For many casual fans, the annual Christmas Day marathon marks a sort of unofficial beginning to the NBA season, the time where non-diehards start to turn attention from football and the hot stove to the stuff we've been watching for the past two months. When all those eyeballs focus on ABC and ESPN this Friday, they'll see something new that's got nothing to do with the action on the court — an advertising campaign featuring NBA superstars calling for an end to gun violence, the product of a partnership between the NBA itself and what The New York Times calls "one of the nation’s most aggressive advocates of stricter limits on firearm sales."
Four NBA players — reigning league Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, eight-time All-Star Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers, 10-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks, and two-time All-Star/former Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls — appear in the first 30-second spot, which will reportedly air five times on Friday, during the NBA's Christmas quintuple-header showcase. Their comments come interspersed with those who have survived shootings and family members of those who have died in them, who share stories about how gun violence has affected their lives.
"I heard about a shooting involving a 3-year-old girl over the summer," Curry says. "My daughter Riley is that age."
"My parents used to always say, 'A bullet doesn't have a name on it,'" Paul says.
Anthony: "The gun should never be an option." Noah: "We can all make a difference."
President Barack Obama saluted the NBA and its players on Wednesday for their participation in the ad and its attendant anti-gun violence campaign:
I'm proud of the @NBA for taking a stand against gun violence. Sympathy for victims isn't enough – change requires all of us speaking up.
— President Obama (@POTUS) December 23, 2015
The ad was produced by an educational organization affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety, the nation's largest nonprofit gun-control advocacy group, and paid for by Everytown, according to Zach Schonbrun and Michael Barbaro of the Times:
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. 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. Mrs. Behrens said the league had not shown the ads to team owners, but added, “We’re not worried about any political implications.”
The spots were directed by filmmaker and longtime NBA fan Spike Lee, who serves as a member of Everytown's creative council and who reportedly proposed the ad campaign to ESPN president John Skipper, who brought the idea to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. From Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press:
"I think [Lee] sensed and saw that our guys were feeling that same passion that he had and he reached out to Adam [Silver] and said I want to do something about this and I think we should do it together, and we thought it was a good idea," said Kathy Behrens, the NBA's president of social responsibility and player programs.
"The guys really wanted to kind of put their voices behind this, and so we like the way it's come together and I think the guys speak very passionately about the issue of trying to end gun violence, trying to make their communities stronger and safer for families."
The Clippers' Paul, who also serves as the president of the National Basketball Players Association, viewed the campaign as an opportunity to use his platform as a celebrity athlete to advocate for a cessation of firearm-involved violence, which has reportedly led to nearly 13,000 deaths and more than 26,000 injuries in the United States this year.
“It was very important for me to be a part of that,” Paul told Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports. “Anytime I see that happen, the very first thing that I think of is my family, and having two kids, it’s terrible to see kids and people losing their lives day in and day out because of gun violence.”
Curry, Noah (who has long been involved in efforts to curb gun and gang violence in Chicago) and Anthony (who this spring marched in his hometown of Baltimore with residents protesting the lack of answers surrounding the death of Freddie Gray) all shared similar sentiments during brief interviews with Lee:
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While Everytown advocates for specific policy instruments like requiring more stringent background checks for gun sales and implementing more punitive gun trafficking laws, the Christmas Day spot doesn't address those prescriptions, choosing instead to focus on the human faces of gun violence, including those familiar ones fans see on NBA courts, at All-Star Games, in sneaker advertisements and on billboards.
"Oftentimes, the stories of the everyday Americans who deal with this issue in a profound way because they've lost someone they love to gun violence, those stories often go untold," Jason Rzepka, Everytown's director of cultural engagement, told the AP.
That said, the players' commentaries do hint at a preference for taking a more holistic approach to addressing the issue.
"We gotta really figure out how not to fight all these isolated events, and figure out what's the major plan," Anthony says.
The commercial participation comes in a broader context of NBA players speaking more openly about political and social issues, often on the topic of violence.
In 2012, while a member of the Miami Heat, LeBron James shared a photo of he and his teammates putting the hoods of their sweatshirts up in a show of solidarity with with the family and friends of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old in Sanford, Fla., who was shot and killed by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Last year, he and his teammates wore their shooting shirts inside-out before a game during the opening round of the 2014 NBA playoffs in solidarity with a gesture offered by Paul and his Clippers teammates in silent protest of the incendiary racial comments made by then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling and captured on now-infamous recordings published by TMZ. James also called for the ouster of Sterling from the NBA, saying, "There's no room in the NBA for Donald Sterling."
In December, James joined Cavaliers teammate Kyrie Irving and members of the Brooklyn Nets in wearing T-shirts bearing the phrase "I Can't Breathe," in solidarity with those protesting the death of unarmed black man Eric Garner at the hands of police officer Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island, N.Y. In January, then-Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum wore a "Je Suis Charlie" shooting shirt in a gesture honoring the 12 victims killed by masked gunmen in a terrorist attack at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satirical publication that had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad.
In May, while the Cleveland Cavaliers were making their run to the NBA Finals, James spoke out about unrest in Cleveland in the midst of public protests after police officer Michael Brelo was found not guilty of voluntary manslaughter and felonious assault in connection with the 2012 deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, two unarmed people at whom police fired 137 shots following a high-speed car chase. In October, following the death of five-month-old Aavielle Wakefield in Cleveland and a mass shooting at an Oregon community college that prompted frank remarks from President Barack Obama about the dispiriting reality that such mass shootings have now become "routine" in American life, LeBron called for "big-time penalties or rules or regulations about carrying firearms," and said plainly, "There's no room for guns."
The spot will likely engender debate about the efficacy of the league and its players calling for an end to gun violence without advocating for specific steps to take in ending it. For his part, sociologist Harry Edwards told the Times he believes athletes taking public stances against the act of raising a gun against another person does matter, even if they're not calling for specific policy changes in the process.
“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,” he said. “It has more impact than if the president had said it.”
The spot will also almost surely spark arguments about whether taking specific social/political stances is proper for an entire sports league. The NBA's Behrens suggested to the AP that the problem of gun violence far outweighs any such questions.
"You need to raise awareness and you need to do it in a way that makes people realize there is something that they can do, and that's really how the spot ends," she said. "We can do something about this, and that's the point. If we can, then we should."
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