth of home games because of New York City’s vaccine mandate. 

The China issue, meanwhile, lingers like a festering sore. A recent ESPN profile of Taiwanese-born Nets owner Joseph Tsai contrasted his BLM donations in the United States with his conspicuous silence on Chinese human-rights abuses. 

These political disputes have exposed the awkward marriage between NBA management and a fan base that still craves tribalism, old-school competition, and doesn’t thrill at the prospect of being lectured by the likes of Tsai. Historically, the NBA has thrived on franchise rivalries and star-centered dynasties. The league still produces stars at a reliable clip (the average NBA’s player’s skill and athleticism have never been more impressive), but the connection between cities and players is increasingly tenuous. Meanwhile, the advent of sports analytics has changed the league’s style of play, creating a homogenous brand of basketball that emphasizes efficiency over showmanship. 

The star who embodies this new breed of NBA mercenary is James Harden, who changed teams twice in 13 months after conspicuously signaling his displeasure on the court. Harden favors step-back three-pointers and drawn fouls, a joyless approach to the game that is off-putting to casual fans. By conventional measures, Harden’s career has been an unqualified success. It’s just not clear who wants to watch him play basketball. 

Harden’s hyper-efficient style reflects the changing face of NBA management. A league that was once run by local business magnates has become an investment vehicle for tech titans and venture capitalists. These savvy newcomers have brought their data-driven management style to coaching staffs and front offices, seeking to exploit inefficiencies in the game and loopholes in the rules to gain a competitive edge. The NBA’s embrace of the three-pointer is the most obvious consequence of this managerial shift, as is a trade market that has replaced franchise continuity with roster churn and relentless deal-making. Harden, who combines an analytics-friendly style of play with a willingness to jump ship, is the perfect avatar for a new generation of NBA number-crunchers and general managers. 

Even the commissioner seems to embody this new ethos. Former NBA chief David Stern ran the league like a feudal baron, relishing his role as a heavy-handed disciplinarian while gleefully absorbing fan abuse on draft day. His successor is a bespectacled, University of Chicago-educated lawyer who mouths platitudes about mental-health awareness and Chinese-American relations. 

If this combination of mercenary capitalism and social liberalism sounds familiar, it’s because NBA management increasingly reflects the sensibilities of (and tensions within) other flagship American institutions. Nike, a company that has long thrived on partnerships with macho NBA icons like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, now lectures audiences on inclusion, tolerance, and the urgency of watching women’s sports. Long-time NBA reporter Ethan Strauss attributes this tone-deaf approach to a disconnect between Nike’s creatives and its core audience:

There’s a lot of interplay between Nike and Wieden+Kennedy when the former asks the latter for a type of ad, but the through line from both sides is a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Based on conversations with people who’ve worked in both environments, there’s a dearth of personnel who are deeply connected to sports. In place of a grounding in a subculture, you’re getting ideas from folks who went to nice colleges and trendy ad schools, the type of people who throw words like “patriarchy” at the screen to celebrate a gold medal victory. The older leaders, uneasy in their station and thus obsessed with looking cutting edge, lean on the younger types because the youth are confident. Unfortunately, that confidence is rooted in an ability to regurgitate liturgy, rather than generative genius.

These same tensions can be found at other large American corporations, from Disney, where a corporate executive with trangender and pansexual children oversees the development of family entertainment, to the New York Times, which faced a workplace revolt for publishing an op-ed from a Republican senator. 

But do people want to root for an NBA team run like a hedge fund or a liberal newspaper? The evidence is mixed. The era of mercenary stars, three-point barrages, and slanted political activism has produced YouTube highlights, massive contracts, and soaring franchise valuations. It has also been a ratings bust.  

And the old tribal loyalties are proving surprisingly durable. Social media was supposed to inaugurate a new era of fandom that prized personality and individual skill over team loyalty. “Rooting for laundry,” the media’s derisory term for cheering on the home team, was a relic of the past. Yet the new-money Nets and Los Angeles Clippers, owned by Tsai and former Microsoft head Steve Ballmer, have failed to supplant the Knicks and the Lakers, their venerable crosstown rivals. The laundry, it seems, has staying power. 

Despite its history of star rivalries and outsized personalities, the NBA is also trying to soften its tough-guy image. Silver’s latest initiative is to get NBA journalists out of post-game locker rooms, cutting reporters off from their best source of player gossip, grudges, and outrageous quotes. Strauss, himself a veteran of NBA beat reporting, thinks this is an attempt to shield fans from the league’s most retrograde, and entertaining, stories. 

To quote former NBA All-Star Charles Barkley, “The locker room is racist, homophobic and sexist. And I miss it.” Barkley, not coincidentally, has become a television icon for his outspoken commentary and willingness to mix it up with current and former players. 

A generation ago, Stern and his underlings worried that their product was too “street,” too confrontational, and perhaps too black for a mostly white audience. Now fans are nostalgic for hard-nosed rivalries like the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons versus Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and the outrageously physical 1990s Knicks. The new HBO series Winning Time celebrates the behind-the-scenes antics of Magic Johnson’s Lakers and their budding feud with the Boston Celtics. NBA fans still crave macho confrontation, franchise loyalty, and dominant dynasties. League management, however, seems increasingly reluctant to meet this demand. 

The NBA is in no danger of disappearing. The players’ athleticism is astonishing, the playoffs are compelling, and a new generation of stars, from Nikola Jokić in Denver to Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee to Ja Morant in Memphis, is revitalizing the league’s brand outside the traditional big-city powerhouses. Like many American corporations, however, the NBA seems vaguely embarrassed by the product it is selling (and, by extension, the sensibilities of its core audience). How the owners and front offices manage this tension will determine the future of the sport. 

Will Collins is a teacher in Budapest, Hungary.