SBJ/October 24 - 30, 2005/Opinion

NBA’s new outreach isn’t business as usual

“This is not about virtue. This is not about public relations. This is not about business.”

Those are the words of NBA Commissioner David Stern at the inaugural Sports & Social Responsibility Executive Forum presented by Street & Smith’s Sports Group last week in New York. They came at the end of a passionate call from Stern for the “private sector” of the sports industry to play a larger role in improving the world — through the power of competition.

Stern said that history has shown that government cannot do it alone, and that private sports organizations have the resources to make a difference. The NBA’s new outreach program, NBA Cares, which we detailed in our last issue, deserves mention, respect and appreciation. We don’t know whether it will affect the state of sports, or whether the average fan will recognize the effort being put into this ambitious program. We’re not even sure whether the latter is important. What we respect is that the NBA, and so many other leagues, teams and governing bodies, have responded to a call for action, doing so much more than just providing free tickets and player appearances.

Stern was refreshingly honest in his approach in outlining the league’s thinking on community outreach, saying that the league “used to think it was about us. What’s good for business?”

He expressed a change in approach that makes charitable outreach more a part of the fabric of the league’s culture. Yes, some will think that it’s just more astute business from David Stern, that NBA Cares is nothing but a dressed-up marketing program. We will, for now, put our skepticism aside and hope that this is the start of a long-term program aimed at improving our society through the power of sports. The NBA’s commitment to this program will be the key to its success.

Stern’s comments were at the heart of a fascinating two days during which leaders of the industry came with their guard down and minds open to the state of sports and to new approaches to dealing with difficult issues: violence in sports, diversity hiring, alcohol in sports, sustainable business partnerships and the role of the media. The theme that sports is a microcosm of society was prevalent: that our celebrity culture is focused on the off-the-field exploits of athletes, that sex sells, that the media focus on the exploits of a select few rather than the “feel-good” issues of sports.

The Sports & Social Responsibility forum opened the window to this discussion, and we hope it is the start of a sustainable discourse on the pressing issues facing sports and society and the power of sports to improve the day-to-day lives of so many people.

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