Steve Kerr at the intersection of Sports, Politics, and Gun Violence

Published: Jun 7, 2022  |  

Academic Director of Graduate Programs in New York

“When are we going to do something?!” 

Golden State Warriors Head Basketball Coach Steve Kerr pulled at my heartstrings in a press conference late last month with an impassioned plea for the passing of HR8 which is a bipartisan bill for background checks for gun purchases. After the recent deaths of 21 children and teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Kerr spoke about politics being at the center of the issue regarding laws on background checks for gun purchases. Additionally, during the press conference, Kerr mentioned the deaths of elderly African-Americans who were killed in a supermarket in Buffalo, NY, and Asian churchgoers killed in Southern California. I felt the anguish, hurt, and frustration of a man who used his voice to make a plea to the lawmakers in Washington DC to act in the best interest of society.

As a result of the Sandy Hook elementary shooting in 2012 which resulted in the deaths of 28 people, HR8—officially known as the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021—has been unable to attain the 60 senate votes needed to move the bill to a vote by the full congress. Currently, fifty Democratic senators have voted in favor of the bill, yet without the support of at least ten Republican senators, no progress has been made in over a year.

As a husband, father, and son, I could feel Steve Kerr’s message about not being “numb” to what is happening across the country. This is not just Steve Kerr’s advocacy for the safety of innocent lives, this is a national movement as 90% of Americans, regardless of political party affiliation, are in favor of background checks for gun purchases.

Uvalde hit home for Kerr

Steve Kerr is a 5-time NBA Champion (Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs) as a player and a 3-time Champion (Golden State Warriors) as a head coach. He is one of the most successful leaders in sports and a staunch supporter of gun control laws. Kerr is no stranger to the terror of gun violence: on January 18, 1984, his father, Dr. Malcolm Kerr, a political scientist and the president of the American University of Beirut, was murdered in Lebanon while he was a freshman basketball player at the University of Arizona. 

The resiliency of Kerr is due in large part to the foundation of his family and their resolve to continue to advocate for gun control. In the midst of the current playoff run, no one would have faulted Kerr for compartmentalizing his personal feelings and focusing on achieving the fourth NBA title for the Warriors. Instead, Kerr spent the three-minute press conference on May 24 admonishing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the 50 Republican senators who are keeping the HR8 Background checks for gun purchases bill off the congressional ballot.

 Accountability for elected officials

The advocacy of activist groups for background checks for gun purchases across the country continues to put pressure on elected congressional officials. In 2015, the National Basketball Association (NBA) partnered with former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the “Everytown for Gun Safety” campaign. NBA All-Star players Stephen Curry and Chris Paul were featured prominently in the ads to leverage federal, state, and local politicians to advocate for background checks for gun buyers.

The HR8 bill is the legacy of the national advocacy work for background checks for gun purchases. During the March 24 press conference, Steve Kerr spoke of being “tired of offering condolences and moments of silence to the families of the victims of gun violence.” Kerr spoke fervently about the fifty senators holding the country hostage and maintaining their selfish power. On June 2nd, President Joe Biden held a national press conference to urge the Congress to take measures to address gun violence, a call that seems increasingly urgent, with numerous additional mass shootings happening across the country since then. The time is now for all of our elected officials to cross political party lines and move the HR8 bill into a full congressional vote and ultimately into law. The people have spoken, and the lawmakers in Congress need to respect the voices of the public.

Activism is a marathon, not a sprint

On the eve of the start of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, Kerr once again doubled down on his call to action for holding our elected officials accountable and demanding sensible gun laws. During the interview, he spoke of a true democracy where the citizens are represented and the “will of the people wins out.” Kerr has advocated for everyone to put pressure on the fifty Republican senators in Washington DC to make the right decision regarding background checks for gun purchases and the HR8 bill. Are party lines worth the weight of innocent lives that are lost to gun violence?  With midterm elections in November on the horizon and 90% of the country in favor of background checks for gun purchases, the time is now for at least ten Republican senators to make a difference and save lives.

Kerr’s outspoken stance on background checks for gun purchases is indicative of the larger story of members of the sports community leveraging their voices and platforms for political reform. For example, Colin Kaepernick’s activism against racial injustice by kneeling during the singing of the national anthem sent shockwaves through not only the sports world but greater society as a whole—former President Donald Trump responded directly to Kaepernick’s actions, questioning his patriotism. Kaepernick’s steadfast activism was eventually vindicated by the NFL’s pledge of $250 million for police reform, battling systemic racial issues, and criminal justice reform. However, this came at a high personal cost to the player’s career: Kaepernick was not re-signed to a team after the expiration of his contract, and for six years, he continued his activism while no longer an active player in the NFL. While not deterred, he continues to actively work out and try out for clubs (most recently the Las Vegas Raiders) in an attempt to continue his football career. 

Steve Kerr is no novice when it comes to pushing the line between sports, politics, and gun violence. In the past, he has also engaged in arguments via social media with former US President Donald Trump. Kerr has called out former President Trump’s leadership as “gutless” while the former president has responded in kind by questioning Kerr’s courage and calling him “scared” to answer questions. Yet it’s hard not to notice that, unlike Kaepernick and the NFL, Kerr’s activism had no impact on his job security with the NBA.

I believe both Kerr and Kaepernick have found that politicians will treat them with the same vitriol when fighting for issues that conflict against their partisan base. However, it’s problematic that society has continued to treat these two men quite differently in the aftermath of their activism. Could race have been the reason Kaepernick was vilified and continues to pay a sharp penalty for his activism, in comparison to Kerr who has been able to operate from a protected pedestal without the threat of punitive action? There is unquestionably a double standard of how our culture penalized a Black athlete fighting for racial equality, versus how we’ve received a white one advocating for gun control.  

While some believe politics have no place in athletics, I hold that the essential foundation and values of sport are intended to mirror society. Activism by athletes and coaches should be seen as an extension of our greater humanity, and those within sports, as part of society, have a right and even duty to stand up and fight for pressing issues they care about. Ultimately, society needs to be better at protecting and treating our activists like Kaepernick and Kerr with the same respect and dignity, as they are both equally holding our elected officials accountable.

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