The pre-game actions this week of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and
Derrick Rose, observers say, spring from their outsized celebrity,
enormous wealth and shared sense of social activism. Behind the
scenes stands a new commissioner who has let players mix sports and
social issues so far without consequence.
Adam Silver, who has been on the job as National Basketball
Association commissioner less than a year, has gained a measure of
trust with the players for his swift decision in April to ban former
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racist remarks, says
Howard Bryant, a columnist for ESPN the Magazine.
Silver, he says, is repaying that trust by letting players take
their own social stand in the workplace - and in front of millions
"He's aware that the NBA more than any other league is a players'
league, and the players are going to drive it," he said, adding that
individual stars more than teams help the league's popularity. "You
have to trust where they go with it."
Silver, who allowed teams like the Clippers and Miami Heat to turn
their warm-up shirts inside-out in protest against Sterling during
last season's playoffs, issued a statement on Monday saying he
respected the players for "voicing their personal views on important
issues, but my preference would be for players to abide by our
on-court attire rules."
Silver declined to fine players for attire violations that are in
place to ensure exposure for the NBA's apparel brands.
James, the league's biggest star, said he wore the black shirt with
"I can't breathe" written on it as a message to the family of Eric
Garner, an African-American man who died from a police chokehold in
A New York grand jury's decision last week not to indict the white
officer in Garner's death sparked demonstrations across the country.
'NO GRASS, NO COW'
Garner's final words - "I can't breathe" - have become a new
rallying cry in a protest movement that started with the killing
this summer of an 18-year-old unarmed African-American in Ferguson,
Missouri, by a white officer.
"There are important issues out there, and for athletes to recognize
they're citizens as well as entertainers, and they've got a voice
that's legitimate," President Barack Obama told ESPN Radio on
A handful of NFL players have demonstrated but none with the public
stature of James, Bryant and Rose.
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The NBA has the largest composition of African-American fans, more
than any other U.S. sports league at 45 percent, according to
research by Nielsen. That is three times higher than the NFL.
James, the Cleveland Cavaliers' MVP forward; Bryant, the Los Angeles
Lakers' prodigious scorer; and Rose, the Chicago Bulls point guard,
are also part of the NBA's ultra rich. James and Bryant will earn
more than $20 million in salary this season while Rose will make
Unlike pay 30 years ago, today's larger salaries are enough
financial insurance for most players to withstand the loss of
endorsement contracts over controversial public gestures or
statements, says Sports Illustrated media writer Richard Deitsch.
But the players are also such big stars, Deitsch adds, that it would
"LeBron James has more leverage than every corporation that he works
for," Deitsch said. James and Bryant have apparel contracts with
Nike, which is known as one of the most loyal companies to its
The NBA's main attractions are also well aware of how they fit into
the league's business structure, said John Carlos, the Olympic
bronze medalist sprinter and activist who along with Tommie Smith
protested inequality for African-Americans during a medal ceremony
at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City.
"I'm the grass the cow has to eat to get the milk," Carlos said
about a professional athletes' thinking in today's multi-billion
"If there's no grass, there's no cow."
(Editing by Mary Milliken, Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker)
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