Hoop Schemes?

A White House congratulatory ceremony for a championship sports team is usually just a big, friendly photo opportunity, filled with the platitudes and gift exchanges typical of such an apolitical celebration. But in 1991, when the National Basketball Association (NBA) champion Chicago Bulls paid a visit to George Bush, Craig Hodges, then a backup guard for the Bulls, saw an opportunity for activism. Instead of presenting Bush with the customary team jersey, Hodges, who wore a dashiki for the occasion, handed the President a letter asking him to be more vigilant in rectifying injustices against African Americans.

The White House episode was hardly out of character for Hodges, who frequently took advantage of his exposure to champion political causes. Hodges's complaints about the lack of African Americans in management positions in professional sports, his public dalliances with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, and his outspoken criticism of less socially conscious black athletes—criticism many construed as an attack on teammate Michael Jordan—made him a rarity in the NBA: a player who had some politics in addition to a jump shot.

In fact, Hodges now contends in a federal lawsuit that it was his politics, and not his jump shot, that brought an end to his basketball career. Hodges is suing the NBA for "blacklisting" him from the league because he is "black and Afrocentric." While it remains to be seen whether Hodges can convince a jury that NBA owners colluded and actively conspired to keep him out of the league, the circumstances surrounding the end of his career are unusual enough to lend credence to his allegations that his controversial politics were an issue.

After the 1992 season—a season in which Hodges won his third straight NBA three-point shoot-out and the Bulls won their second consecutive championship—the Bulls declined to offer Hodges a new contract. This, in itself, is not that odd. Hodges was 32 at the time, his skills were considered to be in decline, and the Bulls had signed several younger three-point shooters, making Hodges expendable. But what is odd about Hodges's case is that after being released by the Bulls, not one other NBA team ever sought his services. Teams routinely bring marginal players—to say nothing of ones with championship credentials—to training camp, just to have enough warm bodies for scrimmages. Teams also covet experienced, respected players like Hodges for the wisdom they might pass on to younger players. In light of these personnel needs, Hodges's inability to secure a mere tryout invitation, even after offering to sign a non-guaranteed contract and play for the league minimum, is hard to explain.

Did Hodges fail to attract an offer because of his politics? It would make some sense. As a trip to any professional basketball arena will demonstrate, the racial dynamics of the NBA are unusual: 80 percent of the players on the court are black, while 80 percent of the fans in the stands are white. While the NBA has certainly come a long way in the last 10 or 15 years toward accepting the racial realities of its sport—it wasn't that long ago that teams leery of having an all-black squad practiced a sort of affirmative action program for white players, making sure to have a few on hand, usually on the end of the bench—the league takes great pains to present its black athletes as unthreatening cartoon superheroes. [See Scott Stossel, "Who's Afraid of Michael Jordan?".] The NBA has embraced hip-hop styles without embracing hip-hop politics, because the latter, which would undoubtedly be a form of racial politics, might threaten the league's white fans. Thus Hodges's dashiki-clad activism may have been a political eruption the league felt it was better off without.

Some players have demurred from political involvement for obvious business reasons. As Michael Jordan once explained with regard to his refusal to endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt in his race against North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms: "Republicans buy sneakers too." But sometimes players without concern for their own merchandising have been persuaded to abandon their political stands because of the NBA's overriding concern with its marketability. In the 1995-1996 season, the NBA threatened to suspend Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, then a guard with the Denver Nuggets, who had been refusing to stand for the playing of the national anthem before games. Hodges contends that his ordeal, like Abdul-Rauf's, serves as a cautionary tale. "From a job security standpoint, I think a lot of athletes are scared to say what's on their minds," Hodges says. "During my career a lot of players would tell me behind closed doors that they supported what I was saying, but they would never be forthright and come out publicly with their support. Players are afraid of having what they've earned taken away from them." As Chris Webber, an All-Star forward with the Washington Bullets, says, "I don't know if the NBA has a 'black list,' but they definitely have people that they like."

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Curiously, the only genuine NBA star with public politics, Charles Barkley of the Houston Rockets, is a Republican. Perhaps the league figures that Barkley's occasional confrontational comments about race—he once reduced his critics in the media to "white boys" and jokingly claimed to hate white people—are acceptable be cause he maintains friendships with white or white-friendly conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, Strom Thurmond, Clarence Thomas, and Arm strong Williams.

Below the superstar strata, the political stands that do get taken, if not punished, are actively downplayed. Webber recently broke his lucrative endorsement contract with Nike when the company refused to list his signature sneakers at a price more affordable to the inner-city kids who idolize him. But Webber's socially conscious and principled gesture went largely unnoticed because the NBA's vaunted public relations machine failed to call attention to it. Instead, the NBA sends out press releases touting safely inoffensive hospital visits as evidence of its players' "mak[ing] a difference in the lives of others."

It is arguable whether African-American athletes have a responsibility to use their money and power to affect change off the field—it is, after all, unfair to hold them to a higher standard than white athletes. But professional sports leagues should not stand in the way of those African-American athletes, like Hodges, who have a desire to speak out on political issues. The NBA is frequently celebrated as a color-blind meritocracy, and on the court, this is certainly the case. But when the league tolerates blandly apolitical outlandishness like Dennis Rodman's but not political and racial activism like Hodges's, it's clear that the league's vaunted color blindness takes a back seat to its profit motive.

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