The N.B.A. and Its Owners Fight for Change. But Not Necessarily the Same Change.

In June 2022, on the same day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, released a statement jointly with the W.N.B.A.’s commissioner, Cathy Engelbert.

Silver and Engelbert said the leagues believed “that women should be able to make their own decisions concerning their health and future, and we believe that freedom should be protected.”

Less than one year later, one of the N.B.A.’s teams, the Orlando Magic — as an organization — wrote a $50,000 check to Never Back Down, a super PAC promoting Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, financial disclosures revealed this week. The Magic are owned by the DeVos family, well-known conservatives. Betsy DeVos, the daughter-in-law of the former Magic chairman Richard DeVos, who died in 2018, was former president Donald J. Trump’s education secretary.

The check was written on May 19, according to a team spokesman. That was weeks after DeSantis signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, prohibiting the termination of pregnancies after six weeks, but days before he had officially declared he would run for the Republican presidential nomination.

The donation “was given as a Florida business in support of a Florida governor for the continued prosperity of Central Florida,” the team said in a statement.

The Magic’s donation to DeSantis, who is in his second term as governor, was not the first time an N.B.A. team had put its name on a political donation. In the 1990s, the Phoenix Suns, then owned by Jerry Colangelo, donated tens of thousands to the Republican National Committee. But the Magic’s check appears to be the first direct donation from an N.B.A. team to a group directly allied with a presidential candidate — or one, like DeSantis, who was widely expected to run.

The donation was also a reminder that for all of the N.B.A.’s professions of support for progressive causes that its players believe in, several billionaire team owners — whose interests Silver represents — have deployed their own power to fight those very causes. (The N.B.A. declined to comment.)

Owners like Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers), Tilman Fertitta (Houston Rockets) James Dolan (Knicks) and the DeVos family have donated large sums to Republican politicians who oppose abortion rights, gun control, voting rights and police reform — all issues the N.B.A. has supported, either in public statements or through its Social Justice coalition.

Any time I have noticed in my research where the N.B.A. has responded to player activism and player demands, they’ve always been forced to do so,” Theresa Runstedtler, a history professor at American University and the author of “Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the N.B.A.,” said in an interview.

She continued: “It’s always been something that they’ve been pushed into by the more vocal and militant players in the league.”

In the summer of 2020, several N.B.A. players protested the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by police in Minneapolis, and the Milwaukee Bucks refused to come out for a playoff game against the Orlando Magic after the shooting of another Black man, Jacob Blake, by police in Kenosha, Wis. In response, N.B.A. owners agreed to form the Social Justice Coalition, which would emphasize voting rights, police reform and criminal justice reform — all areas that disproportionately affected Black people.

On paper, the N.B.A. was moving beyond traditional philanthropy. The Bucks’ walkout compelled the league to shape public policy, a goal far beyond what other professional sports leagues intended to do.

“Our goal is really simple,” James Cadogan, the coalition’s executive director, said in a social media clip introducing the group. “We want to take moments of protest, moments of people power like we saw last year, and turn them into public policy. We want to change laws.”

In recent years, the N.B.A. has taken up the cause of Clean Slate initiatives, an effort in states to seal some records of those who had been incarcerated. Weeks ago, DeSantis vetoed a Republican-backed bill in Florida concerning the expunging of criminal records.

The Social Justice Coalition has endorsed several bills in its nascent existence, though with limited success: The EQUAL Act, a move to end sentencing disparities in cases involving the sale of crack and powder cocaine, is not yet federal law. The George Floyd Justice In Policing Act, a police reform bill that passed the House in 2021, languished in the Senate.

After the 2020 election, Republicans made a significant push to tighten election rules at the state level, after which the Golden State star Stephen Curry made a video for the coalition imploring fans to connect with lawmakers to pass the Freedom To Vote Act. Separately, the coalition supported a voting rights bill named after the former congressman John Lewis. Both bills were blocked by a Senate Republican filibuster. The N.B.A. has not called for the filibuster to be removed.

The N.B.A. is hardly to blame when a hot-button bill fails to pass a divided Congress. But it is harder for the league to effect change when some of its team owners have made it their mission to elect people who oppose that change.

At the end of 2015, with Silver still relatively new to the commissioner job, the league partnered with Everytown for Gun Safety on an advertising campaign about gun safety. Stars like Curry and Carmelo Anthony spoke in personal terms about the effects of gun violence in commercials that aired during Christmas Day games, when the N.B.A. traditionally has a big national audience. The commercials didn’t call for specific legislation, but partnering with a political figure like Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who founded Everytown, was an unusual move for an American sports league.

The next year, the N.B.A. moved the All-Star game from North Carolina to protest a state law that critics said targeted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Silver’s pulling the game had consequences for the local economy and embarrassed politicians that sports leagues typically want to mollify.

The Republican governor of the state, Pat McCrory, blasted the N.B.A., saying that the league, and other critics, had “misrepresented our laws and maligned the people of North Carolina simply because most people believe boys and girls should be able to use school bathrooms, locker rooms and showers without the opposite sex present.”

Silver would later tell an audience that the law was “inconsistent with the core values of the league.” (A frequent donor to liberal politicians, he is open about his own political beliefs.)

Now, a franchise has written a large check to DeSantis, who has signed bills that critics say target L.G.B.T.Q. communities — which would go against what Silver would call the “core values of the league.” DeSantis has also been in a feud with Disney — which the N.B.A. does business with as a broadcast partner of ESPN. Disney is a sponsor of the Magic, though Disney did not respond to a request for comment on whether that partnership would continue. And the league is choosing to stay silent for now.

What the N.B.A. should and should not campaign for isn’t an easy question. But since the league loudly stood up for transgender people in one instance and abortion rights in another, its silence is noteworthy when a franchise owner, using the team name, supports a politician with opposing views.

The N.B.A. is, in the end, a business whose primary goal is to make money. If it is also genuinely interested standing up for some social issues, it will need to stand up to its owners too.

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