The NBA is not afraid to lead on social justice

Adam Silver: My job is to protect NBA players' free speech
Adam Silver: My job is to protect NBA players' free speech

NBA stars are not afraid to speak their minds.

They have worn "I can't breathe" shirts during pregame warm-ups to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, while onstage at the ESPYs in July 2016, decried police shootings of people of color, and spoke out about racial tensions in the United States.

James called President Donald Trump "a bum," while Steph Curry called him an asset "if you remove the 'et' from asset."

NBA players have a reputation as being more vocal on social and political issues than any other group of professional athletes. And there's a reason for that.

"Just look at the players who become stars in the NBA. They're very diverse," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, in an exclusive interview with CNN. "I think part of the reason NBA players are more active is that it's been part of the culture of this league for generations and passed down to them."

Silver said the "sense of an obligation, social responsibility, a desire to speak up directly about issues that are important" is something that's been passed down over the decades. It's "part of being an NBA player."

He used the example of Hall-of-Famer Bill Russell, who was very engaged with social causes and in combating racism.

"Fifty-five years ago he played in our All-Star game in Los Angeles and was the MVP. That was 1963. It was also the same year as Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington D.C. that Bill Russell attended," Silver said. "I think about that through line from Bill Russell right through to 2018 and LeBron James."

Silver said the league wants NBA players to "be multi-dimensional people and fully participate as citizens."

He noted that while it's not his job to spur players to activism he has to make sure they feel "safe" to speak out without fearing for their careers.

That's a luxury not every league can offer.

In the NFL, for example, former quarterback Colin Kaepernick started a protest in 2016 to shed light on the treatment of black Americans, particularly by police. The protest took the form of kneeling during the performance of the National Anthem, which caused substantial controversy for the league. He has yet to be picked up by another team since waiving his contract with the 49ers in 2017.

Related: NBA Commish on why the NBA didn't televise the All-Star Game draft

NBA players' long-stanging attitude toward social activism has lined up with the changing expectations of some big corporations. More companies, including the NBA, are taking a stand.

"All CEOs, all big corporations these days really have no choice," Silver said. "It's an expectation from their customers that they're going to take a position."

He said that in the past the advice was to generally avoid taking a position and being too controversial.

"I've talked to lots of CEOs, corporate leaders in other industries," he said, "and I think increasingly their view is they are forced sometimes, as uncomfortable as that may be, to take a position on important things that are happening in society. It doesn't mean you have to touch every issue and there may still be some third rails out there."

Under Silver's leadership the NBA pulled the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte, North Carolina over a law restricting bathroom use for transgender people that was widely criticized as discriminatory.

"I think in this day and age, you really do have to stand for something," Silver said.

It's commonly accepted that NBA fans, like the players they cheer for, are typically more diverse than those of other sports. Silver noted that NBA fans tend to embrace many of the same values that the league has advocated for, including anti-discrimination policies.

"I think ultimately to the extent we're a brand -- there's an NBA brand -- I think that us upholding those values is good business because I think it's consistent with how people see our brand," he said.

Related: NBA working with players to head off national anthem tensions

Silver also talked about how basketball plays into the American Dream.

"Twenty-five percent of our players in the league are from outside the United States," he said. "The U.S. has opened its borders to them based on their ability to do something at an incredibly high level. To me it's the ultimate meritocracy."

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