NBA Players Demand Democratic Reform

K Mann

September 17, 2020

With an average height of 6’6” versus 5’9” for the general U.S. population professional basketball players are giants in the conventional physical sense. They recently proved they are moral and political giants as well. First, with the Milwaukee Bucks leading the charge, they halted play in the midst of their playoffs to state their opposition to racist police violence following the brutal shooting and paralysis of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 23. (See Athletes Making Sports Matter.)

Then, the players demanded that the sports arenas they play in — large airy structures with great potential for social distancing — be used as polling stations for the November elections. In so doing, the players are making not only a statement, but a demand — which has been reportedly accepted — in favor of ensuring a basic democratic right: elections open to all eligible voters.

They also reportedly won agreement that game time advertisements, which are worth huge sums, will include voter registration information. Such measures complement the efforts of NBA superstar LeBron James’ efforts to assure voting participation through the recruitment of poll workers.

Even before the NBA players actions professional athletes from Colin Kaepernick to, most recently, the women’s NBA (WNBA) have taken strong public positions in favor of racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The assault on African American voting rights has been a cornerstone of white supremacy since the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and for Black and white women before the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, blanket exclusion, topped off by white violence were the methods of Black disenfranchisement until the sending of federal troops to southern states and the passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act.

The current methods used to disenfranchise African Americans include the closing of polling stations, the removal of mail sorting machines in the U.S. Post Office by a Trump political hack, gerrymandering, and other dirty tricks, all designed to help Trump and the Republicans at the polls.

The demand that the stadiums be used as polling stations is a measure to assure both public safety and democratic participation. It is also of political and symbolic importance. Urban residents, many of whom are of color and occupy the lowest rungs of the labor market, are at greatest risk of both Covid-19 and disenfranchisement. They often live in the shadow of these stadiums, the price of whose tickets are well beyond their reach.

Many poor people of color have been displaced to make room for the stadiums. Often the stadiums have been paid for with bonds bought up by wealthy investors who can purchase tickets and attend the game, usually in sky boxes whose very presence drives up ticket prices for the regular seats, and write off the price of their tickets as business expenses. The bonds are paid back through the use of regressive sales taxes which fall most heavily on the shoulders of these same victims of economic exploitations, excessive exposure to the risks of Covid-19, and political disenfranchisement.

The demand to open up sports arenas as polling stations is deeply democratic and a rational safe approach to public health. It’s a bold demand that helps us imagine how sports stadiums could be transformed from citadels of displacement and inequality to places where all, regardless of ability to pay, could find a seat to the game, safe shelter if necessary in time of disaster, and a safe space to vote in time of a pandemic.

The demand of NBA players to use sports stadiums for polling places brings the social justice game of professional athletes to the next level in ways that make them truly giants.

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