A League-Wide Failure: How the NBA has Fostered a Culture of Hate

Over the course of the last few decades, sports have become an outlet for athletes to express themselves regarding the most hot-button issues, and some feel the line needs to be drawn between sports and politics. From Colin Kapernick’s attack on systemic racism in America by kneeling for the national anthem to Venus Williams’ movement toward gender equality in sports, Athletes can have a great impact on issues outside of the game. In addition to that, the spotlight of professional sports has left many of its athletes vulnerable to personal attack and ridicule, leading to a mental health crisis unlike anything we have seen in the history of sports. The NBA has been at the forefront of these issues for a few years now, and the culture surrounding the league has evolved into one that not only accepts hatred but spreads it. This failure comes not only from the part of the league and players but the fans themselves, creating one of the worst all around environments in professional sports.

Two players that took the spotlight over the last few years for their behavior were Kyrie Irving and Meyers Leonard, both of which were involved in incidents of anti-Semitism and hate speech. Irving, a prominent figure in the NBA and eight-time All-Star, promoted a movie that featured anti-Semitic messages and declined to apologize when some began to call him out for it. He became very defensive and outraged once instructed by his former team, the Brooklyn Nets, to participate in anti-hate training in order to return to the court. Although nothing has been said about whether Irving completed all of the required sensitivity training, he returned to basketball less than a month later and that was that.

Leonard, on the other hand, was not so fortunate. After a video surfaced of Leonard using an anti-Semitic slur during a Twitch stream, he was ousted by the basketball community, being cut off by his then-team the Miami Heat, resulting in him taking the 2021-2022 season off It seemed, for the time being, that the community had done the right thing, keeping somebody that didn’t hold their tongue from being paid millions of dollars to play basketball. This was the case, and everything seemed fine until over a year later when Leonard was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to a two-way contract.

The thing that strikes me as a problem isn’t the fact that Leonard was signed to a team, that feels expected, but it was the lack of negative reception to the signing as if everyone had forgotten what he’d done. The Irving situation falls on the same line, both gave half-hearted apologies and suddenly people forgot what had happened. The more and more we allow these players to continue to say and do things that harm other people without repercussions the further and further the NBA will fall into this vat of toxicity and hatred. Accountability is something that we as fans and the NBA itself needs to take control of. Take Major League Baseball as an example. Trevor Bauer, a former starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers was accused and arrested for sexually explicit and unwarranted behavior, and he has not played another game since. He was suspended an entire season and then ridiculed for his behavior so heavily that he now plays for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in Japan. Accountability works, but we need to enforce it because the longer the NBA allows plays like Irving and Leonard to remain, they will only feel more and more as if they can get away with it.

Moving past the actions of the players themselves, another issue that needs to be addressed within the basketball community is the actions of the fans. The idea that the players are just there for the entertainment of the fans has spread like wildfire through all 30 fanbases. It is becoming more and more common to hear or see video of an altercation between a fan and a player because of the comments of the fan, attacking the player or their family. In one incident involving Suns point guard Chris Paul, he reported that opposing fans of the team he was playing that day, actually touched his wife and child after the game. This entitlement over the players needs to end because they are human too, and sometimes people forget that.

Social media and sports television has become a focal point for many of the players in the NBA as an issue creating a mental health crisis not only in the NBA but across all sports with recent studies showing that approximately 35 percent of elite-level athletes suffer from mental illness, most of which is brought on by the pressure of the sport and its fans. Pelicans Star Zion Williamson has come out on multiple occasions talking about the ridicule he faces for his weight, and how sometimes it’s too hard to ignore. Williamson is 22 years old and has been dealing with this for multiple years since he was basically a kid. Nobody should have to be body shamed by millions of fans, and Williamson is not the only one to come out about treatment from the fans. Two-time MVP and face of the NBA Giannis Antetokounmpo recently came out about the ways in which he suffered through mental illness nearly leading to his retirement and his fears about speaking out about it. The NBA nearly lost its golden child because of the pressure brought about by the culture it has formulated in the last decade.

No longer can we sit by and allow ourselves to ignore the problems of our beloved sport. We can’t let hate-filled individuals continue to get away with using their platforms to spread negative ideas just because they are athletes. Some may say that we should separate politics from sports, but it was the athletes themselves who brought politics into the equation in the first place. We must also change ourselves and I plead with you to take a look at your own actions. Keep yourself accountable. Be careful what you say on social media or the way you treat players at sporting events because you may not think it will get to them, but it does, and at the rate things are headed we are going to lose the players we love the most. It will be then, and only then that we can start to repair and purge the NBA of its current state, and work toward eliminating hate in all sports.