WALSH: The NBA Killed Itself With Politics And Propaganda. Good Riddance.


I am probably a typical case. Never qualifying as a diehard NBA fan, I nonetheless enjoyed the sport and typically became more invested during the playoffs. I loved watching the NBA Finals, especially, and had missed very few Finals games in the past decade or so. I never had a home team but rooted for my favorite players. I had followed Lebron James’s career, in particular, since his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But I didn’t watch a single minute of this past NBA season. LeBron and the Lakers won the trophy on Sunday and I didn’t realize that the game was even happening, or that the Lakers were up in the series. I found out the next day, due to viral footage of Lakers fans rioting in celebration (apparently, revelers celebrating a basketball team’s victory are immune to COVID, just like BLM activists and attendees of memorial services for Democrats). This was the first NBA season I’ve ever ignored, and I didn’t miss it. Being a sports fan is like being under some sort of trance. You care immensely about this thing, for reasons you can’t quite explain, but if the spell breaks and you stop caring, you will wonder why you ever did or why you should start again.

For me, the spell broke because of the NBA’s ceaseless political propagandizing. It was too aggressive, too wearying, too irritating, too much. This sort of thing may be tolerable up to a certain line. I’m not sure where that line is, exactly, but it has surely been crossed when a league canonizes an accused rapist and serial abuser like Jacob Blake, its top star tries to foment more division and chaos by telling wild tales about racist cops “hunting” black men, and nearly all of the players and coaches decide to turn the National Anthem into a forum for self-aggrandizing political stunts. I can deal with a little bit of politics from professional athletes, but if getting smacked in the face with an ideological two by four is the price of admission, I’d rather do something else with my time.

I am not alone. According to Nielsen, this was the lowest rated NBA Finals in 40 years. A mere 5.6 million viewers tuned in to watch the game that I didn’t know was being played. To put that into perspective, double that number watched a regular season Sunday Night Football match up on the same night. Game 6 of the Finals last year had three times the viewership. Back in the Michael Jordan era, the championship round would routinely draw 4 to 5 times as many viewers, sometimes even more. There is no mystery about why people are tuning out.

Some in the sports world have tried to rescue the NBA from the consequences of its own politicizing, claiming that viewership is down because of COVID and other things. Yahoo Sports argued that the ratings decline suffered by other professional sports leagues like the NFL and MLB prove that politics is not the driving factor. But other professional sports leagues like the NFL and MLB have also engaged in political sermonizing to one degree or another. If the NBA is being hit particularly hard, it’s probably because they’ve been screeching particularly loudly from their soapbox. Besides, just ask the fans why they’re turning away. They’ll tell you. One poll has nearly 40 percent watching fewer games because of politicization. And that poll counts separately the fans who’ve switched off because of the NBA’s dealings with China. China hypocrisy and political posturing (two very interconnected issues) together account for almost 60 percent. These are not small numbers and this is not a small problem for the NBA.

It’s probably true that COVID isn’t helping matters. The absence of fans does tend to make the games less exciting, even without the social justice stuff. But COVID, the election, the riots, and all of the other unpleasant and worrisome subjects dominating the news, are major reasons why so many Americans would like to turn to sports for an escape, and major reasons why we have little interest in our sports escapism being served to us with a side of left-wing moralizing. It is like going to Chuck E. Cheese as a child only to be told that you can’t jump in the ball pit until you complete your multiplication tables and finish a plate of Brussel sprouts. Chuck E. Cheese exists precisely to be a place where multiplication tables and Brussel sprouts don’t. You have defeated the purpose by combining these two universes.

Granted, that may not be the best analogy because vegetables and mathematics are good for you. The BLM talking points promoted so relentlessly by the NBA are not good, or true, or helpful in any way. It is just that when we turn on the news or enter into a political debate with someone, we are prepared to encounter and engage with that kind of rhetoric. They are part of the bargain. They should not be, and need not be, part of the sports bargain, which makes our tolerance in that setting much lower. We would rather sit and watch the game, enjoy the sport for its own sake, and focus on a fun and frivolous thing for a while. If that is too much to ask, so be it. We will turn the TV off and our energies elsewhere. It is probably for the best, on second thought.

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