After Kenosha, NBA Announcers Are Done Sticking to Sports

After Kenosha, NBA Announcers Are Done Sticking to Sports

The most powerful live TV moment during an NBA broadcast this week didn’t come when 21-year-old phenom Luka Dončić made history with a buzzer-beating deep three-point shot to become the youngest player to score a 40-point triple-double in the playoffs. 

It actually happened about 30 minutes into NBA TV’s broadcast of a first-round game five between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic that was no longer going to happen due to a players strike.

Former NBA player Jim Jackson, the on-air analyst who was supposed to offer in-game commentary, instead reacted in real time to news of the Bucks’ protest against police brutality, spurred on by last weekend’s police shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. By sharing his own experiences of discrimination as a Black man in America. Jackson instead spent what would have been gametime speaking about the deep roots of historical racism in the United States, what it’s like to be racially profiled while shopping, and the experience of talking to his son about how to de-escalate situations with potentially violent police officers. 

“Why should I have to even put myself in that situation where he’s fearful and not being respectful of law enforcement?” he said, adding later: “It’s always difficult as a Black father, as a minority father, the things that you have to impart to your children early on in their life.”

Indeed, what began as standard televised pre-game vamping over an hour’s time had bubbled over into a discussion across sports broadcasts about racism, police brutality, and the nature of activism in America. 

Professional sports and politics are often (wrongly) portrayed as two mutually exclusive worlds with rare overlap, but the Trump-versus-Kaepernick era has made clear that it is impossible to view them as separate. The result has been that  sports reporters, commentators, color analysts, and their corporate overlords are now forced to wrestle—often awkwardly and very publicly—with how much they can discuss the political stories that have engulfed professional sports, and what the proper tone should be. 

Since the beginning of the NBA restart’s bubble in Orlando—which was conceived amid nationwide uprisings over the police killing of George Floyd earlier this summer—the league and its partners’ on-air personalities have struck a careful balance. Players’ uniforms were emblazoned with political slogans pre-approved by the league, “racial justice” pins were sported by coaches, and vague videos were broadcast about social change with brief on-air discussions about the politics of our moment, and the NBA’s role in bringing attention to racial injustice.

But Wednesday’s broadcasts, many of them on TNT, which was set to host the night’s slate of games, went far deeper. 

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