Over a 16-hour period last September, President Trump took aim at the country’s two most popular sports leagues, the N.F.L. and the N.B.A.
In a speech on a Friday night in Alabama, Trump used an expletive to refer to professional football players who were kneeling during the national anthem as a form of silent protest against police brutality, and he said they should be fired. The next morning, he took to Twitter to tell Stephen Curry and the N.B.A. champion Golden State Warriors they were not welcome at the White House.
The N.F.L. hasn’t recovered. The N.B.A. hasn’t looked back.
After an N.F.L. season fraught with political undertones and cacophonous debate, through Trump’s last-minute decision last month to disinvite the champion Philadelphia Eagles to the White House for a customary coronation, the N.F.L. has been unable to extract itself from the sticky web of the anthem controversy.
The N.B.A., meanwhile, has avoided any such entanglement. Its star players and coaches have confidently dived into the political debates without retribution and with the support of the league commissioner and many team owners, if not all of them.
Today, the political and social sensibilities of the two leagues have been exposed like never before, and the fault line between them touches many of the controversies roiling the country: race relations, the gulf between liberals and conservatives, American nativism vs. globalism, and even the best way to respond to Trump’s attacks.
What is so different about these leagues that they find themselves in such contrasting situations?
Clues emerged in September. The president’s sharp remarks about the protests during the anthem sent N.F.L. owners into a collective panic that persists. The league’s fans have been divided, Trump’s base has been energized and N.F.L. players have been agitated. The issue is far from settled.
Trump’s rebuffing of the Warriors, however, was met head on by basketball’s biggest star, LeBron James, who called him a bum. Other prominent players spoke out, too. The president slinked away, the way a bully does when faced with unexpected resistance.
“I don’t think he got what he wanted out of them because it didn’t generate very much controversy or passion among his base,” said Joe Lockhart, the former N.F.L. executive who was principally involved with devising the league’s crisis management of the anthem issue. “He was not able to generate debate within the N.B.A. community. They all seemed to fall in line behind LeBron and Steph Curry.”
It has been nearly two years since the 2016 N.F.L. preseason, when Colin Kaepernick, as a San Francisco 49ers quarterback, sat for the national anthem (he later took to kneeling) to protest police brutality against people of color and economic inequality.
Almost instantly, the posture was usurped into a debate about the national anthem. It has not gone away. Kaepernick, now 30, remains out of football, unsigned, as he was all of last season. A collusion case he filed against the league remains unsettled.
Outside experts and historians cited plenty of reasons the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. find themselves on different sides of this cultural divide, ranging from the N.F.L.’s lack of guaranteed contracts to the N.B.A.’s smaller and more unified work force.
“It’s clear that we’ve got two different leagues — two different kinds of owners, two different groups of consumers,” said Charles Ross, a history professor and director of African-American Studies at the University of Mississippi. “But we’ve got one group of African-American males. To be sure, the black athletes, whether they are in the N.B.A. or the N.F.L., are together.”
The key is how those black players are treated, or believe they are treated. The N.B.A. long has marketed its star players, while the N.F.L. tends to focus on promoting teams and the game itself.
The N.F.L. logo — a ubiquitous red, white and blue shield, conveying some message of power or protection wrapped in the colors of the American flag — is the priority. All things are done in reverence to the shield. It is inanimate.
The N.B.A.’s logo has a person on it (the silhouette of Jerry West), and the image is fitting. It is a league of players, athletic and out front, and that is where the N.B.A. puts its public-relations focus.
“LeBron James is a bigger brand than the Sacramento Kings,” the former N.F.L. player Trevor Pryce said. “Tom Brady is not as big a brand as the Cleveland Browns.”
The games are different, of course. Football has more players, covered in armor, fighting in the trenches and trudging across a vast field. The battle metaphors are hackneyed, but the league has associated itself with the military in myriad ways, from accepting money for military flyovers to the pageantry of its national anthem.
Most football players are as anonymous as soldiers on a battlefield. They are not allowed to take off their helmets on the field. Players are rarely introduced by name when the teams pour onto the field, often through fog and fireworks.
Basketball is less of a militaristic pageant, more an intimate stage show. There is no mistaking who the stars are. Performers show as much skin as uniform, and their faces are instantly recognizable.
One easy measure of the difference: James has more than 38 million followers on Instagram and nearly 42 million on Twitter. Brady, the N.F.L.’s biggest star, has 4.1 million Instagram followers and is not active on Twitter.
The best of those N.B.A. players are also power brokers behind the scenes. The executive committee of the N.B.A. players’ union looks like a future wing of the Hall of Fame, including James, Curry, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony.
The president of the N.F.L. players’ union’s executive committee is the veteran offensive tackle Eric Winston, who hasn’t started more than two games since 2013.
“There’s a fundamental difference between the two leagues,” said Lockhart, who before working for the N.F.L. was a press secretary under President Bill Clinton. “The superstar players in the N.B.A. are also the leaders in the union, and they have enormous influence and are a very cohesive group.”
He added: “I’m not saying what’s better, it’s just different. My sense is that in the N.B.A., you could put three or four players in the room and they could speak for the entire league. You couldn’t do that with the N.F.L.”
Part of that is sheer numbers: The N.B.A. has about 450 players; the N.F.L. has roughly four times that many.
In both leagues, though, more than two-thirds of players are black. The difference is in the balance of star power.
In the N.B.A., most stars are black, as Washington Wizards guard John Wall pointed out last fall in an article on the website The Ringer. Top N.B.A. players have stood up at awards shows to plead for more social activism. They have led on-court protests, wearing T-shirts in support of unarmed black men who have been killed by police officers. (Some W.N.B.A. players knelt and held protests, eliciting both fines, later rescinded, and compliments from the league president, Lisa Borders.)
In the N.F.L., many marquee players — often quarterbacks — are white. Brady, reportedly a Trump supporter, has stayed mostly silent on sensitive issues. (“I respect why people are doing what they’re doing,” Brady recently told Oprah Winfrey.) In September, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers urged fans to link arms in a show of “unity and love,” careful not to frame it as a protest.
Charles Grantham, the first executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, said the N.B.A., under the leadership of the former commissioner David Stern and others, decided long ago to give the promotional spotlight to the game’s stars.
“One of the things that Stern and these guys learned is that you were selling a predominantly black product to white America,” Grantham said. “They recognized that and began to promote these stars. Whereas I don’t think the N.F.L. has recognized that.”
David J. Leonard, whose books include “After Artest: The N.B.A. and the Assault on Blackness,” notes the complex relationship the league has with race, even recently.
In 2005, desperate to improve perceptions of players, the N.B.A. implemented a strict dress code. Some called it racist. Now it’s a widely accepted excuse to make a fashion show out of arena exits and entrances, another forum to showcase individual tastes.
The racial script flipped in 2014, when recordings of the Los Angeles Clippers’ owner, Donald Sterling, making racist comments were made public. Players threatened protests. Adam Silver, the new commissioner, sent a lasting message. He barred Sterling for life.
“At a certain level, the N.B.A. has found that middle place of embracing progressive politics, embracing hip-hop, embracing critical conversations about racism while not alienating a segment of white America,” said Leonard, a Washington State professor of ethnic studies who studies the confluence of race and sports. “They’ve concluded that there’s a segment of the country that’s not going to be part of the market because of the nature of the league, the history, the connection to the cities. That’s why the N.B.A. has gone global rather than try to keep attracting red-state America.”
By most measures, the N.F.L. remains the country’s most successful league. Television ratings, while falling, far exceed those of other American sports. With roughly $14 billion in annual revenue, the N.F.L. rakes in nearly twice what the N.B.A. makes. The average N.F.L. franchise is worth $2.5 billion, by one estimation, compared to $1.65 billion for a typical N.B.A. team.
The N.F.L. also straddles the political spectrum more broadly than others. According to the data analysis site FiveThirtyEight last year, “the N.F.L. had the most search traffic and the least-partisan fan base” among the major American sports.
“It is a purple institution, to use the political frame — the one sport that most everybody loves,” Lockhart said. “The N.F.L. wanted to hear from and listen to all its fans. And when you do that, it gets messy.”
The turmoil did not please N.F.L. owners, a conservative lot. At least seven N.F.L. owners gave $1 million or more to Trump’s inaugural committee. At least one, New England’s Robert K. Kraft, has the president’s ear.
N.B.A. team owners are wealthy, too, of course, and mostly white, and not necessarily a liberal group. They have donated about twice as much to Republicans as they have to Democrats in national elections since 1989, though the ratio was flipped in 2016, in favor of Hillary Clinton over Trump.
Most eschew the limelight. They tacitly endorse a player-first hierarchy, at least in marketing terms. They mostly let the players — young, diverse, global, social-media savvy and attuned to racial issues — do the talking on topical subjects, following the lead of politically outspoken coaches like Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr. Rarely is there much blowback about their opinions.
N.B.A. fans, FiveThirtyEight noted, are the most left-leaning of the major American sports. For players, performing for audiences of progressive fans and accommodating owners, the league feels like a safe place to speak out.
Just as important, several experts noted: N.B.A. contracts, generally, are guaranteed; N.F.L. contracts are not. In most cases, teams can cut players without paying the remainder of the contract.
“You can fold them up and throw them around like a paper airplane,” Pryce said. “That’s about as much as they’re worth. Some of that has found its way into the us-versus-them mentality of players and owners. You can stress this ‘family’ nonsense all you want to, but guess what? Families don’t cut each other.”
Ross, the Mississippi professor, said N.F.L. players have been warned not to take controversial stands.
“Colin Kaepernick is paying a very, very, very heavy debt,” Ross said. “Don’t think that in all 32 N.F.L. locker rooms African-Americans are not talking about that. They’ve made a harsh example out of him. Individuals have to think long and hard about how far they want to take this issue.”
Late last month, the N.F.L. announced a new anthem policy for the 2018 season. It requires players on the field to “stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem,” while allowing players to skip it as long as they stay out of sight. Teams will be fined if players do not follow the rules.
It was another top-down attempt at stamping out a controversy. The N.F.L. Players Association said it was not consulted. Trump pounced.
He endorsed the edict that players stand. For those considering staying in the locker room? “Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country,” he said.
This month, the Eagles were scheduled to celebrate their Super Bowl win at the White House. Trump, expecting a low turnout, abruptly uninvited them the night before. He blamed the Eagles and suggested that their players did not stand for the anthem. (They all did, throughout last season.)
In a statement, the Eagles expressed disappointment at having the invitation revoked, but did not mention Trump’s name. Coach Doug Pederson said that he had been “looking forward to going down” to Washington but did not want to discuss it further. Commissioner Roger Goodell said nothing.
The N.F.L. sidled away. The N.B.A. jumped in. Cleveland and Golden State were in the N.B.A. finals, and players including James, Curry and Kevin Durant reminded everyone that their teams would never go to the White House, not with this president, no matter who won the championship.
Kerr, the Golden State coach, crossed league lines to stick up for the Eagles (and the W.N.B.A. champion Minnesota Lynx, who were not invited to the White House, either). He took direct aim at Trump in ways unfamiliar to the N.F.L.
“The president has made it pretty clear he’s going to try to divide us, all of us in this country, for political gain,” Kerr said.
He added: “The irony is that the Eagles have been nothing but fantastic citizens in their community,” citing the work of Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long. “Those guys are studs.”
It was a glaring juxtaposition to the N.F.L.’s tepid response of its own issue. Silver chimed in with support.
“These players in our league, our coaches, are speaking out on issues that are important to them and important to society,” he said. “I encourage them to do that.”
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