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Do sport awareness and heritage nights merely maintain the status quo?

This article looks at the less discussed political performances that ride side-saddle with our professional sport events.

(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The sport calendar, however mixed of cultural and economic interests, has risen as a public marker of our shared identities and memories.

As 2014 has refocused public dialogue on the stature of the athlete activist, this article looks at the less discussed, perhaps barely perceptible, yet more regularly present, political performances that ride side-saddle with our professional sport events.

Sport Dedication Nights and Other Promos

For example, there is something striking about the types of sport political efforts that happen in between the second and third quarters of many NBA games.

Typically arena seats are empty as fans refuel, and broadcast coverage of NBA Games shifts to commercials and game commentary. For those fans opting to remain in their seats, one can expect entertainment. On any given game night, halftime acts range from human bubble ball races, acrobatic trampoline dunk teams, official dance teams or junior equivalents, quick change (husband wife, dress change act), bowl/plate balancing unicycle acts, and the like.

However, in addition to this frivolous entertainment, on certain heritage or awareness nights, halftime shows are regularly dedicated to raising awareness about social causes or honoring select community groups.

As I applaud the social good that stems from dedications to special theme nights like AIDS, Esophageal Cancer, Autism, MS, or Breast Cancer Awareness, there is cause to rethink the progressiveness (or lasting strength) of the NBA and other sport franchise heritage nights.

To be sure, nights like Sikh Awareness Night, Islam Awareness Night, Latino Heritage Night, Filipino Heritage Night, Jewish Heritage Night, Native American Heritage Night, and Iranian Heritage Night attempt to honor, acknowledge, and empower communities and groups whose place and histories in American society have been made invisible, disempowered and/or riddled with racism.

Sikh Awareness Night, Los Angeles Clipper (Credit: ARMANDO ARORIZO/PRENSA INTERNACIONAL)
Sikh Awareness Night, Los Angeles Clipper (Credit: ARMANDO ARORIZO/PRENSA INTERNACIONAL)

For sport franchises, such nights may yield a way to broaden fan bases while offering a connective fabric to community engagement.

Yet, does being included on the sport stage, welcomed in the bleachers, and greeted on digital boards and jumbotrons broaden consciousness and ultimately promote diversity? Or, do these Heritage Nights merely succeed in tokenizing our differences?

Sport has long been held as a way to help stitch together communities and facilitate peace. This faith in sport echoes from policy makers and citizens alike.

But do such sport heritage nights really pan out for these groups or merely up the coffers by selling special-night tickets to an extended fan base demographic?

The problem is that these nights are too flat.

By and large, participation in such heritage nights involves purchasing a ticket and receiving a special edition T-shirt, and enjoying a halftime heritage-themed performance. For the bulk of fans not having pre-registered or bought tickets through a special events link, there is neither a free tee nor any circulation of community information made available to fans at a greeting table. The halftime show, however, is for all.

As nice and colorful as these nights are, “heritage nights” remain somewhat stuck in a standstill in terms of carving out a path to effect needed change, truly embracing and respecting the differences that a multicultural society professes.

These nights could wade into some thornier issues in our society. For example, issues of police brutality, immigration reform, violence against Sikhs, and anti-Muslim sentiments are serious obstacles to basic rights enjoyment for many of our community’s racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Could there be nights dedicated to raising awareness about these issues?

As a type of cultural politics, the halftime shows on heritage and awareness nights roll on through the season without real engagement to promote, rather than simply to tokenize, “inclusion.”

Heritage nights do not always adequately demonstrate authentic or relevant community commitment other than to offer a theme night effect of slotting in the faces and performances of the community in an orderly rotation.

A clumsiness of intention becomes evident when some NBA franchise group nights are presented as “Awareness” Nights, like Sikh or Islam Awareness Night, while all other community groups have “Heritage” Nights.  To be sure, groups like Sikhs and Muslims do lack basic visibility; however, when the label “awareness” is more exclusively used as a modifier for NBA nights that raise disease awareness, it seems inappropriate.

Business of Multicultural Marketing

Many fan activations of the multicultural or “heritage” caliber are primarily driven as sport business. There is no need for naivety, this is professional sport, and it is big business.

The Golden State Warriors, like many teams, have added Chinese New Year and Asian Heritage Nights. In fact, the Chinese New Year is now officially commemorated on an NBA-wide level as players take to the warm up court in special edition shooting shirts. Multicultural marketing experts may be patting themselves on the back, as these nights and efforts like the launching of a Chinese social media presence now sees the Warriors surpassing one million followers on Chinese Social Media Site, Weibo.

Jeremy Lin (Credit, Kyle Terada)
Jeremy Lin (Credit, Kyle Terada)

Yet, fan numbers and reach are more than assets.

Corporate driven social good and diplomacy efforts like the NBA’s global community outreach, NBA Cares, have the capacity to act on a scale that few other non-profit or community based actors can reach. I do believe that the NBA is, as their motto declares, “bigger than basketball.” Corporate driven social engagement need not be dismissed too quickly as only about one thing, profit.

The need for generating awareness of social causes, rallying against intolerance, and heralding respect of difference demands scrutiny, commitment, and work. The NBA should be a driver in ensuring that its business practices and values subscribe to coherent and sincere community engagement through all its political, business, and labour practices.

Perhaps, a larger NBA Cares presence should connect local team communities with national and international causes that the NBA truly supports.

Related Article: Athlete activists and a new year of protest fashion

Rook Campbell is a Visiting Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Southern California. Follow her on Twitter: @cabinet48

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