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Opinion Rubio’s bizarre attack on the NBA shows folly of the GOP gun stance

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). (Anna Rose Layden/Reuters) (Pool/Reuters)

In recent years, Republicans have spent a fair amount of time attacking athletes and sports leagues. They pilloried football players for kneeling during the national anthem. They hammered the National Football League for backing those athletes up. They blasted Major League Baseball for moving the All-Star Game to protest Georgia’s voter suppression bill.

And in 2020, President Donald Trump targeted NASCAR for banning Confederate flags from races, which Trump apparently saw as a bad thing.

If a strange new attack on the National Basketball Association from Sen. Marco Rubio is any indication, the GOP culture war on the sports world might now shift to the gun debate. This evolving battle is illuminating about how GOP culture-war demagoguery on guns really works and why it could soon get trickier to pull off.

The Florida Republican’s anger was triggered, as it were, by a Miami Heat announcer who spoke about 19 children murdered in Texas, then urged the audience to press lawmakers to pass gun-safety measures. Rubio ripped this as “politicizing a horrific tragedy” and posted the video:

Rubio kept tweeting. He hit the NBA over business interests in China and for running a voting rights group’s TV ad criticizing voter suppression.

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Note that some in the audience cheered the suggestion that lawmakers pass gun-safety measures. This might be what really got Rubio angry: A private business exercised speech that might successfully get people politically engaged in opposition to the Republican position.

Let’s stipulate that there is nothing wrong with Rubio criticizing the NBA’s dealings in China. Lawmakers on all sides regularly criticize private actors. Sports moguls have lots of economic and cultural power and deserve serious scrutiny.

What’s revealing is Rubio’s anger over the NBA’s political speech. In one sense, this is part of a broader trend: Republicans have escalated attacks on private companies and threatened legislative punishment to keep them in line on cultural issues.

Republicans have legislated against Disney for opposing Florida’s “don’t say gay” law, and they’ve threatened companies that advocate against GOP voter suppression. This ugly trend collided with the sports world when Republicans slammed kneeling athletes and threatened MLB for opposing Georgia’s voting law.

In that context, what’s striking is the sheer weakness of Rubio’s case against the NBA. Republicans could at least cast kneeling athletes as unpatriotic, and they could blast MLB’s move of the All-Star Game for costing Georgia revenue. Yet here, all Rubio can say is that the NBA is “politicizing” the shooting.

This is transparent nonsense. Republicans are also arguing for public policy responses to the shootings. Some are absurd (fewer doorways and more guns in schools), and others are insufficient (red-flag laws), but Republicans are calling for responses, because they know calling for nothing is not an option politically.

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Given that, it’s laughable for them to claim that when Democrats call for their own responses, it’s “political.” Just as the NBA crowd cheered the call for action to prevent more children from dying horrible violent deaths, the cry of “politicizing the tragedy” won’t fool many voters.

More broadly, the intersection of the gun debate with GOP attacks on the sports world could lead Republicans into dicey territory. What happens if the sports world becomes more vocal in calling for gun-safety measures?

A core claim on the right is that gun-safety regulations represent the fever dreams of liberal elitists who are out of touch with Real American heartland culture. Republicans are already running scores of ads about guns: They feature female candidates lovingly brandishing handguns, male candidates boasting about their shooting ranges or wives’ shooting skills, and so forth.

In these ads, guns are mainly a cultural signifier. As one GOP strategist noted, by trumpeting love of guns, Republicans signal solidarity with conservative voters in the gun-oriented “cultural cold civil war."

But if gun safety becomes more of a cause in the sports world, it could scramble these narratives in unpredictable ways. I chatted about this with Dave Zirin, a podcaster who has written numerous books about the intersection of politics and sports.

Zirin noted some intriguing complexities. Attacks on the NBA, which is associated more with African American athletes, draw on a decades-old tradition of attacking Black athletes’ speech while lionizing their abilities, which Zirin called “an old script.”

That might work for Republicans in subterranean ways. But amid mass slaughters of children, it’s already harder to culturally demagogue against gun regulations. If more athletes come out for such regulations, it will become even more challenging to associate them with effete liberal coastal elitism.

Should this happen, Zirin told me, “it will put Republicans in a position of having to defend the indefensible in front of an audience that might be more likely to listen to athletes than members of the Democratic Party.”

Note that it was something of a cultural moment when Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr exploded in frustration over recent mass shootings and angrily called for action on guns. One has to hope this trend continues.

Zirin noted that if NFL players, NASCAR drivers and other athletes “associated with White Americana” start speaking for gun regulations, “there’s a much greater chance the popular mood will shift, even greatly.”

This isn’t to predict this will happen, but it could. And it’s not obvious how Republicans would navigate the resulting cultural minefield.

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