July 23, 2016

Social Conscience

Since the day I started this blog, I've maintained that most of what I've written about or will write about in here is pretty inconsequential and silly stuff. I've deliberately done that to distinguish this blog from other news sources and blogs which cover my favorite basketball team. They write about stuff that happens on the court; I mostly stay away from that stuff and focus on stories about bobbleheads, mascots, in arena giveaways, ticket prices, trips to road games and things like that. This blog is not about basketball; it's about being a basketball fan.

But every so often, I feel it necessary to write something a little more serious. I think today is one of those times. Over the past four years plus I've been writing this blog, I've tried to be more serious through my MLK Day posts and a handful of other posts here and there. I'm taking some time to do that today based on the NBA and WNBA both taking a stand on social issues in the past week. One got it perfectly right; the other one fumbled things a little. Or maybe a lot.

This past Thursday, the NBA decided to move the 2017 NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte, North Carolina to a place to be determined based on North Carolina passing House Bill 2 this past March. House Bill 2 is often referred to as the "bathroom law" bill because of its requirement for individuals to use multiple occupancy bathroom and changing rooms in public facilities in the state of North Carolina based on their biological sex, not the sex with which they identify. Opponents of the Bill have argued this provision discriminates against transgender people; supporters have argued it will prevent sexual predators (particularly men) entering the other sex's bathroom and changing facilities unrestricted. The Bill regulates more than just this issue but from what I've seen, most dialog has centered around this provision.

House Bill 2 was passed in a special session of the North Carolina legislature on March 23. The special session was only called in response to the Charlotte City Council approving new legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people on February 22. These protections included prohibition of discrimination by businesses based on sexual orientation or gender identity. They also included the right of people to use group bathrooms and changing rooms based on their gender identity rather than their biological sex. House Bill 2 removed the protections enacted by the Charlotte City Council by declaring that requirements of House Bill 2 supersede any rules enacted by any local government within the State of North Carolina.

I get that the issue of gender identity is difficult for those of us without gender identity issues to understand. It's admittedly very difficult for me to understand and I'm trying to get my head wrapped around it. But there are two things here that are not difficult for me to understand about this situation. First, just sweeping an issue under the rug as if it doesn't exist is not the way to deal with controversial subjects. The City of Charlotte didn't enact new regulations without discussion. In fact, they rejected similar legislation just the previous year.

Second, I don't believe we should be legally be able to discriminate against anyone based on race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex, handicap, sexual orientation or gender identity. Why would we ever want to make it legal to discriminate based on any of these things? House Bill 2 lists each of these protections in the exact order I've listed them but omits the last two. It also says biological sex which I've chosen to change. By passing House Bill 2, North Carolina took away discrimination protection from some of its citizens; it also crippled the ability of any local government to enact such protections by directly targeting legislation passed by the City of Charlotte. It's strikes me as petty and mean and it has real negative consequences for some North Carolinians whom the legislature is supposed to be representing.

So in response, the NBA decided the State of North Carolina was not a place that they wanted to hold one of their marquee events. The NBA didn't have to do anything here. They could have sat back and said nothing or offered up a statement like they don't typically interfere in matters of government or something like that. But they didn't. Pulling the All-Star Game took some guts on the part of the NBA. They did something good here.

The day before the NBA took a stand in North Carolina, the WNBA took a different kind of stand regarding an issue that society is facing in the United States: the killing of black men by police. Or rather they took a stand regarding their players speaking out about that issue.

The Washington Mystics dressed in black yesterday night before a game vs. the Los Angeles Sparks.
Over the past two years, there have been a number of fairly high profile deaths of black men and boys at the hands of police in this country. I'm not intending to ignore anyone by making a list and I know there are a lot more out there but just in the interest of space the following killings stand out as most visible to me: Eric Garner in New York in July 2014 (Garner famously uttered the words "I can't breathe" while being restrained by police before later dying); Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in August 2014; 12 year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in November 2014; and Freddie Gray in Baltimore in August 2015.

Recently, there have been two more names added to that list: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA and Philando Castile near St. Paul, MN. In both these cases either the events prior to the shooting, the actual shooting and/or the immediate aftermath was caught on a cell phone camera. Video always makes these sorts of situations appear so much more brutal and callous. Last week I watched The Drew, the documentary airing on Showtime about the famous basketball summer league in Los Angeles and was more shocked than ever at the tape of Rodney King being beaten by the police. That kind of inhumane brutality does not get better with age.

On Saturday, July 9, the members of the Minnesota Lynx decided to make a statement by wearing some t-shirts during pregame warmups. The shirts were printed with the message "Change Starts With Us. Justice And Accountability" on the front side and featured Sterling's and Castile's names on the back. Apparently that act caused the distribution of a memorandum within the WNBA reminding teams of the league's uniform guidelines, with which the Lynx shirts did not comply.

Some issues hit home worse than others and clearly the deaths of Sterling and Castile is one of those that deeply affected some within the WNBA. So over the next week or so, the New York Liberty, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury decided to wear all black shirts with Adidas (the league's official outfitter) logos instead of their team logoed apparel during warmups before games to call continued attention to this issue.

The NBA and WNBA have to their credit displayed a recent willingness to allow some sort of unsanctioned on court pre-game response by players to social issues. No fines were issued when French players wore "Je Suis Charlie" shirts when terrorists slaughtered staffers of the Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 nor did the league issue punishment for players with as high profiles as LeBron James for wearing "I Can't Breathe" shirts to draw attention to Eric Garner's death. Following their July 9 statement, the Lynx players were also not fined.

But apparently enough was enough for the WNBA and they reacted to the black shirt warmups with both praise and fines, at once putting themselves in a spot where they seem to be taking credit for a worthy social statement while punishing those who brought that same credit to the league. The official statement from the league included the sentence "We are proud of WNBA players' engagement and passionate advocacy for non-violent solutions to difficult social issues but expect them to comply with the league's uniform guidelines." The reaction from the league also included a $500 fine for each player involved.

Before you start to claim $500 is a small amount for a professional athlete to pay as a fine, consider that the current collective bargaining agreement contains provisions for salaries for WNBA players this season to range from $39,676 to $111,500. The $500 fine is between 0.44% and 1.3% of a player's salary. If LeBron James were fined 0.44% of his 2015-2016 salary, the fine would be $103,000. For wearing a t-shirt with nothing written on it. A $500 fine for someone making less than $40,000 is too much for this even if a fine was really required.

The statement here from the WNBA is horrible. And in writing that I'm referring to not just the written sentence which takes credit for having great employees before docking them some pay. This stuff matters to society and it hurts to know that it goes on and sometimes we do little to correct it. What some of the players did may have crossed a boundary for two weeks with the league's uniform supplier and sponsors who buy advertising space on the clothing but fining people is not the right response here. The WNBA screwed up here and should reverse its decision and give the money back. There are other ways to handle this. I'm disappointed in the league here.

I was at the Mystics game last night and it appears the team found a way to both protest what is happening in this country and comply with the WNBA's uniform guidelines. The WNBA still needs to return some money in my opinion.

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