NBA owners publicly support BLM, but donations say otherwise

Political contributions stand at odds with owners’ positive public messages on social justice

No one at the start of 2020 could have imagined the momentous change that was on the horizon for the NBA in what was to become one of the most unprecedented basketball seasons in the league’s 74-year history.

The year began in tragedy with the death of one of the game’s biggest stars, Kobe Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter crash in January. The season next took an unsettling turn in early March after a few players tested positive for the coronavirus ahead of a tipoff, compelling the league’s commissioner to suspend all games indefinitely. It was the same day the virus was declared a global pandemic, and the remainder of the season was suddenly in doubt..

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Months later, in late July when the league finally figured out how to restart the season in the now well-known bubble in Orlando, the issue of systemic racism, which first boiled over after the police custody death of George Floyd in May, reared its head again in the August shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The episode brought renewed discontent to every locker room in the NBA and threatened to end the season in protest.

Ultimately, things moved on but not in the same way.

A historic stand

The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 106-93 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night, giving the Lakers their 17th world championship. The Lakers won the series 4-2, but their championship this year might be easily forgotten in the shadow of the historic stand for racial justice that has transformed the look and feel of the NBA and forced the league to reassess its commitment to social change.

The NBA’s new branding and messaging on racial equality have no doubt amplified the calls for social justice in America, but the outward show of support for the cause stands in direct odds with conservative political donations that NBA owners have made during the past several years.

Chasing legislation

Currently, the NBA’s players are pushing lawmakers to pass legislation known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, or HR 7120.

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The bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California, passed the House on a mostly party-line vote in late June but has been stuck in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to call a vote on the measure.

The bill calls for more accountability in policing, mainly by limiting the qualified immunity standard that protects officers from civil lawsuits. The legislation would also lower the threshold for criminal intent that is required to convict police officers for misconduct in federal court, reports said.

The progressive policy change being sought by NBA players clashes with the policy aims of a wide swath of team owners, many of whom are billionaires and have given millions of dollars in political donations to President Donald Trump and the GOP. Conservatives stand firmly opposed to police reforms, even as polls show strong national support for systemic change.

“I don’t think any of our players think we’ve got a bunch of progressives running these teams,” National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said recently, summing up a deep political divide between the locker room and the NBA front office.

Massive political donations

Conservatives in Congress have brushed aside the George Floyd bill, and moreover, Trump’s judicial nominees have “expressed full-throated support for law enforcement and made clear they believe courts should do more to shield officers from lawsuits,” BuzzFeed recently reported.

It’s no secret the Republican platform doesn’t support the Black Lives Matter movement. Many in government leadership, including the president and the U.S. attorney general, have also recently refused to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in America.

Following Blake’s shooting in Wisconsin, most franchises across the NBA landscape immediately issued statements in support of the players' decision to sit out, but behind the scenes questions arose among the players about the owners’ true level of commitment, and whether they would be on board for more meaningful legislative change in Congress.

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And while nearly all the team owners publicly embraced the social justice cause and expressed a mutual interest if not a kinship with Black athletes, they had no qualms about donating money that would undoubtedly be used to undermine any progressive agenda, according to an investigative report by the sports and pop culture website The Ringer, which was later reported by Sports Illustrated and cited five years of records from the Federal Election Commission.

The author of the report, John Gonzalez, spent a year reviewing FEC records and found $28 million in overall political donations from NBA owners to Republican causes and candidates since Jan. 1, 2015, a finding that exposes a glaring contradiction to the league’s positive public messaging in support of racial justice.

“We found political contributions by 27 different owners (as well as 20 significant others) over a period of more than five years. Of that $28 million total, more than $14.9 million (53.4 percent) went to Republican politicians and PACs, while over $12 million (43.1 percent) was directed to Democrats,” the report said. “That leaves roughly $1 million to nonpartisan issues, such as the University Public Issues Committee, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, or PACs that give to candidates from both parties.”

At the top of the NBA donor list is Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie, who have donated more than $7.9 million in 54 separate contributions since 2015, the report said, but most of their political gifts have gone to Democratic or non-partisan causes.

“That puts the Ballmers at the top of the NBA donor list—but only because Connie contributed $7 million in April to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control and serves as an NRA watch group,” the Ringer report states.

Ballmer “has not given to any conservative groups and has not financially supported the GOP/President Trump’s reelection bid. He is decidedly non-partisan — and has given to only non-partisan groups,” Cynara Lilly, a spokesperson for Ballmer, said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Ballmer has also publicly endorsed HR 7120, called for national police reform after Floyd’s death and also announced that his arena — the Forum — would be transformed into one of the massive voting centers beginning later this month.

Like Ballmer, the Orlando Magic’s Dan DeVos — who is the brother-in-law of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — strongly condemned “bigotry, racial injustice and the unwarranted use of violence by police against people of color” in public statements of unity with the players and said their mostly one-sided political donations didn’t necessarily reflect their personal leanings, according to the report.

According to Federal Election Commission records, however, the Magic owner donated $50,000 to the Congressional Leadership Fund, “a super PAC that funnels money to the very same Republican representatives who accounted for all but one of the nay votes against HR 7120,” The Ringer report said.

DeVos and his wife, Pamella, gave more than $220,000 to two Senate super PACs directly tied to Republican committees responsible for keeping the vote on HR 7120 from happening. The report also reveals that DeVos donated $200,000 to America First Action, one of Trump’s super PACs, just two weeks after Floyd’s death May 25.

While the Ballmers have given the most money, the DeVoses have donated the most times since January 2015. The wealthy couple has accounted for at least 465 separate transactions over five years, which at the end of the day totaled more than $4.8 million.

The DeVoses donated about half of that amount — more than $2 million — to Republicans this year, records show.

They and other billionaires typically donate to both political parties equally, according to a recent study by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies, however, that pattern doesn’t hold true for the NBA, where 80.9% of political donations by franchise owners have gone to Republicans and Republican causes, with 18.4% going to Democrats, and another 0.7% to nonpartisan issues, according to the report.

In 2020, NBA team owners have collectively donated more money to Trump-related super PACs than all Democratic donations combined, the report said.

“There are some people who purport to despise Trump but believe as long as he keeps those taxes low he’s their guy. Now, I think that’s a disgraceful excuse for why you would support someone with his politics,” Roberts, the NBPA chief, said in the report when asked about the eyebrow-raising donations. “But I know people who look me in the eye and say that to me: ‘Look, I think [Trump is the] scum of the earth. And I would never have him in my home. And I tell my children all the time don’t listen to him, he’s a jackass. But you know how much money I saved in taxes the last four years?’ And that’s important to them. It drives me mad that there are ways for people to justify supporting Trump while taking a very progressive position on other issues.”

Mostly Republican donations

Seven of the 10 owners who have donated the most money to Republicans since 2015 have directed more than 75% of their political contributions to the GOP, The Ringer reported.

They include Magic owner Dan DeVos; Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who also hosted the Republican National Convention at his Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland in 2016; New York Knicks owner James Dolan and the owners of the San Antonio Spurs, the Holt family, which were the only two teams that didn’t immediately issue statements after the killing of George Floyd; Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta; Miami Heat owner Micky Arison; Sixers owner Joshua Harris; Clippers owner Steve Ballmer; Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf; and Pacers owner Herb Simon.

To be fair, a handful of NBA owners also donated singularly to Democrats. They include Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry, who contributed more than $544,000; Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, Bucks co-owner Wesley Edens, Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé, Los Angeles Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss and Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, according to the report.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told The Ringer he does not donate to politicians. “I strongly value my independence,” he said in an email.

He added, “I talk to owners and players who are ‘conservative’ when it comes to financial issues but simultaneously very ‘liberal’ when it comes to social issues.”

A turning point

For some time, Black athletes in the NBA, who make up 80% of the players in the league, have widely expressed some level of frustration about the ongoing issue of Black people being killed during unarmed encounters with the police.

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Spurred by Floyd’s death, players including LeBron James this year began using their star power and media prowess like never before to bring an even broader awareness to systemic racism and police brutality, issues that have held the nation in turmoil for nearly the entire year.

The shooting of Blake seven times in the back by police in late August was a turning point.

A refusal to play

Blake survived, but in response, the players in the Milwaukee-Magic playoff game scheduled for Aug. 26 refused to suit up for Game 5, causing a league-wide strike for three days. As the postseason was on hold, owners scrambled to make urgent concessions to save the playoffs from being canceled.

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In order to get the players back on the court, the NBA entered talks with the National Basketball Players Association and agreed to a plan that would establish a social justice coalition of players, coaches and the team owners.

Further, the league also agreed to pay for advertising during the playoff games that promoted “greater civic awareness in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity,” according to the reports about the negotiations.

Team owners attempted to show they were all in, too, pledging $300 million collectively over 10 years toward economic empowerment in the Black community and agreeing to convert their massive arenas into polling facilities for the upcoming election.

The Atlanta Hawks were the first to try it this summer, welcoming primary voters in what was a dry run for the bigger election Nov. 3.

“With all the discussion about voter suppression the November date has been something the players have been mindful of and this was a way to make sure there was some concerted action to make November an actual potential turning point,” Roberts told The Ringer.

Donald Trump vs. LeBron James

Rhetoric from the NBA bubble and the power corridors of Washington has spilled into public view in recent months, and Trump has not been shy about expressing his disapproval for the player demonstrations and social commentary across the wider sports world, including the MLB and NFL.

Trump has been known to tell players who kneel in silent protest during the national anthem that “You’re disrespecting our flag, and you’re disrespecting our country.” But those who followed in the footsteps of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling in protest in 2016, have always said their only aim is to call attention to the issue of police brutality.

The day after the players in the Orlando bubble went on strike to protest Blake’s shooting, a reporter asked Trump for his reaction to the walkout.

“I think people are a little tired of the NBA,” Trump said. “Frankly, they’ve become like a political organization, and that’s not a good thing.”

“That’s typical of him,” James said later. “I’m not surprised.”

Earlier in the month, Trump came down on the league’s television ratings, which reportedly have been dismal during this year’s Finals.

“It’s terrible,” Trump said. “I think what they’re doing to the NBA in particular is going to destroy basketball. I can’t – I don’t even watch it. … You know when you watch sports, you want to sort of relax, but this is a whole different world. … You don’t want to stay in politics. You want to relax.”

In response to the president’s grumblings, James said: “I really don’t think the basketball community are sad about losing his viewership.”

James has mostly been short on words but big on activism off the court.

With the help of other athletes, artists and celebrities, James — who’s widely considered the face of the NBA — has helped to create the “More Than a Vote” organization, which has taken up the issue of fighting voter suppression and which also added pressure on the league to join the social change movement. As part of the campaign, James has been getting the word out on his Twitter and Instagram pages, where he has more than 118 million followers.

“Republicans buy sneakers, too”

Social justice wasn’t always a priority for players in the NBA.

Many remember a league 30 or so years ago when players mostly steered clear of political controversies.

Michael Jordan infamously quipped that “Republicans buy sneakers, too” during the 1990 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina in which Jordan refused to bend to pressure and endorse Democrat challenger Harvey Gantt over GOP incumbent Jesse Helms. At the time, Air Jordans were the most popular sports shoe on the market, and as a household name, the charismatic Jordan could have wielded tremendous political influence if he wanted to. But he didn’t. Through the years Jordan’s attitude about politics slowly evolved and today, like James, he donates millions of dollars to organizations that combat voter suppression around the country.

Jordan now owns the Charlotte Hornets, and his Jordan Brand has promised $100 million over 10 years to organizations “dedicated to ensuring racial equality, social justice and greater access to education,” reports said.

As for James, he has been at the forefront of the social justice cause since the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. James played for the Heat at the time and felt a personal connection to the victim, who reminded James of his own son, according to reports.

A season resumes

When NBA play resumed Aug. 29, the most visible change for fans was perhaps the league-approved messages of social justice on player jerseys and gear, not to mention the bold phrase “Black Lives Matter” painted on all the courts throughout the remainder of the playoffs.

Behind the scenes, owners had backed up their words with millions of dollars. The Nets pledged $50 million and the Celtics pledged $25 million to help related economic and social causes in their communities, according to reports.

But questions still remained about their motives despite the outward show of solidarity with the players, The Ringer reported.

Distrust was especially rampant from voices within the players union.

Some in leadership roles criticized the donations by the owners as a “marketing ploy” or dismissed them as “a little fishy,” according to the accounts of the negotiations.

Plus, “not every owner in the NBA was enthusiastic about having ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the court,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported at the time.

During talks, many players expressed past grievances and said they had lost confidence that owners would ever take any serious steps to address their concerns about social justice issues, with some complaining about years of lip service and broken promises, reports said.

It also appears that momentum could be lost during the offseason as many of the forward-facing changes were not intended to be permanent. According to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, the league will likely remove all the social justice messages from players' jerseys and the basketball hardwood next season, according to a report this week by Barrett Sports Media.

Clarification: A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized Clippers owner Steve Ballmer as a mostly conservative donor. While he and his wife, Connie, are at the top of the NBA donor list, their $7 million contribution, the largest political gift by any NBA team owner this year, went to Everytown for Gun Safety, a Democratic-leaning group.

ArLuther Lee writes about national and international news for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida and has worked for newspapers for more than 24 years. He joined the AJC staff as the front page designer in 2003.

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