Why the NBA’s #LeanInTogether Campaign Is Off-Balance

YoScreen Shot 2015-07-02 at 2.33.15 PMu’ve probably seen it: a commercial featuring NBA stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Stephen Curry alongside WNBA players Skylar Diggins, Swin Cash, Sue Bird and Elena Della Donne.

There are prideful smiles as most of the male players hold up placards featuring the hashtag #LeanInTogether and a list of the women in their lives for whom they are “leaning in.” The women players wear T-shirts with the same slogan and explain why leaning in is for the greater good, and how the men in their lives have leaned in on their behalf. The commercial ends with the feel-good urging for all to #LeanInTogether for the sake of our communities.

The side-eye is strong for this one.

The “Lean In” movement was created two years ago by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and founder of the nonprofit Lean In Organization, and popularized in her bestselling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Sandberg uses the book to bemoan the dearth of female leadership in both the corporate and domestic worlds, and gives tips for how women can take their rightful seats at the tables of their choosing .

While #LeanInTogether is admirable in theory, this NBA campaign has revealed itself to be far from the NBA reality. The NBA wants men to “lean in” for gender equality, but #LeanInTogether is directly at odds with the sexism that flourishes in the organization’s ranks:

  • LeBron James plays for a a team that chose to make light of domestic violence with a video skit where a Cavs fan hurls his wife to the ground for wearing a Bulls jersey. (The Cavs have since issued an apology after coming under fire from anti-domestic violence groups.)
  • New York Liberty, a WNBA team, recently named Isiah Thomas as team president, despite protests from a former colleague who maintains Thomas sexually harassed her on the job. She was promptly fired after she filed a complaint.
  • Point guard Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers disparaged a technical foul made against him by rookie referee Lauren Holtkamp, saying that with regard to being a ref in the NBA, “this might not be for her.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 2.32.53 PMThe pairing of NBA and WNBA players in the #LeanInTogether campaign is ironic, too. The NBA says its goal was to “connect members of the WNBA family with the NBA family,” but the two entities are woefully disparate—and the WNBA is marred by gender inequality. For instance, the WNBA had to gain official approval from the NBA Board of Governors before its launch in 1997, and most WNBA teams are funded by the NBA as “sister teams.” Not to mention the Grand Canyon-sized gaps in player salaries, exposure and endorsements. The #LeanInTogether campaign doesn’t seem to take any of that into account. It also ignores the fact that in a league touted as female-friendly, half of the head coaches for the WNBA’s 12 teams are male, and only two WNBA teams have women as majority owners.

The #LeanInTogether partnership, spearheaded by Sandberg and NBA commissioner Adam Silver, seems to be missing the point of Sandberg’s original initiative. Giving male NBA players prominence in the commercials redirects the focus from those the campaign should empower: women and girls. #LeanInTogether seems to face the same pitfalls that UN Women’s #HeForShe campaign struggles with: It doesn’t openly address how men greatly benefit from sexism and how men are invested in perpetuating it.

The NBA is off-balance with its leaning in. Only when the inequalities at all levels of both the NBA and WNBA are addressed sufficiently can #LeanInTogether mean more—and be more—than a publicity stunt.


Tiffany M. Davis is the author of the Bastille Family Chronicles and Sebastian Scott series. Her nonfiction articles have appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Cauldron, QBR: The Black Book Review, Black Girl Nerds, and Black Comics Month. She is a graduate of Georgetown University and a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. She lives in the Atlanta, GA area.