How the NBA Came to Embrace the Discussion of Social Issues

Of the four major American sports leagues, the National Basketball Association alone leans heavily into politics, openly embracing it as part of its core mission. 

That wasn’t always the case: in 1980, commissioner Larry O’Brien painted an image of a league where race barely mattered. “I don’t think that the owners think in terms of color,” O’Brien told reporters. “I just don’t find anyone focusing on how many Blacks and whites are on the floor…[and] I feel the fan and viewer basically is color-blind.” Philadelphia 76ers superstar forward Julius “Dr. J” Erving agreed, telling Jet magazine, “The game transcends color.”

The shift over the past 40 years toward acknowledging issues of race and politics occurred largely because the NBA’s fan base and audience changed. In 1980, most NBA fans were members of the white middle-class with enough disposable income to attend games or purchase televisions on which they could watch the few televised offerings. By contrast, in 2024, the league appeals to younger American fans, whose politics lean left, as well as those representing a broadly diverse global audience.  

This transformation of the league’s fan base has changed the calculus on recognizing race and its impact in American society. Instead of trying desperately to sidestep a potential political landmine, like the other sports leagues do, the NBA and its players have become vocal proponents of social change, even in the face of pushback from more conservative Americans.

The comments on race from Erving and O’Brien came at a moment of transition for the NBA. In 1970, about half of NBA players were Black; a decade later, they held roughly three out of every four roster spots league wide. In 1978, Milwaukee Bucks’ owner Marvin Fishman voiced a common sentiment when he articulated that teams wanted a racial “mixture” on their rosters.

In October 1979, however, the New York Knicks defied that commonly held perception with a seemingly innocuous roster move. The team released two journeymen forwards to pare their roster down from 13 players to 11—the maximum any team could carry at the time. The story would have merited little attention, but reporters realized that the two released forwards had been the only white players on the Knicks’ roster. That meant the team now fielded the first all-Black roster in NBA history. 

Knicks officials insisted the decision had nothing to do with race. Madison Square Garden chairman Sonny Werblin addressed reporters. “When you’re bad, you worry about getting good players,” he said. “You don’t care whether they’re Black, white, green or red. There was no Black-white decision to make, none whatsoever.”

Other owners, however, saw the Knicks’ decision as a misstep. “White people have to have white heroes,” Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner Ted Stepien . “I myself can’t equate to Black heroes, I’ll be truthful. I respect them, but I need white people.”

O’Brien dismissed such thinking, confidently predicting that when the Knicks built a contending team, “it will be reflected in attendance.” The commissioner understood that the percentage of the league’s players who were Black was increasing and he hoped to cultivate Black attendance at NBA games, as well as growing the league’s market share of Black television viewers.

During the 1980s and 1990s, under the guidance of O’Brien’s replacement, David Stern, the NBA pushed further in this direction. As USA Today’s basketball editor Ron Thomas later reflected, the league decided “that it was going to make being a Black league” its brand. Charismatic and marketable Black stars like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan spearheaded league publicity campaigns in the 1980s (joined by white superstar Larry Bird), while Stern also worked to spread the game globally.

The league turned its All Star game into what sportswriter J.A. Adande described as the “Black Super Bowl.” That meant recruiting Black music stars like before his death in 1984, and later J. Cole, Kanye West, Rihanna, and others, to perform at the All-Star game. Black celebrities including Spike Lee, Ahmad Rashad, Michael B. Jordan, and Kevin Hart cheered from the stands. The league also ramped up marketing efforts to target young Black fans through sports and music, including announcing the starting lineup for the 1989 All-Star game with a rap performed by the Bronx-based hip-hop group, the Ultramagnetic MCs. 

Crucial to this strategy was engaging fans through non-traditional means. “We were more loose, more in touch with music, entertainment, our players,” Don Sperling, an NBA executive, believed. “We were really the first league to sort of marry the pop culture, music, entertainment, with NBA players and its lifestyle.” When the hip-hop group Run DMC released their hit song “My Adidas,” and when Kurtis Blow’s music video for his song “Basketball” hit the mainstream in the mid-1980s, it was a perfect marriage of sports, music, and fashion—an intentional embrace of Black culture.

During Stern’s tenure as commissioner, though, this embrace was never simple.

The arrival of Allen Iverson in 1996 presented the league with a conundrum. Unlike previous Black megastars, Iverson was heavily tattooed, wore his hair in cornrows, and sported baggy clothes. And he became a . He was controversial and outspoken and unwilling to submit to the whims of the NBA’s power structure.

Whether or not directly in response to Iverson, Stern and the NBA announced a league-wide dress code in 2005, which regulated the clothing players could wear to and from the games. The league claimed that it was an effort to raise the character profile of its players, but detractors saw it as an opportunity to limit Black style.  

At the same time, Stern drove a dramatic expansion of the NBA’s global footprint. He capitalized on a steady parade of international star players — beginning with Chinese center Yao Ming, who joined the NBA in 2002 — to a build huge fan base for the league outside of the U.S. As in areas of social justice, the NBA has been ahead of other American sports leagues in engaging international audiences.

Stern stepped down in 2014 after 30 years as commissioner, and his successor Adam Silver continued to pursue global fans, while finishing the embrace of Black culture that had remained incomplete under Stern. 

By 2015, not only had the league ditched Stern’s dress code, it held a during All-Star weekend, celebrating, rather than restricting, the clothing worn by its superstar players. 

As the league came to more fully embrace Black culture, it unsurprisingly recognized that social justice issues were an important part of its brand and culture. “Part of the reason NBA players are more active,” Silver explained in a 2018 interview, “is that it’s been part of the culture of this league for generations and passed down to them.”

In 2020, after the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wis., police, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to participate in a playoff game. The move put the NBA front and center in national debates over civil and civic rights, even though the league had been politicized for decades.

Far from seeing social justice issues as problematic, Silver players’ activism. He batted aside concerns that the tie with social justice could hurt the league. “I have no data that suggests that people who were troubled by the NBA’s embrace of Black Lives Matter or our players’ positions on racial equality had a measurable impact on our ratings,” the commissioner noted. “And in fact, I think there may have been a segment of our fan base that became additionally engaged with the league as a result of the positions our players were espousing.”

And this stance makes sense because of the demographic makeup of the NBA fan base. Not only has decades of courtship translated into a large Black fan base, but the NBA also has a huge global footprint, and a younger fan base than the other leagues.

Young people lean further left in their politics than previous generations, and are in