Nathaniel Friedman tries to make sense of Green’s photo shooting guns with Israeli forces.
We are, by most accounts, living in a golden age of NBA activism. While the NFL’s anthem protests remain the most pointed (and, because of the league’s audience, the most controversial) statement, the NBA has carved out a socially conscious niche for itself. LeBron James called Trump a bum; the Warriors were the first championship team in any sport to decline a White House visit; Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and Stan Van Gundy have emerged as reliably thoughtful commentators on the current state of the country.
This reputation explains why Draymond Green’s gun-toting IDF photo op was met with such dismay this week. Palestine is now a mainstream cause, especially for younger people and avowed leftists, who view it as a symbol of anti-imperialism. Play-acting with the military that enforces the government’s draconian policies pushes things even further. That Green never made any explicit comments on what many view as a human-rights crisis is almost beside the point. The images strongly suggest that he’s down with the IDF, or at least able to take the situation lightly. And, no matter what Green’s actual feelings are, the political utility of these images is undeniable.
For NBA fans of a certain stripe, this was a real bummer. The Warriors are considered one of the league’s most engaged teams. Green, charismatic as hell and outspoken to a fault, could be an advocate for their nominally progressive values. Instead, he’s seemingly aligned himself with what many view as an apartheid state. He didn’t squander his platform—he used it in a way that many of his fans would find objectionable. They were disappointed on a personal level. How could Draymond Green do this to them? What was he thinking? And how did this line up with the “wokeness” they had come to expect around the NBA?
The answer, of course, is that these feelings depend on a largely imagined version of Draymond Green, one that involves numerous projections and faulty assumptions. For one, he’s never evinced much interest in politics. It’s only through transitive logic—the Warriors have politics, he’s the most vocal Warrior, therefore he’s politically vocal—that Green is slotted into the role of mouthpiece. It’s placing expectations on him based on a precedent that doesn’t exist. There’s also the possibility that Green is pro-Israel—it’s still a widely-held position among Democrats, and there’s little to suggest that the Warriors are anything other than garden-variety liberals—or simply doesn’t have perspective on the situation. We simply don’t know. Expecting Green to meaningfully weigh in is just another form of using politics as a gotcha question.
But the disconnect between the expectations we place on Draymond Green and the real-life version of him points in another direction. Never mind Green’s presumptive politics; the politics of the Warriors, and the league in general, are vague in a way that leaves them open to interpretation. For the most part, they amount solely to dunking on Trump when it’s become clear that the president is an easy, and safe, target. Even outside of sports, there’s no longer anything radical or provocative about going at him—it’s become an exercise in scoring PR points. The Democrats do so endlessly while refusing to back up their stern words; Republicans do it to distance themselves rhetorically from Trump’s excesses; conservative pundits do it to keep themselves respectable; and it’s practically expected of left-leaning celebrities looking to burnish their brand. If a woman or person of color does so—with LeBron being the exception here—they can expect a flustered presidential tweet and an onslaught of trolls. Attacking the president has few, if any, lasting consequences.
Supposedly, there was an increased interest in politics after the 2016 election. It’s led many people to get involved like never before and even emboldened new-blood candidates to run for office. But as the news cycle spins out of control, politics has become omnipresent, mundane. Conversations invariably land on the subject, and people chime in like experts on social media (myself included) because they don’t know what else to do. They can’t look away from the horror show; to do so would’ve been somehow wrong. So we obsessively monitor current events out of equal parts obligation and compulsion. But this interminable exercise, exhausting as it may be, is a deflection. If you focus on a screen for long enough, it dulls your ability to pay attention. Our all-consuming relationship with the news has flattened politics, turning it into an endless series of blips, each of which prompts a fairly predictable, and short-lived, response before disappearing into the ether. The more we immerse ourselves in the news, the harder it is for us to step back and get our bearings. Our attention to detail muddles the big picture and, unable to come up for air and gain perspective, we resort to muscle memory.
The NBA has unmistakably benefited from the current climate. Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players like Malcolm Jenkins and Michael Bennett have articulated serious, structural concerns that need to be addressed. Their large-scale critique is in line with the tradition of Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, or John Carlos and Tommie Smith. By contrast, the NBA’s political valence is vague, more a mood or an intuition than a series of demands. It’s ideally suited for a moment when politics is seen as a state of consciousness rather than a call to action. The sport produces plenty of takes, but there’s a reluctance, or an inability, to really dig in and push for change. What’s more, the lack of specifics allows everyone remotely left-leaning to feel that players (and coaches, and maybe even Adam Silver) speak for them. There’s no agenda to advance, no policy, no big ideas. It’s ideally suited to an anti-Trumpism that seeks to exploit a sense of outrage rather than addressing underlying tensions or disagreements on the nominal left. At times, it can be nefarious, a way of entrenching power by creating a false sense of unity. You see this in the NBA itself when it comes to labor relations. As the league presents itself as progressive, the NBPA has chosen to cooperate with the owners rather than advocate aggressively for a larger piece of the pie—a decision that hurts the rank-and-file and distances itself from the broader labor movement.
The Draymond Green episode shows the limitations of the NBA’s so-called politics. You can cynically blame the league, even other players, for passing off vagary as substance. Ultimately, though, we have no one to blame but ourselves. It’s not just about thinking Draymond Green should hold a certain position. We mistake gesture for coherent ideology, and we do so when many of us scarcely have one ourselves. At a time when things have never seemed more urgent, there’s an entrenched superficiality to the discourse that keeps reality at arm’s length. We’ve turned politics into a form of consumption rather than engagement. This effectively neutralizes them; we feel helpless because we’ve cut ourselves off from any living, breathing sense of the world—and from the possibility of anything really changing.
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