“The NBA understood that diversity was a moral imperative,” says Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “But it was the first league to understand that diversity and inclusion are also business imperatives.”
Since 1988, Lapchick has compiled race and gender “report cards” for each of the major U.S. sports leagues, assessing them on equity in hiring practices. The NBA, Lapchick says, has consistently earned the highest grades on both racial and gender inclusion; for 2015, the year of the most recent report, the NBA earned men’s pro sports’ only A+ for racial hiring practices, and a B+ for gender.
The league’s emphasis on diversity—unparalleled in men’s professional sports—originated, Lapchick says, under the league’s former commissioner, David Stern, who oversaw the creation of the WNBA and recognized that the NBA, the majority of whose players are African American, should have a management that reflected the diversity on the court. Adam Silver, who took over Stern’s role in 2014, has preserved that mentality. Almost immediately following his appointment as commissioner, Silver forced out Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers’ general manager, for his racist remarks against African Americans, sending a clear message that the NBA will not stand for intolerance.
But in many ways, the NBA is progressive only insofar as its players have pulled it in that direction. The NBA has always been a star-driven league; the teams themselves almost pale in comparison to the popular forces of their big-name players, like Michael Jordan in the 1990s and Stephen Curry today. In contrast to baseball or football, in which players’ personalities are obscured by helmets and hats and entrenched ideas of decorum, “basketball is the sport where the players’ faces and emotions are the most clear and exposed,” says sportswriter Dave Zirin, the host of the podcast The Edge of Sports.
Silver’s approach to social media actually takes into account the value-added in encouraging diversity. In a speech at Austin’s South by Southwest conference, he said,
I think we were early adopters in terms of encouraging our players on social media … it has enormous value for the league to make [players] into the multi-valued people that they are. It gives them direct access to their fans and ability to share their personal interests … Social media from our players makes our ratings higher and brand stronger.
On Twitter, players and teams, seemingly uninhibited, mingle with their supporters. “If you have a largely progressive set of fans, which the NBA does, and they see the players they watch share their politics, that’s going to be a benefit in terms of building relationships with those fans,” Lewis says.
That is not so much the case for the NFL. Professional football generally discourages players’ outspokenness; in a column for Deadspin, the former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, who was let go from the team after advocating for marriage equality, recalled his coach telling him that "There are two things you don't talk about in the NFL, politics and religion."