The NBA, Civil Rights, and Political Activism in Sports

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center, Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, in New York. Professional athletes have worn "I Can't Breathe" messages in protest of a grand jury ruling not to indict an officer in the death of a New York man. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
LeBron James at the Barclays Center in 2014. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

We are only days from the opening tip of the 2016-2017 NBA season. Many fans are looking forward to watching LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers attempt to defend their title against the rest of the league led by the ultra-talented Golden State Warriors roster that includes Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and now Kevin Durant. However, over the summer, the league flexed its muscles by intervening in state politics. NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, announced that he was moving the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans because of House Bill no. 2 (HB2), North Carolina’s anti-LGBT legislation. The bill designates bathroom usage based on the “biological sex” on a person’s birth certificate. While the constitutionality of HB2 is doubtful, the relocation of the NBA All-Star game is a strong anti-discrimination statement by the league, and is tantamount to an economic boycott.

The NBA’s decision to wade into a state’s discriminatory policy seems odd at first. NBA officials tolerated racial discrimination from former Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Sterling for more than three decades. The elimination of league-sponsored events in North Carolina seems hypocritical in light of this history. In addition to professional basketball, the NCAA relocated seven championship events in the state, including the first and second rounds of the 2017 NCAA Men’s basketball tournament that were to be played in Greensboro, North Carolina. Finally, the Atlantic Coast Conference, home to North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, and Wake Forest, joined the protest by moving all neutral site championships from the state in 2016-2017. The loss of the All-Star Game and other events has been estimated to be more than $500 million. Although this represents only 0.1% of the state’s economy, North Carolina has lost its place as a progressive southern state.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eslanda Goode Robeson (Credit Schomburg Photographs and Prints Division, Claudia Jones Memorial Photograph Collection)
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eslanda Goode Robeson (Credit Schomburg Photographs and Prints Division, Claudia Jones Memorial Photograph Collection)

The NBA’s decision to move the All-Star game, however, follows a blueprint developed thirty-years earlier. In 1987, the NBA removed league business, instead of individual teams, from Arizona over its failure to honor a Martin Luther King Holiday on the state level. The league’s avoidance of Arizona proved to a model on how to influence state policy.

In January 1987, Republican Evan Mecham became Arizona’s 17th governor, replacing popular Democrat Bruce Babbit. During his run to the governor’s mansion, Mecham promised to repeal the Martin Luther King Holiday, which Babbit had created through executive order. Mecham’s racially-tinged rhetoric declared, “Black folks don’t need a holiday. What you need is jobs.” Days after taking office, Mecham kept his campaign promise and rescinded the King Holiday.

Evan Mecham
Evan Mecham

Mecham’s anti-holiday position went against national trends in support of a King Holiday. Shortly after King’s assassination in 1968, Detroit, Michigan, Congressman John Conyers introduced federal legislation for a Martin Luther King Holiday. Conyers reintroduced the bill every year, gradually building support for the holiday. Ronald Reagan signed the legislation in 1983 and the nation celebrated the first federal King Holiday in January 1986. In addition, forty-four states, including Arizona, celebrated a King Holiday. Mecham’s repeal of Martin Luther King Day exposed the state to charges of racism, setting the stage for the NBA’s sanctions.

Mecham refused to reverse his decision even in the face of protest and unpopularity. On King’s birthday in January 1987, fifteen thousand marchers delivered 50,000 signatures to the statehouse in a petition to restore the holiday. A high school student expressed his displeasure with Mecham’s decision: “In my opinion it was a very racist thing to do. With all due respect, you are a bigot.” President Ronald Reagan admitted, “Even those who had disagreements with Dr. King now recognize that the changes he helped bring about were right.”1 Mecham was unmoved.

The governor’s opponents called him a racist for rescinding the holiday. There is plenty of evidence to support this claim. However, Mecham’s non-racial economic arguments echoed conservatives’ shift to color-blind racial discourse. He called for a voter referendum, arguing the state could not afford another paid holiday.

Tourism was Arizona’s second largest industry accounting for approximately $4 billion to the state’s economy. Supporters of the MLK Holiday continued to rally support for their cause, making an economic boycott the centerpiece of their strategy. Stevie Wonder immediately said he would boycott the state, and observers feared the loss of the 1989 National Baptist Convention. In July 1987, the NBA announced it was moving its offseason meeting from Scottsdale. Commissioner David Stern stated, “The political climate surrounding this controversy makes it inappropriate for us to convene in Arizona at this time.”2 Professional basketball’s removal of league business increased the attention to the boycott.

Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the home to the Phoenix Suns in 1987
Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Phoenix Suns’ home in 1987

Sports tourism, especially in Phoenix, was a central component of Arizona’s economy. The state capital had grown from just over 100,000 residents in 1950 to just under a million four decades later. Like other Sunbelt cities, sports were essential in establishing a national identity. The NBA awarded Phoenix an expansion franchise in 1968. By the late 1980s, Phoenix sought a larger sports presence. The Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, a Phoenix suburb, joined the Rose, Orange, Cotton, and Sugar Bowls with a New Year’s Day college football game. Signaling its place among the big-time bowl games, the Fiesta Bowl hosted the 1986 National title game between the University of Miami and Penn State University. In 1987 the city lured the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals to the city. Thus, the NBA’s refusal to hold official business in Arizona beginning in 1987 signaled an amplification of the intersection of sports and politics.

Despite Evan Mecham’s impeachment and removal from office in 1988, the Martin Luther King Holiday controversy lasted well into the 1990s. The boycott had begun to take its toll on the state’s economy. By one account fifty-eight conventions with potentially 46,000 visitors had been cancelled. The estimated economic loss was $30 million. The state legislature’s compromise of exchanging the paid holiday for Columbus Day for Martin Luther King Day only angered the state’s Italian-American community. To quell the controversy, the legislature put the issue to the people with a referendum. Arizonans would decide the fate of the King Holiday in November 1990.3

The NBA paid close attention to results. The stakes were now higher, as the Phoenix Suns broke ground on a new arena one month before the 1990 vote. The measure for a King Holiday failed, 50.8% to 49.2%. The NBA continued its stance on avoiding league business in the state. It announced that Phoenix would not host the 1993 or 1994 All-Star Game, a common incentive for building a new arena, as long as there was no King Holiday. NBA deputy commission Russ Granik told reporters, “It’s unbelievable that the people in the government haven’t been able to figure out a way to make it work.”4 Other professional and college sports teams followed the NBA’s lead. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue recommended that the 1993 Super Bowl be moved from Tempe. The University of Notre Dame and the University of Virginia refused invitations to the 1991 Fiesta Bowl.5

The NBA’s actions had spurred other sports leagues and teams to intervene in state politics. In the end, the pressure from the NBA and sports leagues worked. Arizona planned another referendum for November 1992. The business and sports community actively supported the African American leaders who had been working diligently for a holiday for nearly twenty years. Suns owner Jerry Colangelo donated $100,000 and helped raise more than $1.7 million for the King Holiday Campaign.

The 1992 vote for a holiday had widespread support from the Phoenix business community and a growing number of Republicans. In addition, the Los Angeles riots loomed over the proceedings. The Rodney King verdict and subsequent violent response presented an opportunity for King Holiday supporters to tout King’s philosophy of non-violence. Polls showed the riot improved the King Holiday’s chances of passing. Buoyed by Arizona business leaders, the threat of urban rebellion, and Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, the King Holiday passed with more than 60% of the vote.

Since Colin Kaepernick‘s recent refusal to stand for the national anthem, sports protest has returned to the public consciousness. The individual courage of Kaepernick and other athletes highlights the pervasiveness of police brutality and discrimination. A review of the NBA’s boycott of Arizona in support of the King Holiday and HB2 in North Carolina points to the role that sport leagues can play in support of anti-discrimination policies.

Moreover, the NBA’s opposition of HB2 suggests that the relocation of the NBA All-Star Game is just the opening foray of athletics and LGBT rights. It comes as no surprise that US Women’s Soccer star Megan Rapinoe was among the first to join Kaepernick in protesting on behalf of social justice. “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” she said. The NBA, NCAA, and the ACC’s removing of sporting events from North Carolina points to another dimension of sports protest, one that connects the legacy of the civil rights movement with emerging protests for social justice.

Derrick E. White is a scholar of modern Black history with an emphasis on intellectual, political, and sports history. He is the the author of The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (Florida, 2011) and co-editor of Winning While Losing: Civil Rights, The Conservative Movement and the Presidency from Nixon to Obama (Florida, 2014). He is currently working a book tentatively titled, Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Florida A & M and the Rise and Fall of a Black College Football Dynasty. Follow him on Twitter @blackstar1906

  1.  “Even Foes Now Recognized King Was Right, Reagan Says,” Los Angeles Times, January 15, 1987, 2.
  2.  “NBA Moves League Meeting Because of Arizona’s Stance on King Holiday,” The Baltimore Sun, July 3, 1987, 13C.
  3. Julie Cart, “No Limit on Damage in King Controversy,” Los Angeles Times, November 18, 1990, SDC14.
  4. David Aldridge, “More King Backlash as NBA Deserts Arizona,” Washington Post, November 27, 1990, E3.
  5. Jamie Diaz, “Tributes and a Louisville Victory,” The New York Times, January 2, 1991.
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