The NBA Returns to a Far Different Sports Fan

Gabe Zaldivar

The NBA paused on March 11. It took a time-out to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak the league hadn’t yet understood, a disease we largely still don’t understand.

Protests and rallies demanding social change were still a couple of months off. The majority of sports fans were concerned with a great many things but very little had to do with what athletes had to say.

Well, take a bow, sports fans. Or, should I say, open-minded sports fans?

The NBA returns to action on Thursday. The Lakers and Clippers headline a host of games that will satiate a country starved not only for sport but for a distraction.

A COVID-19 pandemic continues to shroud the nation in uncertainty. The disease remains a backdrop to a country that continues to reflect on matters that have long distressed portions of its population.

As it turns out, sports fans have come around to an empathetic way of thinking. Enjoying these games doesn’t have to be solely about buckets and lead changes. It’s a reflection of the country as a whole and it’s time to admit that.

Promoting Racial Equality in Sports is a study conducted by Nielsen Sports (h/t L.A. Times) that looked at sports fans’ thoughts on the recent wave of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and how that affects the sports world.

According to the study, 69% of sports fans support the BLM movement. As the L.A. Times notes, this is higher than the 62% of the general population that shares a similar opinion.

The study also found that 32% of respondents contributed time or money to the cause and on whole were 25% more likely to have contributed than the general population.

As for the archaic adage of “stick to sports,” it’s as irrelevant as ever.

Nielsen discovered 72% of sports fans believe athletes provide a unique view and 59% “expect athletes to personally help progress the BLM movement.”

This kind of sentiment didn’t exist just a couple of months ago, let alone a few years ago when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was widely admonished for taking a knee during the national anthem in a show of peaceful protest.

But being open to the obvious notion that black lives matter means a large subset of sports fans is possibly amenable to at least listening to other social issues of import.

Nike’s taken the temperature of the room and released another in a series of commercials that incorporate themes of inclusivity but also support for athletes and their calls for social change.

The commercial comes on the day the NBA opens and is narrated by soccer star Megan Rapinoe, an outspoken advocate for social issues. “And when things aren’t fair, we come together for change,” she states in the Nike commercial.

NBA players have taken to mentioning Breonna Taylor’s name at each and every post-game interview. WNBA players continue to be a beacon for carrying our powerful displays of protest.

Athletes have long been championed for their skill and determination. 

Finally, after an astounding year of unrest and anxiety, the country is starting to get used to the idea that they should be championed also for what they have to say and how they say it.