The NBA has successfully branded itself as the professional sports league that embraces progressive politics and the individual freedoms of its players—the “woke” counterpoint to the NFL. You don’t have to be very cynical to see the intentionality behind this.
The National Football League has a lock on the sort of people who politicians refer to as “real Americans.” They’ve invested millions (perhaps even billions) of dollars in an effort to convince the country that watching and playing and coaching football are acts of patriotism. By sitting on your couch on Sunday afternoon and staying glued to the screen, you’re putting America first. And they’ve been successful. What made the Colin Kaepernick-led protests during the anthem matter was that they introduced a divergent politics to unambiguously political pageantry. When a statement like “keep politics out of sports” is heard (and football is really the only major American sport that’s ever said about), the implicit message is “keep different politics out of sports.”
Basketball has always been a city game and a game that’s most popular in the parts of the country that tend to be solidly blue. It’s also a sport where the star players are predominately black and said stars have a disproportionate amount of power—both on the court and off—compared to their counterparts in other team sports. This, combined with the inherent nature of the game—which encourages a spontaneity and individuality that’s largely frowned upon in football—make it, in many ways, football’s antithesis. (Particularly in terms of the sorts of people drawn to play and/or obsess over it.) It’s just never going to have the same sort of draw in certain parts of the country that football generally, and the NFL specifically, has. Instead of competing with that, the NBA just decided to stand a bit farther to the left.
Of course, while there are some organic reasons for the NBA’s embrace of this perception, as Deadspin’s Albert Burneko articulated last month, it’s mostly bullshit:
If there were much more to this than marketing and self-congratulation, it would bother the NBA and its broader ecosystem—including the many media types who find the sport’s positioning dovetailing in a happy sort of way with how they’d like to applaud themselves for their entertainment choices—to have as one of its celebrated icons an accused rapist who slut-shamed his accuser out of court. Kobe Bryant would not be invited to show up as a guest on NBA broadcasts to comment on the action and talk about how he’s transitioning into the next phase of his life; he would not be welcomed to do Wise Elder commentary in the video game the NBA uses to fund its e-sports venture; he would not be the retiree who shows up on ESPN Radio to perform as the avatar of the league’s flagship franchise, welcoming the sport’s biggest present-day star into the fucking Laker family.
Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of this sort of self-congratulation. I’ve felt a perverse pride about the star players in my favorite sport having the space and the freedom to criticize the president, while the NFL removes its own ribs to bend over backward for him. I’ve written that rooting for and supporting the NFL is like rooting for pollution and that the league, on the whole, is an internet troll. And I’ve done all of this while my precious NBA—its players, front offices, media and fans—basks in NFL schadenfreude and erects an unimpeachable layer of sanctimony.
And then Derrick Rose scores 50 points, and that Jenga tower of self-righteous bullshit crashes down.
All of our woke NBA favs (including LeBron “I love black women” James) were beside themselves with glee last night at the achievement of a man who has managed to come back from so much adversity—all either forgetting or just not giving a fuck about what exactly Derrick Rose is “coming back” from.
Rose has had a bad five years, bouncing from team to team while dealing with injuries related to his joints, which are made of peanut brittle. He also spent much of 2015 and 2016 dealing with a credible accusation of gang rape by a woman who said in an April 2015 lawsuit that Rose and two friends drugged and raped her. The ramifications included a prolonged legal battle in which his lawyers shamed the accuser’s sexual history in court and Rose admitted he didn’t know what consent meant, while later claiming a text message had given him consent to have sex with the accuser, who said she was incapacitated. Rose was found not liable in a civil trial, after which jury members who decided the case gleefully posed with him for photos and the presiding judge wished him well “except when the Knicks play the Lakers.” The case is under appeal, which will be heard on November 16.
What Derrick Rose did last night was an extraordinary athletic achievement. Having the greatest game of your career six years after the injury that began the parade of injuries that nearly ended it is some Rocky/Rudy type shit. And perhaps it could and should just exist as that—a singular and tremendous feat of athleticism. But when words like “comeback” and “adversity” and quotes about superheroes “knocked down” also become a part of the narrative, it reminds you that, even for the NBA, serious allegations of sexual violence against women are mere footnotes in a great man’s story. Distractions. A thing a great man must find within himself to overcome.
Of course, this sort of genuflection for the men who mistreat women is old hat. If Brett Kavanaugh can be on the Supreme Court, of course Derrick Rose can get a few congratulatory tweets and fawning profiles. Fair is fair. But the NBA, a league that prides itself on being progressive—and has millions of self-satisfied fans and followers who draw pleasure in that performative status—is looking real American right now.