( ENSPIRE NEWS ) N.B.A. Joins Campaign Against Gun Violence
The National Basketball Association, alarmed by the death toll from shootings across the country, is stepping directly into the polarizing debate over guns, regulation and the Second Amendment with an unusual advertising campaign in partnership with one of the nation’s most aggressive advocates of stricter limits on firearm sales.
In a move with little precedent in professional sports, the N.B.A. is putting the weight of its multibillion-dollar brand and the prestige of its star athletes behind a series of television commercials calling for an end to gun violence.
The first ads, timed to reach millions of basketball fans during a series of marquee games on Christmas Day, focus on shooting victims and contain no policy recommendations. The words “gun control” are never mentioned.
But the organization that paid for them, Everytown for Gun Safety, has a robust and controversial agenda: It was founded by former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg specifically as a counterweight to the National Rifle Association, and the group also battles at the local, state and federal level to expand background checks for gun buyers, strengthen penalties for gun trafficking and ban gun sales to people convicted of domestic abuse.
The N.B.A.’s involvement suggests that a bloody year of gun deaths — in highly publicized mass shootings and countless smaller-scale incidents — may be spurring even some generally risk-averse, mainstream institutions to action.
Players who appear in the first 30-second ad, which will run five times on Friday, speak in personal terms about the effects of gun violence on their lives. Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors describes hearing of a 3-year-old’s shooting: “My daughter Riley’s that age,” he says. Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers recalls the advice he heeded as a child: “My parents used to say, ‘A bullet doesn’t have a name on it.’”
The N.B.A. said it held little internal debate about working with Mr. Bloomberg’s group. “We know far too many people who have been caught up in gun violence in this country,” said Kathleen Behrens, the league’s president of social responsibility and player programs. “And we can do something about it.”
But the decision may prove tricky for the league: While many of its teams are based in cities dominated by Democrats, a number of other teams — and millions of N.B.A. fans — hail from places where Mr. Bloomberg and his approach to guns are viewed with deep suspicion. Ms. Behrens said the league had not shown the ads to team owners, but added, “We’re not worried about any political implications.”
The Bloomberg-N.B.A. partnership was brokered by an unlikely figure: Spike Lee, a member of Everytown’s creative council, whose latest film, “Chi-Raq,” set on Chicago’s South Side, confronts gun violence with an unflinching eye.
Over breakfast at the Loews Regency Hotel in Manhattan in November, not long before the movie was released earlier this month, Mr. Lee proposed the idea for the ads to John Skipper, the president of ESPN, who then took it to Adam Silver, the N.B.A.’s commissioner. Mr. Lee insisted on the participation of Everytown, with which he collaborated on a protest march down Broadway after the film’s New York premiere.
In an interview, he sounded many of the themes that Mr. Bloomberg himself has emphasized in the past, saying it was time for “common sense anti-gun laws.”
“But because of the N.R.A., politicians and the gun manufacturers, we’re dying under that tyranny,” Mr. Lee said. Reciting a statistic from Everytown, he added: “Ninety Americans are dying every day because of the N.R.A., gun manufacturers, and politicians willing to run you under the table.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s interventionist policies as mayor and his left-leaning tactics on guns have earned the vitriol of gun-rights advocates, who mocked him with TV ads as an out-of-touch elitist last year and attacked him again during a Republican presidential debate in August.
“Bloomberg tries to ban your snack food, your sodas and, most of all, your guns,” declared one ad paid for by the N.R.A. “Hey, Bloomberg: Keep your politics in New York. And keep your hands off our guns and our freedom.”
But the commercials to be broadcast on Christmas represent the evolution of Mr. Bloomberg’s strategy for changing the nation’s gun culture and the rules that govern it.
After blasting the N.R.A. for years, and seeking to use his personal fortune to punish lawmakers who ran afoul of his legislative goals (“We’ve got to make them afraid of us,” he once said), Mr. Bloomberg is emphasizing the experiences of gun victims, building grass-roots networks in states, developing partnerships with well-known figures and crafting a message that focuses on the noncontroversial goal of ending gun violence, rather than the divisive aim of “gun control.”
John Feinblatt, a former top mayoral aide to Mr. Bloomberg who is president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said the group appreciated that Americans would first need to understand the depth and breadth of the damage caused by gun violence before they would coalesce around any set of solutions. (The ad is being produced not by Everytown’s political lobby but by an affiliated educational nonprofit.)
“This,” Mr. Feinblatt said of the N.B.A. ads, “is clearly about educating the public.”
Besides N.B.A. players, the ads feature survivors of shootings and relatives of those killed by guns, including Andy Parker, whose daughter, Alison, a television reporter in Virginia, was shot to death in the middle of a live broadcast by a former co-worker. Everytown for Gun Safety paid for the production of the commercials, and the league donated time that it controls during games on ABC and ESPN, which will broadcast the ads.
Pro athletes and teams have spoken out in different ways on gun violence before. Mets players and front-office staff posed for a photograph in June wearing orange T-shirts, the color of gun safety, in a display organized by Everytown. In 2013, a group of former N.F.L. players advocated tougher gun laws in an ad organized by a different group financed by Mr. Bloomberg.
But until now, no major sports league has lent its name and logo to such an effort.
For the N.B.A., whose public-service partnerships have tended to involve groups like Unicef, Habitat for Humanity and the Boys and Girls Clubs, the foray into guns is a significant departure. But it reflects a political awakening inside the league that is led not by its executives, but by its players.
In 2012, members of the Miami Heat, including LeBron James, wore hooded sweatshirts in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager shot to death in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer. In 2014, Mr. James and other N.B.A. players wore shirts during pregame warm-ups that said, “I can’t breathe” — the words uttered by Eric Garner, a black man from Staten Island, just before he died when a police offer put him in a chokehold.
And in April, Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks marched with protesters in his hometown of Baltimore after the slaying of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died while in police custody. Mr. Anthony is one of the players who speaks in the new ads.
Harry Edwards, the sociologist who, as leader of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, helped organize the raised-fist protest by Tommy Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Summer Games, said too much gun violence was “tied into this masculine mystique — having to do with being respected as a man, or tough as a man.”
“When Steph Curry or Carmelo Anthony are saying, ‘No, there’s nothing masculine about that; the violence has to stop,’ these are the people that young African-American males around the country are identifying with,” Mr. Edwards said. “It has more impact than if the president had said it.”
For a number of N.B.A. players, gun violence was and remains an intimate fact of life — one that some said they hoped to spare the next generation.
Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls, who grew up in New York City and also appears in the new commercials, recalled a searing childhood memory in statements that he and the other players provided in conjunction with the new ads.
“I’ll never forget playing basketball in a park with some kids, and a young woman approached me in tears, and told me that her brother had been shot and killed on that same court a year earlier,” Noah said. “Ultimately, it’s about saving lives. There’s just no room for gun violence.”