“It is a symbol of oppression,” Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf said one afternoon in March 1996. “I don’t think you can argue with the facts.” The Nuggets guard, a recent convert to Islam, was discussing the American flag after a morning shoot-around in Denver’s old McNichols Arena. Speaking softly, he explained that his religious beliefs did not allow him to stand during the national anthem.
For most of the season, Abdul-Rauf had carried out a silent protest while the anthem was played before each game, lingering in the locker room, stretching on the floor, or remaining seated on the sidelines. But when a reporter’s question prompted him to explain his reasons, he became a symbol of oppression himself. David Stern, the NBA’s autocratic commissioner, suspended him and decreed a fine of $31,707 per game. Abdul-Rauf quickly capitulated, agreeing to stand if he could keep his head bowed and his eyes closed, but it didn’t matter. Soon enough he was exiled to the Turkish Basketball League. The NBA’s stance was clear: Professional basketball, which relied on corporate sponsorships and television ratings to pay its players and generate profits for its owners, was no place for polarizing political statements.
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Two decades later, in August of last year, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers conducted a similar protest. Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel during the anthem of what he called “a country that oppresses black people.” Though he wasn’t officially punished by the NFL, which ultimately decided that players were encouraged but not required to remain standing, the response to his gesture was familiar. Coaches and executives around the sport spoke out in a chorus of reprobation. Elder statesmen, such as former linebacker Ray Lewis, advised Kaepernick to keep his politics private. Fans tweeted insults.
After the 49ers threatened to cut him at the end of the 2016 season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract. As of this writing, he remains unemployed. But his statement struck a chord inside the NBA. When camps opened ahead of last season, some of the league’s best-known players were quick to weigh in. “You have the right to voice your opinion, stand for your opinion, and he’s doing it in the most peaceful way I’ve ever seen someone do something,” LeBron James said at the time. That take was broadly endorsed around the league. Gregg Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, mentioned Kaepernick in a team meeting. “I said, ‘Here’s our stance on the flag,’ ” Popovich told me recently. “ ‘We have no stance. You’re grown men. Do what you want.’ ”
“Times have changed,” James explained one afternoon this past April, when I met him in the visitors’ clubhouse at Denver’s Pepsi Center, just over the highway from the site of Abdul-Rauf’s all-but-forgotten protest. “Athletes feel like there’s more than just sports.” With James leading the charge, some of the league’s larger personalities have been moving steadily toward the frontier of activism. In 2012, he and his Miami Heat teammates posted a picture on social media that showed them wearing hoodies, with their heads bowed and their hands in their pockets. It was a symbolic reminder of Trayvon Martin, who’d been gunned down by a neighborhood-watch volunteer in Florida one month earlier.
In 2014, players around the league wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to memorialize Eric Garner, who died after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold. And after Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore the next year, the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony traveled to the city and joined a street protest. James, who publicly supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, stood onstage at the ESPY Awards last year and urged players to speak out on issues of the moment. By then, Popovich was railing against Donald Trump.
In the weeks after Kaepernick’s protest, more NBA players and coaches went public with their opinions. The league issued no fines or even reprimands. At the time I spoke to James, it seemed like another voice was joining the chorus every few days. When I asked if he considered himself responsible, he said that he wasn’t trying to serve as a model. It just felt good to speak his mind. More important, it felt wrong not to. “I don’t do it to get other people behind me or give them more courage,” he said. “If that happens, so be it. But what I do, I do for me. If I’m knowledgeable about something and I have a passion for it, I’m going to speak up.”
So will Stephen Curry, of the Golden State Warriors, the league’s second-biggest star. This past February, Kevin Plank, the CEO of the sporting-gear company Under Armour, which pays Curry several million dollars a year, described Trump as an “asset” to America. Curry said that he agreed with the description “if you remove the E-T.” In what many read as a response to Curry, Plank bought a full-page newspaper advertisement in which he said that his previous choice of words “did not accurately reflect” his intent.
The mea culpa was an astonishing reversal. It had always been assumed that an overtly political statement by a player, especially one as personally denigrating as Curry’s, would harm his own reputation, and maybe the league’s along with it. Instead, here was Under Armour doing damage control, even as Curry gained respect for his candor. For the first time, it seemed, NBA players could be confident that they wouldn’t be punished for expressing and acting on their beliefs.
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Even in the wake of the recent protests against white supremacists in Charlottesville, most players won’t go on the record about anything more controversial than Drake versus Kendrick Lamar. But an increasing number are coming to see political engagement as something approaching a responsibility. “Fans look up to us,” explains Bradley Beal, who, at twenty-four, is an emerging star for the Washington Wizards. “That’s where the obligation comes in. It’s giving back to the community by voicing your opinion. Standing behind what’s right for the country. As players, we have a huge platform, and I think we’ve got to utilize it to the best of our ability.”
The isolated actions of James and others have coalesced into something that looks a lot like the start of a movement. It is happening now for reasons that aren’t difficult to understand. The reach of Twitter and Snapchat allows celebrities to be easily heard in their own voices. The erosion of credibility suffered by both elected officials and the media has created space for others to wield influence. And contracts in excess of $100 million let the league’s biggest stars ignore financial risks and do what they want.
But what makes this insurgency especially remarkable is that the existing power structure is helping to facilitate it. Athletes from other sports often approach Adam Silver, the current NBA commissioner, to say that they wish they played in his league. And this past September, Silver and Michele Roberts, the executive director of the players’ association, encouraged the league’s athletes to take a stand. “Critical issues that affect our society also impact you directly,” they wrote in a letter. “You have real power to make a difference.”
With that sanction, it’s hard not to wonder how far players and coaches are willing to go. When I asked Beal about that recently, his answer was immediate: “You know what? I think we could possibly save America.”
The last time sports really mattered in any sociopolitical sense was the 1960s. Muhammad Ali was the first athlete to use his platform to express outrage on a national scale, with outside agitation from the broadcaster Howard Cosell. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith each raised a fist on the medal stand. George Foreman waved a flag. Bill Walton, then playing basketball for UCLA, sat in the middle of Wilshire Boulevard to protest the war in Vietnam. “Sports presented space for America to have some of its most difficult conversations,” says Amy Bass, the author of Not the Triumph but the Struggle, a book about activism at the Mexico City Olympics.
By calling himself a conscientious objector and refusing induction into the Army, Ali came to embody the antiwar effort. When he returned to the ring in 1970 following a three-year ban, he was, in the eyes of many, boxing for an end to the bombing in Vietnam, the abolishment of the draft, and the reversal of a foreign policy that sought to impose American will abroad. Today, he’s remembered as a hero. At the time, though, at least half the country saw him as a symbol of the breakdown of the existing social order. He was a Negro boxer with a big mouth who really ought to just shut up.
The activists were the ones who made the history books. But for black athletes, in particular, whether to use the fame that sports provided for a higher purpose was a question with no easy answer. For every Carlos or Smith who took advantage of his status to promote change, there were hundreds who kept quiet, collected a paycheck, and took advantage of the respect of the white world to move up in society. O. J. Simpson, who’d left behind his childhood in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill projects, won the Heisman Trophy as America’s best college football player a year after Ali refused to serve in Vietnam. Rather than using his status to push a political agenda, he sought a place in the white establishment. “I’m not black; I’m O. J.,” he reportedly told friends.
In the decades that followed, as shoe contracts and salaries became increasingly lucrative, the fear of doing something that might alienate sponsors became a strong disincentive for would-be agitators. “When I was playing, we’d talk about it in private, but publicly it was frowned upon,” says James Worthy, who spent twelve years in the NBA. “You were just afraid of what might happen to you. A player in the eighties was only making $200,000, $300,000, so you didn’t want a team to look at you like you were a bad apple. It felt like you’d better be quiet or you’d be kicked off the plantation. I hate to say it that way, but that’s what it was like.” In 1993, at the height of his fame, the Phoenix Suns’ Charles Barkley summed up such thinking in a Nike ad. “I’m not paid to be a role model,” he said.
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That attitude was personified by Michael Jordan, the sport’s best player. In 1990, Harvey Gantt ran for the U. S. Senate against the fiercely reactionary Jesse Helms in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. An African-American who’d studied at MIT, Gantt had served as the mayor of Charlotte. During that race, the state’s black community implored Jordan to campaign for Gantt, or at least to endorse him. Jordan refused. There is no definitive record of him saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” a quote that has been attributed to him, but it might easily have been his motto. “His political views were unknowable,” says Steve Schmidt, the Republican consultant and political commentator who managed John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. “His public image was set to the broadest majority.”
Jordan contributed to racial equality by recasting black athletes as successful businessmen. Between his NBA-record salary and the hundreds of millions he made off the court, he would become the wealthiest athlete ever, rich enough to buy his own team. “Michael was saying, ‘I’m a powerhouse, genius corporate businessman and I’m going to show you another way,’ ” says Worthy, who played alongside Jordan at the University of North Carolina. “But I’m not sure it was a way that was necessarily available to other athletes.”
If Jordan wasn’t willing to engage, why should anyone else? With a few notable exceptions—Abdul-Rauf; the Suns wearing an alternate jersey in 2010 to protest Arizona’s harsh immigration laws—they didn’t. Jordan was the model for a pro athlete. Everyone wanted to be like Mike.
One morning in April 2014, Adam Silver presided over a press conference at the New York Hilton unlike any that a sports league had previously held. Silver had replaced David Stern as the NBA commissioner that winter. He’d enjoyed a honeymoon of about two months before the league’s longest-tenured owner precipitated a crisis.
Donald Sterling, who’d bought the L. A. Clippers more than three decades earlier, had been caught on tape reprimanding his girlfriend for posting a photo of herself with a black man, who happened to be Magic Johnson. Sterling berated her for publicizing her association with African-Americans. “You can sleep with them, you can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask is . . . not to bring them to my games.” Once Silver had verified the tape’s authenticity, he spent a weekend canvassing players, owners, and sponsors. Many of them advised a moderate approach. Suspend Sterling indefinitely, perhaps. Quietly encourage him to explore selling the team.
Silver was having none of it. Standing at a lectern in the Hilton, he announced that he was banning Sterling for life, something no commissioner in the history of American sports had done to an owner. Reports later surfaced that the Warriors had planned to stage a walkout before a playoff game against the Clippers if they’d deemed Silver’s actions insufficient, and it’s likely that other teams would have responded similarly. Still, with a single act of either bravery or corporate irresponsibility, depending on how you read it, Silver served notice that the NBA had changed. “Muhammad Ali was a hero in my home,” he says now. “It wasn’t that I was indifferent to any corporate backlash. It was more about what I felt the NBA stood for.”
Around the league, players and coaches felt liberated. That December, teams started wearing the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts while warming up before games, and sometimes while sitting on the bench. Like Abdul-Rauf’s protest, this was a blatant violation of NBA rules, which require a standardized look. Though Silver is often perceived as representing the interests of the sport in the abstract, he answers to the owners, who hire and can fire the league’s commissioner. Silver says that some of the owners were strongly in favor of disciplining players. He wasn’t. “I was proud of them for taking a stand,” he says.
Stern, too, had been a staunch liberal. But when he took control of the NBA in 1984, the league had the wolf at its door. In those nascent days of cable television, many CBS affiliates broadcast the playoffs on tape delay, after the late news. Stern guided the sport to unimaginable prosperity, yet he never felt confident that it was more than one reversal away from disaster. “I inherited the league at a very different time,” Silver told me.
Like everyone else, NBA players now get streams of information at a pace that would have been hard to imagine even a decade ago. “You have these images of shootings around the country that you can literally pull out and see on your phone,” Steve Kerr, the coach of the Warriors, says. “And you’ve got this presidential campaign going on with all these shenanigans. It’s all right there for you to see, on a minute-by-minute basis.”
The increased affluence of even marginal players allows opinions to be expressed without fear of a backlash. The average NBA player salary has jumped to $8.5 million, from around $325,000 ($760,000 adjusted for inflation) in Jordan’s rookie season. “I remember how everyone worried about offending Nike,” Worthy says of his time in the NBA. “But these days, it’s flipped the other way. Under Armour wouldn’t dare go against Steph Curry and his values. Superstars carry more weight than any company.”
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If any team would seem immune from backlash, it’s Curry’s Warriors. They play in the Bay Area, one of the country’s most liberal regions. Their market includes the solidly Democratic Silicon Valley; according to one report, the largest tech companies contributed sixty times as much to Clinton as they did to Trump. And like nearly all NBA teams, the Warriors roster is firmly left of center. “I’ve very rarely been around a player who was hardcore conservative to the point where there were political arguments,” Kerr told me.
Yet the Warriors’ majority owner, venture capitalist Joe Lacob, quietly supported Trump, as did many other rich white guys around the league. “I’m very sensitive to the fact that I’m representing an organization where maybe not everybody shares my beliefs,” Kerr says. “I don’t want to go overboard. I want people to understand that I’m speaking from my own personal background. But that’s a blurry line, because I speak for the Warriors every day about basketball. I’m one of the faces of the organization.”
Silver consciously tries to reassure players, whom he considers equal partners, that he is sympathetic to their concerns. “My job as a commissioner is not to be a political activist,” he says. “I recognize that. There’s always a line that I’m trying to be careful not to cross. And I may have crossed it in certain situations that may not have been apparent to me at the time. But in the same breath, I don’t think we have an option. Whether it’s a sports league or a consumer-products company, in this day and age, you are required to take a stand. It’s what your customers expect of you. It’s what fans expect.”
In the summer of 2016, Silver took another stand. A group of employees at the NBA, which also governs the WNBA, decided to participate in New York’s Pride Parade. They built a float representing both leagues with their own money and asked the commissioner to ride on it. “I was thinking about it in a much more parochial way,” Silver says. “It was an internal statement. It seemed like an individual decision, not an NBA decision.”
That’s nonsense, of course. Silver’s participation was instantly recognized as the political act that it was. “I was representing the values of this league,” he says now. “And those values include tolerance.”
As the float advanced down Fifth Avenue, it happened to be spotted by a basketball coach from Texas, of all places, who was visiting Manhattan during his vacation. “I was just standing somewhere, and here comes this parade,” Gregg Popovich says. “I did a double-take. It was Adam! On top of this float! I wanted to jump on the float and hug the guy. Looking back on it now, I think that when I saw Adam do that, subconsciously I felt enabled. I was so proud to be part of the NBA. And then everything started happening.”
On a spring evening at the AT&T Center earlier this year, just east of downtown San Antonio, tipoff was half an hour away. The media had been herded out of the clubhouse, where Spurs players were busy preparing for a game against the L. A. Lakers that would, they hoped, get them a step closer to a top seed in the coming playoffs. Down a corridor, Popovich, who has won five NBA championships coaching in one of professional sports’ smallest markets, sat at a desk in his office, his fists clenched tight. He was talking about Donald Trump.
“It was a slow progression,” Popovich explained. “First, he tried to humiliate and discredit our first black president, for no reason whatsoever. He’s clever in that sense because he’s a carnival barker, a salesman. He knew he was developing a base. He knew there were x amount of people who were going to go for that sort of thing, and he knew it wasn’t true. I realized then that he can get a lot of people who aren’t that informed really excited. And then the lies started coming.”
Nobody involved with the NBA has been as outspoken as Popovich. It is instructive to remember that he has a military background: He was team captain and leading scorer at the Air Force Academy, and he later coached there. Perhaps because of that, his team’s locker room sometimes feels like a graduate seminar in modern American history. Popovich has arranged events for the Spurs with Cornel West, the activist and Harvard professor, as well as Barry Scheck, one of O. J.’s lawyers and the cofounder of the Innocence Project. One day, he assembled his players to screen an Emmett Till documentary. “Tears are coming down,” he recalls. “And I say, ‘Boys, you play basketball. You know how important basketball is? Zippo. It’s your job. You make money. Put it in the bank. Take care of your families. But there’s a frickin’ world out there, and you’ve got to understand where we live.’ ”
The Spurs have employed as many as nine players at a time who were born outside the United States. Sometimes Popovich asks them to share their experiences. “You talk to Tony Parker about what’s happening on the outskirts of Paris, where the Muslim population feels disenfranchised,” he says about his French point guard. From Manu Ginobili, he says, “we hear about what happened in Argentina when thousands of people went missing. We’ve always done it. We’ve just done it in-house.”
Until Trump. As the presidential campaign, in all its ignobility, was coming to an end, Popovich realized that his animus could no longer be contained. “When I see the bloc of people who voted for him,” he says, “the more that some of us stand up and say things, the more that some of them will maybe open their eyes and understand who this individual is, and what principles and standards they’ve thrown down the toilet to follow him blindly.” Popovich says he sifts through his mail personally, and if a letter includes even a hint of substance, anything more than unadulterated vitriol, he’ll write back and state his case. “You can say things like, ‘Did it bother you when he made fun of the handicapped guy?’ ” he says.
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In Texas, no Democrat has held statewide office since 1994. The extended family of Peter Holt, the man who owns the Spurs, has made its fortune in San Antonio for half a century. These days, Holt, who spent a year on the ground in Vietnam in 1967, owns the largest Caterpillar dealership in the United States. He and his wife gave $500,000 to further the political aspirations of former Texas governor Rick Perry, now the secretary of energy. They gave $250,000 to Restore Our Future, a GOP super PAC, and $33,000 to the Republican National Committee. They also supported the man Popovich despises, giving $250,000 to the Donald Trump Victory Fund.
That the coach of the Spurs is fanatically opposed to the causes and candidates backed by the owner of the Spurs is, as one might imagine, an ongoing story in San Antonio. Popovich doesn’t care. Neither, apparently, does Holt, who has managed to separate his political beliefs and his business investments to an extent that his head coach, at least, would find impossible. In response to Popovich’s public statements, the owner of an air-conditioning supplier pulled some $300,000 in advertising and sponsorship money. He vowed never to attend another Spurs game. “I found out weeks later,” Popovich says. “The owner didn’t say a single word to me, and they’ve given nearly a million dollars to the Republicans this time around. Not a word. I give them credit.”
The air-conditioning company has been the exception. When I asked three of the Spurs’ major sponsors, H-E-B, Valero, and USAA, whether they had any problem with Popovich stating his opinions, none chose to comment. “You have to act like an American and accommodate other people’s political viewpoints,” Schmidt, the former McCain strategist, says. “That’s the country we live in.” Or maybe the sponsors are being pragmatic. After all, Popovich is a lot more popular than they are.
He was still talking about Trump a few moments before tipoff when a Spurs functionary appeared in the doorway to tell him that he needed to leave his office and get out on the floor, no kidding. Popovich seemed to have more to say, but he stood up and walked out of his office, into the hallway. He shot a glance at the functionary as he passed. “It’s just basketball,” he says.
LeBron James has played in eight NBA Finals. Popovich has coached in six. Steph Curry has lit up the past three. These are recognizable figures, secure in their status. Their constituencies are national. At last look, James had 38.3 million Twitter followers. Even Jordan, still the most iconic NBA personality, has been moved to act. In July of last year, he condemned the killings of African-Americans by law-enforcement officials and the killings of police in Dallas and elsewhere. He also made matching $1 million donations to the NAACP and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “I have been deeply troubled,” he said.
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Yet this new spirit of activism has been especially potent in the NBA’s smaller markets. In Memphis, a city without big-league baseball, football, or hockey teams, Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley Jr. is almost universally admired. When he committed to a five-year, $153 million contract in the summer of 2016, it appeared to validate the existence of the sixteen-year-old franchise.
Conley has always felt uncomfortable making a fuss, which may be why he has never received national recognition. He takes after his father, an Olympic gold medalist, who was one of the best triple jumpers ever and surely one of the most polite. Like every other black man in America, Conley grew up with constant reminders that he wasn’t white. “But race didn’t define me,” he says. Many of his close friends at his Indianapolis high school and at Ohio State were black, but not all were. A white biology major named Mary Peluso became his wife. Peluso was from Kettering, Ohio, outside Dayton, where the policemen patrolling her neighborhood were unfailingly agreeable. Racism, she was sure, had been eradicated during the 1960s. “I’m very trusting and open,” she says. “I like to think that everyone is positive and nice.”
That didn’t square with what Conley had seen. “For a black kid to get home safely,” he says, “he has to basically just look at the steering wheel and not say a word. I understood that.” Like his father, who wouldn’t have dreamed of making a statement on the victory podium, Conley tuned out the rumble. For a long time, he kept his feelings to himself.
He couldn’t help noticing, though, that the shootings of unarmed black civilians by white policemen kept happening. And the gap between how blacks and whites lived was getting harder to explain. “I wondered why it had to be that way,” he told me. As Conley emerged as the most prominent athlete in Memphis, one of the country’s poorest—and blackest—metropolitan areas, he found himself driving his Jeep, rather than his Mercedes, from his suburban home to the arena downtown. It made him uncomfortable to flaunt his good fortune.
After one road trip last season, Conley headed home from the airport. He had already driven his Mercedes to Collierville, the predominantly white town where he lives, when a cruiser stopped him. Sitting in his car at 1:00 a.m., a policeman’s flashlight shining in his face, he might have been any black man. Be cool, he reminded himself. It worked, until he realized that his driver’s license was in his wallet, which was in his backpack, which was in his trunk. “That’s when I got nervous,” he told me. “If I say to him, ‘My wallet is in my trunk,’ will I be able to get it without something happening?”
The incident turned out fine. But in that moment, Conley realized his huge contract came with a soapbox. “I’m trying to make the transition to being more outspoken,” he told me one morning soon after, sitting courtside in a folding chair following a team practice.
Once the Grizzlies were gone from the playoffs—eliminated by Popovich’s Spurs—Conley traveled to Ohio, where he spends summers escaping the debilitating heat of the mid-South. He and his wife have a palatial home in the countryside near Columbus. That’s where he was in July 2016, when he saw the video that showed Philando Castile being shot by a Minnesota police officer during a traffic stop, a situation that had begun not so differently from his own.
Conley was anguished. “Why does this always have to happen?” he wailed. “Why is the first option always to shoot?” By then, the rumble in his head was so loud that he could barely think of anything else.
Conley came up with a plan for a series of three-on-three games in Memphis’s worst neighborhoods. Each team would consist of a cop, a kid, and a Grizzlies player. Without context, this wasn’t so different from what Police Athletic Leagues have been doing for years. But Conley’s idea came after yet another black man had been killed during a routine interaction with law enforcement, and it used his currency as a star at a time when inner-city communities, especially, have been desperate for authority figures they can trust. “We have to start to get policemen and black teenagers thinking differently about each other,” he said. He picked up the phone and punched in the number of Michael Rallings, who runs the Memphis Police Department. At that moment, Conley became an activist.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, more voices have made themselves heard. Conley’s coach, David Fizdale, called Trump’s response to the white-supremacy march “disgusting.” Kevin Durant, Golden State’s preternaturally quiet small forward, announced that the Warriors would refuse any invitation to visit Trump’s White House. “Until we get him out of here,” Durant said, “we won’t see any progress.”
Even the NFL’s evolving response to Kaepernick, including a Sunday of protests after the president attacked the quarterback at a rally this fall, seems to be building on the NBA’s foundation. In a recent interview with ESPN The Magazine, Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers’ star quarterback, said that he envies the freedom NBA players have to speak their minds. In the NFL, he suggested, where there are no guaranteed contracts, players have less job security, which “means you’ve got to play the game within the game a little tighter to the vest.”
The next generation of basketball stars is watching. “I think I might want to speak out about some things,” De’Aaron Fox told me. I saw Fox, a nineteen-year-old who left the University of Kentucky after his freshman year, this past summer, the day before he was chosen as the fifth player in the draft by the Sacramento Kings. We were at Hunter College in Manhattan, where the NBA had invited potential top picks to assemble care packages for U. S. servicemen overseas. Along with a dozen others, Fox was dropping lip balm and hand sanitizer into paper bags: quasi-necessities that aren’t readily available in downtown Kandahar. The event wasn’t mandatory, but the league encouraged players to attend. Before they’ve even signed a pro contract, they’re being asked to give back. Signing a gift card addressed to someone half a world away is meant to make players realize, if only for a moment, how good they have it.
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As we talked, it became clear to me that Fox perceived political involvement as both a privilege and a perk of athletic success. James is thirty-two and Curry is twenty-nine—a generation older than Fox in basketball terms. But whereas James and Curry became NBA standouts before embracing political activism and Jordan demurred until deep into middle age, Fox and his peers see no reason to wait. They watch the league’s biggest names refusing to limit themselves to sports, and they figure that’s how a star is supposed to act. “The best players do it,” he insisted. “They have a platform. And people will actually listen to them. Not just hear them, but listen and take action.”
Fox had been signing cards as we talked, but now he stopped and looked me directly in the eye. “Professional athletes can do that,” he said. “They can actually affect the world.”
This article appears in the November ’17 issue of Esquire.
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