The NBA has long been America’s most politically active sports league. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar helped set that tone in the 1970s, and through the years, even as apolitical stars like Michael Jordan came to dominate the league, basketball has remained politically charged and unapologetically progressive. It’s the league that responded to strict immigration laws in Arizona by putting the Phoenix Suns in jerseys that read “Los Suns.” It’s biggest star, LeBron James, shared an image in 2012 connecting him and his teammates to slain teenager Trayvon Martin. Other NBA stars weighed in on the 2016 election, with Golden State’s Stephen Curry challenging Under Armour, a company he endorses, for its CEO’s support of Donald Trump, and James readily sharing his surprise at the election’s outcome. (Not coincidentally, the NBA is also America’s blackest league, with 74.4 percent of the players identifying as African-American, compared to 69.2 percent of the NFL. And unlike the NFL, the vast majority of the NBA’s biggest stars are black.)
The NBA is also the league of coach Gregg Popovich, Air Force Academy graduate and former intelligence officer. (Despite the league’s racial makeup in its player base, Popovich is one of the NBA’s 22 white head coaches.) Pop spent his first 20 years in the NBA cultivating his dour curmudgeon persona, but in the wake of the election, he’s left behind the grumpy demeanor to become one of President Trump’s most strident critics, in sports or elsewhere.
The NBA’s black stars speaking up aren’t taking their cues from Popovich. Decades of activism from the league’s athletes make that clear. But Popovich, as a successful white coach, has a freedom that they don’t. The NFL’s reaction to Colin Kaepernick shows that players face grave consequences for their opinions, while coaches—especially Pop, the longest-tenured head coach in the league and one of the winningest in sports history—don’t risk their careers by speaking up. Julianna Hawn Holt, the Spurs CEO who signs Popovich’s paychecks, is a major Trump booster; still, the idea that his political statements could cost Popovich his job is unthinkable. And Popovich is using his position to help create an atmosphere where players can be more outspoken.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Popovich went beyond how its results made him feel. He called out Trump and his voters in direct language:
I’ve spoken on this before and I probably will again. Right now I’m just trying to formulate thoughts. It’s still early and I’m still sick to my stomach. Not basically because the Republicans won or anything, but the disgusting tenor and tone and all the comments that have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, and I live in that country where half the country ignored all that to elect someone. That’s the scariest part of the whole thing to me.…
I’m a rich white guy, and I’m sick to my stomach thinking about it. I can’t imagine being a Muslim right now, or a woman, or an African-American, a Hispanic, a handicapped person, how disenfranchised they might feel. And for anyone in those groups that voted for him, it’s just beyond my comprehension how they ignore all that.
Since then, Popovich has continued to speak publicly and forcefully against Trump. He’s talked about the president’s “eighth-grade developmental stage,” called the fact that he’s our nation’s leader “disgusting” and “embarrassing,” and said that “you can’t trust anything that comes out of his mouth.” And Monday, after Trump brought up the protests NFL players have engaged in during the national anthem, Popovich once more weighed in on the current president of the United States:
Our country’s an embarrassment in the world. This is an individual that actually thought that when people held arms during the games that they were doing it to honor the flag. That’s delusional. Absolutely delusional, but it’s what we have to live with.
So you got a choice; we can continue to bounce our heads off the wall with his conduct, or we can decide that the institutions of our country are more important, that people are more important, that the decent America that we all thought we had and want is more important, and get down to business at the grassroots level and do what we have to do.
Popovich wasn’t the only NBA coach to comment on Trump following his most recent statements. Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, the team that declined the customary invitation to the White House extended to championship winners (and which Trump subsequently rescinded), was equally clear about his stance. Speaking to the NFL protests, Kerr invoked the neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville in August, which Trump said included “very fine people,” noting that Trump was significantly more pointed in his criticism of NFL players than about those who brought swastikas and Confederate flags to Virginia:
How about the irony of, ‘Free speech is fine if you’re a neo-Nazi chanting hate slogans, but free speech is not allowed to kneel in protest?’ No matter how many times a football player says, ‘I honor our military, but I’m protesting police brutality and racial inequality,’ it doesn’t matter. Nationalists are saying, ‘You’re disrespecting our flag.’ Well, you know what else is disrespectful to our flag? Racism. And one’s way worse than the other.
Kerr’s playing career ended in San Antonio in 2003, under Popovich. And it’s striking that the pair—who have led teams successfully enough to ensure job security—have set a precedent of pushing the envelope. That gives NBA players more room to speak up. Coaches have longer careers than players, especially winning coaches like Pop and Kerr. And if Popovich’s job is secure after a year of harshly criticizing the president, then NBA players will be able to speak out with less of a professional risk.
That’s something that LeBron James proved in his reaction to Trump’s disinvitation of Curry and the Golden State Warriors to the White House. James has been one of the most politically active and vocal players in the NBA for a long time, and he likely would have spoken his mind regardless of the actions of two white coaches. But even after calling Trump a “bum,” there has been no chatter about the security of James’s job or his endorsements, indicating a sports league where players increasingly speak their minds without fear of retribution.
Pop’s impact on the NBA as a political platform isn’t that he led the players—at most, he’s working alongside them. It’s that the coach is using his platform to share his beliefs, just like the athletes playing for him. Pop is part of a long lineage of activists and politically-conscious members of the NBA, and his candid, often critical presence helps to ensure that the NBA remains a safer space for outspoken statements than the NFL or other leagues. In politically charged times like these, a coach like Pop, who stands up for what he believes is right, is encouraging to see.