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Letting N.B.A. Players Have Their Voice

NEW ORLEANS — The N.B.A. has earned a term that its commissioner had not heard.

“How does it feel to be the wokest professional sports league?” asked Marc Lacey, the national editor at The New York Times.

“I didn’t know we were given that designation,” Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, said, laughing. “But I understand the sentiment and we’re proud of that.”

That feeling was front and center at the Cities for Tomorrow conference here, with politicians, educators, policymakers and others discussing their influence on their communities. In the past few years, the N.B.A. has found itself in the spotlight for the way its players and teams have spoken out on social and political issues both locally and nationally.

“I think the N.B.A. recognizes the intersectionality of race, culture and socioeconomic status of its players,” Malo André Hutson, associate professor of urban planning at Columbia University, said in a recent phone interview. “I think it comes all the way from the commissioners to coaches.”

Instead of asking players to fit a certain mold — to act a certain way, talk a certain way, wear their hair a certain way — the league has embraced players and their outspokenness, especially on local levels.

Those acts of protest have garnered attention that goes far beyond the game.

In 2012, LeBron James and the Miami Heat tweeted a photo of the team in black hoodies a month after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida.

In December 2014, players across the league wore shirts that read, “I Can’t Breathe” during warm-ups, protesting a grand jury’s decision not to indict a New York police officer whose chokehold led to the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man. In New York, the Brooklyn Nets and the Cleveland Cavaliers wore the shirts while competing at the Barclays Center.

The Golden State Warriors, which boasts of their hometown, Oakland, Calif., by wearing gear that says “The City” and “The Town,” skipped a White House visit after they won the 2017 N.B.A. championship, and instead took students in Washington to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

Earlier this year, after Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed black man, was shot to death by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard, the Sacramento Kings announced an alliance with Black Lives Matter Sacramento and a Sacramento-based coalition called Build Black. During a warm-up, players wore black T-shirts that read “Accountability. We are one.” with #StephonClark on the back.

The history of protest in athletics can be seen across sports, too, from Billie Jean King’s 1973 advocacy for Title IX to the Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa’s protest of his nation’s government at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Many of those protests fan the flames of societal change while simultaneously landing athletes in trouble.

What makes the N.B.A. unique is that there is support for political activism from the top down. “Political speech is their absolute right within the league,” Mr. Silver said in New Orleans.

That is in stark contrast to the N.F.L., which has struggled to handle the reaction to its players kneeling during the national anthem. “In the N.F.L., I think it’s ‘catch the ball, run the ball, throw the ball, and shut up,’” Professor Hutson said. “In the N.B.A., it’s ‘we have players that come from challenging circumstances from around the world and we need to embrace that and build on that.’”

Which leads to a question: What if Colin Kaepernick was an N.B.A. player?

Mr. Kaepernick, who led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012, has remained unsigned since the end of the 2016 season, when he took a knee during the national anthem to raise awareness of racism, social injustice and police brutality.

That wouldn’t be the case in the N.B.A., said Grant Hill, the co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks, who was also on the panel. “I believe if there was a Colin Kaepernick in the N.B.A., he’d be playing. I’ve talked to our managing partner about this plenty of times; we would be supportive of any of our athletes and their willingness to engage, to speak out on various issues.”

He pointed to Mr. Silver, who has been the N.B.A. commissioner since 2014. “Adam takes the time to listen and understand the issues and what players are concerned about and where they are coming from,” Mr. Hill said.

Mr. Silver says he views free speech as a part of a core set of American values being shared with an international audience and teams full of international players.

“One thing that people may not realize, 25 percent of the players in our league now are born outside of the U.S., so it’s a core part of Americana that we’re even exporting,” he said. “So if that gets translated into being woke, that’s fine with me.”

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