What Corporations Can’t Do

The NBA is trying to distance itself from Donald Sterling with the We Are One campaign. It's coming off as more than a little crass. (Getty Images)

The NBA is trying to distance itself from Donald Sterling with the We Are One campaign. It's coming off as more than a little crass. (Getty Images)

Corporations are not people. There are a lot of ways you can know this. (“Corporations” and “people” are two different words, for instance.) It’s important to keep the concepts distinct in your mind, because to confuse them is to embrace a capitalist hellscape you want no part of, provided you’re not reading this on a yacht.

You could be forgiven for occasionally using a phrase like “Nike believes…” as if a shoe company could have principles. Corporations spend a lot of money trying to get you to do that. They establish a social media presence. Their ads have a point of view that tries to convince you GloboChem is all about youth culture and has a wicked sense of humor. They build brands, which are like people, except they’re sociopathic and occasionally tone-deaf in the way a disguised movie alien is right before it’s found out by a group of Earthlings.

All this elaborate human being cosplay is ultimately in service of selling to you. Sometimes this is hilariously transparent. I think most of us recognize “We are Miracle Whip, and we will not tone it down” as just a particularly absurd way of saying “Buy Miracle Whip” because we understand there’s nothing inherently rebellious about a heart-slowing sandwich spread. Other times, corporations don’t seem to be selling anything. This is when they are selling themselves.

For example, the NBA is making We Are One T-shirts available for purchase on its website. This isn’t a cash grab — the league is going to donate the money from shirt sales to anti-discrimination and tolerance organizations — but it has two discrete aims, one considerably less noble than the other. The first is straightforwardly good and benevolent. The NBA will be handing some worthy non-profits oversize checks with oversize numbers on them, and there’s nothing negative to be said about that. The second, unstated purpose of this campaign is to distance the NBA from Donald Sterling and to position it as an antiracist company.

In this way, We Are One is to antiracism as the flag pin is to patriotism. It takes more than asking a bullpen of  copywriters to draft up a slogan to combat racism in a meaningful way. The NBA let a bigot run one of their franchises for decades. David Stern and his lieutenants — Adam Silver among them — did little more than fan themselves when Sterling didn’t want to allow blacks and Hispanics to live in his apartment buildings, heckled Baron Davis and made bizarre comments to female companions about the Clippers’ “beautiful black bodies” while hanging out in the locker room after games. It took an audio recording of Sterling going full Cartoon Plantation Owner to provoke action from the league.

So there is that — the hypocrisy — and then there is the fact that, like any slogan that attempts to comment on some intimidatingly large and complex issue, We Are One is like trying to use emoji to talk about love. David Roth wrote about this problem on the anniversary of 9/11 last year. The thesis of his argument is that corporations cannot speak in any kind of nuanced way about Big Things. All they can do is throw out sentiments that need to fit onto the end of a tweet or the breast of a t-shirt. With regards to a great tragedy, “They can’t remember, so they #NeverForget.”

Remembering is a thing humans can do that corporations can’t. Corporations similarly cannot have conversations. They cannot listen, respond or explain. Everything they say is, by nature, either public relations or salesmanship. They are acutely socially stupid. Part of this country’s racism problem is that it won’t have a conversation about its racism problem, and when the conversation reaches a national platform — usually after a public figure does something blatantly racist — it’s polluted by so much reductive noise that it ceases to be productive. What I am saying is corporations should never weigh in on race.

This isn’t the same thing as saying the NBA should have done nothing. I’m glad they’re running Sterling out of the league, and I’m glad players, coaches and executives have voiced their support for the decision to do that. I’m eager to hear more from Adam Silver — an ambassador for the NBA, sure, but also an individual — talk about why he believes the league is inclusive and progressive and the steps it will take to ensure it remains that way. But the NBA-as-brand can butt out of this saga, because it has nothing useful to contribute.

The We Are One shirts have Adidas logos on them, because the NBA is not allowed to sell any apparel that doesn’t carry the German athletic wear company’s imprint. Perhaps you see my point.

11 thoughts on “What Corporations Can’t Do

  1. “Corporations are not people.”

    Not according to the SCOTUS, heh heh.

  2. The hypocrisy surrounding this situation is overwhelming. Yet among the talking heads it’s nearly a non-issue. They would rather fan the flame and keep racism alive than discuss cause and effect.

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  10. first time i’ve ready an article of yours and it was fantastic (even by non-sports journalist standards ;] )

    thank you!