In an era where the NBA appears most focused on increasing its market share both domestically and abroad, it's sometimes difficult to remember that each franchise represents a community. For many of these teams — particularly those in smaller markets — responsibilities include not just winning games and rewarding fan loyalty, but also broadcasting the character of a city to the rest of the country and world. A basketball fan in Miami, for instance, may only come to know Milwaukee through his experience of the Bucks. Profit typically comes first for every team in the league, but that doesn't mean that their civic duty is immaterial.
These factors factors help explain why, in rare cases, a team feels the need to make a political statement on behalf of its city and fans. During the 2010 NBA Playoffs, the Phoenix Suns spoke out against Arizona's controversial SB 1070 bill, which effectively allowed law enforcement officials to stop anyone on the suspicion of being an illegal immigrant. In their view, it was important enough to support their Latino fans and make a statement on behalf of equality in Arizona.
The Portland Trail Blazers have now made a similarly bold move. As activists in Oregon prepare to place a constitutional amendment in support of marriage equality on the November 2014 ballot, various Portland business and political organizations have thrown their support behind the measure. On Friday, Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers and the National Women's Soccer League's Portland Thorns FC voiced their endorsement of the efforts. Shortly thereafter, the Blazers became the first NBA team (and, although confirmation does not exist, likely the first team from one of the four major North American sports leagues) to support marriage equality and this prospective ballot measure. Here's their short statement:
“The Portland Trail Blazers are in support of the Freedom to Marry and Religious Protection ballot initiative. We do so as believers in individual choice as a fundamental right of all people.”
Although the statement consists of only 32 words and employs quasi-libertarian rhetoric rather than unabashedly liberal language, this is a bold statement. While the aftermath of Jason Collins's coming-out announcement in April changed the course of the NBA forever, the league retains many old prejudices in various forms. It's difficult to argue that Collins currently lacks an NBA job solely because of his sexual orientation, but that fact still plays into any team's consideration of whether he should be added to the roster. When an organization announces its support for marriage equality (or any LGBT cause), it speeds up the normalization of that behavior and creates a more open climate within an institution. With this announcement, the Blazers have told the world that they wish to be at the forefront of accepting gay and lesbian employees in the world of sports.
At the same time, it's perhaps best to view the statement in terms of Portland rather than of the NBA as a whole. The city conceives of itself as a haven for progressive-minded people. Its relationship with LGBTQ causes is strong, as well: when Sam Adams won election in 2008, it became the largest American city to elect a gay mayor. Despite the fact that the Blazers surely have fans who do not support marriage equality, it's absolutely the case that this announcement would be met more kindly in Portland than in most other NBA cities. In some way, the Blazers were able to make this statement because it broadly expresses the belief of the city they call home.
By this view, the Blazers have done little more than express an increasingly common sentiment in American society. If it's a bold statement in the context of sports, then it's worth wondering exactly why such barriers exist. Perhaps the Blazers, in making history in such simple fashion, have proven just how uncontroversial this issue can be under the right circumstances.