Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP
Stripped of context, the idea is a noble one. In reaction to the anti-racism protests across the US, the NBA will allow players to wear messages on their jerseys in support of social justice when the league returns later this month. However, the rollout has not gone as smoothly as the league would have hoped. Not all players have been fully satisfied with the limited choices the league has approved and there is a growing movement to leave the space blank as a silent protest. A gesture that was meant to portray the league in a positive light instead has become a case study in the limits of corporate virtue-signaling.
The NBA’s decision to allow players to choose messages was a bigger concession than it may appear. Leagues typically want to maintain tight control on how their players dress on the field or court. The NFL, in particular, is notorious for how quick it is to levy fines for even the tiniest alterations. In allowing its players to use their uniform to comment on such topics as racism, systematic inequality and police brutality, the league is taking on a certain amount of risk. The list of 29 phrases allowed includes potentially divisive statements – in more conservative states, anyway – such as “Say Their Names” and “I Can’t Breathe.”
The NBA didn’t do this of its own accord. The decision came after receiving pressure from a group of players – headed by the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving – who believed restarting the season could act as a distraction after the Black Lives Matter movement had captured mainstream attention. This may have influenced the Los Angeles Lakers’ Avery Bradley’s decision to stay at home rather than travel to Walt Disney World with his teammates, although the primary reason he gave was the health of his family.
If the NBA expected the jersey idea to completely satisfy players, it received a rude awakening. Most notably, LeBron James, the league’s most popular player and its de facto spokesperson, came out to say that he was skipping the whole concept. “It was no disrespect to the list that was handed down to all the players,” James told reporters. “I commend anyone that decides to put something on the back of their jersey. It’s just something that didn’t seriously resonate with my mission, with my goal.” He pointedly added that he had several ideas he would have suggested had he been part of the process, but he wasn’t.
James was the most high-profile player to opt-out, but he was far from alone. He wasn’t even the only Laker, as his teammate Anthony Davis decided to stick with “Davis” on the back of his jersey. The Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler began pressuring the league to allow him to wear no name on the back of his jersey to highlight the fact that he’s “no different than anybody else of color.” Reportedly as many as 30 other players have followed Butler’s lead. The Houston Rockets’ Austin Rivers and Tyson Chandler were denied the ability to wear the name “Martin” in honor of Trayvon Martin, the young man whose murder at the hands of George Zimmerman provoked a wave of protests back in 2012.
Ultimately it seems like that a significant number of players were disappointed in being limited in what they were allowed to express. Philadelphia 76ers forward Mike Scott perhaps summed it up best: “They gave us some names and phrases to put on the back of jerseys,” Scott said. “That was terrible. It was a bad list, bad choice. They didn’t give players a chance to voice their opinion on it. They just gave us a list to pick from.”
One of the most overused phrases in the current discourse is “virtue signaling,” a term used to accuse someone of expressing the correct opinion not out of any inner conviction but in order to feel morally superior. It’s mostly used in conservative circles as a bludgeon against anyone who dares to suggest that people should care about their fellow human beings. If there is any value to the phrase, and it’s possible that there isn’t, it probably should be reserved for brands and corporations who, in the hope of either courting positive media attention or holding off potential controversy, make superficial gestures of sensitivity or solidarity. Businesses, in the end, aren’t designed to care about anything other than making a profit and it’s foolish to believe otherwise.
Under commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA has gained a reputation as the most liberal of the major US sports leagues, but it’s a reputation that it has mostly achieved thanks to comparisons to the more conservative leadership of the NFL, NHL and MLB. As its disastrous approach to the Hong Kong controversy last autumn proved, the NBA’s front as a progressive organization has firm limits.
The fact that players aren’t fully embracing the league’s jersey initiative should be a sign: let us not use this as evidence that the NBA as an entity is somehow “woke”. While it’s important to believe in the sincerity of those who have chosen to express themselves by choosing a particular message, let’s not give that same benefit of the doubt to the organizations that employ them. Good may come out of this particular gimmick, but it remains a gimmick none-the-less.