After all that, the players secured a series of concessions that include a new league-sponsored “social justice coalition,” an agreement that team and arena owners would work to convert their stadiums into “mass-voting locations” this November, and the production of new ads “promoting civic engagement in local and national elections and raising awareness about voter access and opportunity.”
Such measures aren’t just PR sops meant to placate the “shut up and dribble” crowd. The world of sports broadcasting is notoriously gun-shy when it comes to politics — even when those expressions of political belief are symbolic rather than electoral. All of which makes what NBA players have accomplished here unprecedented.
As the coronavirus pandemic and voter suppression tactics threaten to depress turnout in the very cities across America that have been rocked by the violence and injustice, the NBA will expand voting access and participation. The stadiums that will double as polling stations aren’t just in safely blue states, they’re in places with down-ballot and Electoral College ramifications—Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia.
In light of the strike’s shocking nature and its just-as-shockingly quick resolution, it’s easy to miss the elegant genius of what it accomplished. For all their carping about voter fraud, Trump and his Greek chorus in conservative media are hard-pressed to argue against measures to promote in-person voting. Or, now that players are back on the court, to complain about spoiled millionaires hypocritically shirking their duties while the poor, average fan suffers through quarantine with nothing to keep them company but Formula 1 on tape delay.
The NBA playoffs resumed seamlessly this week, but the decision wasn’t without its critics on the left—specifically with regard to the influence of Barack Obama, the Bernie-verse’s bugbear of perceived half-stepping. When the news broke that Obama counseled players to return to the court with concessions, responses ranged from “are you fucking kidding me” to jokes about Larry Summers and Richard Branson to the evergreen, sarcastic “thanks obama.”
The snark elides how the NBA throwing its weight behind voting access could have a huge impact on this fall’s elections—and, therefore, the near-future not only of criminal justice reform, but of any number of longtime progressive priorities. In 2018, unprecedented midterm turnout led to a slew of liberal reformers winning office up and down the ballot, even in places not usually known for their progressive zeal. Take Houston, where Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo led a wave of Democrats who swept Republicans out of the county’s courts and are now remaking its criminal justice system in their own image. Or Nevada, where its attorney general, Aaron Ford, has pushed for greater state oversight of local police.
I hate to disagree with amateur labor strategists on Twitter, but it strikes me that “making it much easier for people in many major urban areas to vote” is a more productive endgame than “holding out until Wisconsin Republicans agree to abolish capitalism.” Of course saying that access to the ballot is important might imply that getting Trump out of office is important and that would be cringe.