Recently, while I should have been writing papers, I watched a documentary on the late 80’s/early 90’s Pistons team, nicknamed “The Bad Boys.” I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life and am an avid watcher of basketball, so I was glued to my laptop the whole time. The beginning of the documentary described the strength of the entire team, employing superstar players led by growing legend Isiah Thomas. The team succeeded accordingly; they won back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990, defeating top players like Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. The team brought success back to Detroit, and gave the city something to be proud of in contrast to its decline in earlier decades.
But there’s a reason why the team earned its nickname. Famous for notably rough play, this Pistons team quickly became one of the most hated teams in the NBA. Players and fans of other teams argued that their brawl-inciting fouls didn’t do the game justice and was disgracing the name of basketball. The program made many enemies, but that didn’t stem solely from their violent reputation; it also had to do with the players’ politics.
Recently in class we discussed political agency, focusing particularly on political activism and its potential efficacy in athletics, and for the Bad Boys, it proved to be anything but effective. As I said before, the unquestioned leader of the team was Isiah Thomas, a player destined for the Hall of Fame. As such, Isiah carried a weight the rest of the team didn’t have to; he controlled the pace of the game, instructed other players, and conducted the majority of the team’s interviews. In short, he was the face of the team. But more than that, he represented the coaching staff, the Pistons basketball program, the city of Detroit, and part of the NBA. In contrast to notoriously rough players like Bill Laimbeer, Isiah was reputed as kind, funny and genuine—easily the most liked player on the team. For Thomas, the famous saying “With great power comes great responsibility” rang true; his words, actions and conduct defined a lot more than just himself.
And one day, this got the best of him. After a game in which the Celtics, led by all-star Larry Bird, beat the Pistons, one of Isiah’s teammates, Dennis Rodman, remarked in an interview that Bird was “overrated” and only won 3 MVP titles because he was white. Immediately, interviewers ran to Thomas and asked if he agreed with his teammate’s claim, to which he responded, “Larry Bird is a very, very good basketball player, but if he was black he’d be just another guy.”
And people were outraged. In addition to the outcry of the public, the media went berserk. They unleashed innumerable criticisms on the Detroit Pistons, the majority aimed towards Isiah Thomas. Most called him immature and naïve, citing Bird’s rightful claim to his awards. One reporter even wrote, “Instead of Mr. Clutch, we get Dr. Driveshaft.” The funny, smiley leader of the Pistons was no more; instead, the media depicted him as racist, disrespectful, and egotistical. If non-Detroit fans didn’t hate Isiah Thomas and the Pistons before, you can bet they hated them now.
Although the results are certainly not what he anticipated, Thomas was taking a political stance. In a press conference that attempted to ease tensions within the NBA, Thomas claimed he was trying to illuminate a believed distinction between stereotypes of black and white athletes. “The controversy is that I said Larry Bird, if he was black, would be just another good guy,” he said. “But I think you would all agree that the stereotypes do exist.” Although he made his intentions much more clear, there was not much more Thomas could do for his (or his team’s) reputation, which, combined with their protested style of play, had significant consequences in their careers later on.
Thomas and the Bad Boys are just one instance in which political activism had negative effects on athletics, which leads us to question not only if politics are effective in athletics, but if they should be present at all. In professional athletics, it is an unspoken part of the job description that you strive to be liked—a role model. As a representative of a program, company, city and state, you must reflect positivity in conjunction with what the company deems appropriate. In the heated world of competition, it is difficult enough to behave this way in the face of bad sportsmanship and loss; putting politics into the mix would just complicate things further. Although athletes with political agendas have been well-accepted by the public before, many cases (like that of Isiah Thomas) breed controversy that isn’t necessary. Out of responsibility to employers and otherwise, leaving politics out of the athletic arena is what’s best, not only for the reputations of those involved, but also for the game itself.