After racial tumult, NBA opens floor to social activism

Sat Dec 13, 2014 12:13am EST
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By Eric Kelsey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When a wave of the NBA's biggest stars donned "I can't breathe" shirts - the rallying cry of demonstrators against U.S. policing tactics in black communities - it highlighted the power and influence wielded by today's professional basketball stars.

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 of fans.

"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 July.   Continued...

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) wears an " I Can't Breathe" t-shirt during warm ups prior to the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center in New York City December 8, 2014. REUTERS/USA Today Sports/Robert Deutsch