Culture

flagrant foul

Culture

Why is my favorite basketball team complicit in the Gaza-Israel conflict?

Scenes from a protest calling attention to the Portland Blazers’ relationship with a company responsible for providing equipment to military around the world.

Every year, the Portland Trail Blazers host the Rip City 3-on-3 tournament, a multi-bracket tourney on a series of small half courts set up around the Rose Quarter, the neighborhood where the Blazers play at the Moda Center. Kids, adults; good at hooping, shitty at hooping, whatever. If you’ve got a basketball, two friends, and a dream, you can compete for the grand prize of tickets to an upcoming Portland Trail Blazers pre-season game.

On an unusually hot July weekend, hundreds of people arrived at the stadium to mill around in the sun, shoot hoops, play in the big public fountain, and sample from the available food carts as they waited to try their luck. Across the street, at the corner of Wheeler St. and Winning Way, a more dour event was underway. A motley group of demonstrators spanning a wide berth of ages — no more than 30 of them, many decked out in handsome retro Blazers gear — had set up with a portable PA system, a handful of posters memorializing the Palestinian killed during The Great March of Return, and two massive banners bearing unambiguous messages: “BLAZERS YES” and “WARCRIMES NO.”

These signs were part of a press conference being staged that afternoon by the Portland Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, Portland Resistance, Jewish Voices for Peace, and other affiliated groups. They were demonstrating against the Blazers’ unlikely yet entrenched partnership with Leupold & Stevens, an Oregon-based manufacturer of military equipment that has been an official partner of the team since 2013.

The protesters were there to call attention to Leupold & Stevens’ role in abetting the latest installment of violence at the Gaza-Israel border. Since March 30, the denizens of Gaza have engaged in the Great March of Return, a planned peaceful action in which they approach the border wall between the Gaza strip and Israel to symbolize a return to the homes that were taken from their ancestors. In the course of this action, the Gaza Ministry of Health claims IDF forces have killed 168 Palestinians including medics, teenagers, and a reporter, and have injured around 15,000 others. Israel has been quick to shift the blame for the violence on to Hamas, though an overwhelming UN General Assembly vote, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have all publicly condemned Israel’s use of deadly force.

Signs on display at the protest.

Signs on display at the protest.

“Portland DSA was trying to figure out what can we do, if there are weapons manufacturers locally we can probably look into that probably has links to this massacre,” Olivia Katbi Smith, the co-chair of the Portland Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and a true-blue NBA fan, told me a few days before the demonstration. “Sure enough, we discovered that Leupold & Stevens, which is based in Beaverton, supplies sniper scopes to the IDF. I immediately recognized the name ‘cause I had seen it so many times at Blazers games.”

Leupold & Stevens designs and manufactures high-end, long-distance optical equipment: binoculars, gun sights, golf rangefinders, thermal trackers, bracket mounts for every imaginable firearm, and things of that nature. In 2017, Leupold sold nearly 800 high-end custom sniper scopes to the Israeli Defense Force. You can see its logo, a big serifed “L” sitting in crosshairs, affixed to the scope of an IDF sniper operating at the March of Return protest in a picture provided by the Israeli Defense Force to The Times of Israel.

That same logo is printed on the goodie bag that Blaze the Trail Cat, the Portland Trail Blazers’ giant-hideous-cat-mascot, hands to the designated “Hometown Hero” in a ceremony sponsored by Leupold & Stevens at every home game. The texture of this ceremony is familiar to anyone who has been to an American sporting event since 9/11. During a break in play, the game’s announcer recognizes a member of the military, a police officer, or a first responder of some other kind. The announcer shares their name and service record with the crowd, and they stand under a spotlight, waving, often with a air of embarrassment. Most of the gathered fans, at least the ones who haven’t stepped out for a piss or a hot pretzel, stand and clap while a patriotic song plays. Blaze hands the honoree a black Leupold bag full of swag, including a pair of high-end binoculars. When it’s over, the Jumbotron plays highlights before it’s back to the game.

“We see kids of all ages and families participating in the Rip City 3-on-3 across the street. So it’s ironic that kids and families, just like those, have been shot to death thanks to a company that the Portland Trail Blazers have chosen to enable.”
Olivia Katbi Smith, co-chair of the Portland Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America

The IDF isn’t the only controversial organization that does business with Leupold-Stevens. The Ferguson Police Department, which became the national symbol of increasingly militarized police after a grand jury acquitted Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, are also a customer. “When we see sniper scopes at a protest in Ferguson, it helps to normalize that sort of response to protest and normalize the militarization of police occurring across the entire country,” Gregory McKelvey, an organizer with local direction action organization Portland Resistance, told me. “I think that when you give police officers toys, they tend to use them and we see that in cities like Portland. It's just human nature, when they receive something, to think that they need to use it.” This mentality goes beyond hardware: Many American law enforcement agencies, including the Ferguson Police Department, train with the IDF, adopting its aggressive techniques for quelling crowd violence and applying it in their work back home.

McKelvey is a huge fan of the Blazers who has lived in Portland all his life; his childhood bedroom wall is painted with a portrait of Blazers legends Clyde Drexler, Bill Walton, and Damon Stoudamire. He was rattled by his home team's weird arrangement with an organization that profits off the sale of sniper scopes to organizations that don’t represent his values, especially because the team does a lot of good around Portland. “I work at a place that works with homeless youth and we frequently get Blazers tickets donated to us,” he said. “We have Blazers come and hang out with our homeless kids, and that's just indicative of some of the stuff that the players — as well as the institution — have helped do in our community. For them to have this partnership, which I'm sure is mostly related to capital, it’s really discouraging.”

American sports have long had a weird, scratch-your-back relationship with the military: Tributes to heroes during games, flyovers over NFL Stadiums, recruiters at games. It’s a pretty simple relationship: The military covets the labor and the risk of young men, and young men love sports. How the relationship is perceived has a lot to do with the inherent politics of the sport. Nobody blinks an eye when the NFL accepts millions from the military for event marketing, but the generally liberal NBA fans might blanch to know their team is being partially subsidized by arms dealers. (A 2014 Senate report from Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake outlined $6.8 million in Department of Defense payouts to sports teams for “paid patriotism,” including $20,000 and $15,000 dollar contributions to Blazers owner Paul Allen’s coffers for the privilege of using the arena’s pre-game festivities to perform a color guard ceremony.)

The Blazers, who declined to comment for this story, handed out a joint statement with Leupold to reporters who gathered to write about the press conference: “We welcome [Leupold & Stevens’] continued support of our nightly in-game support to the bravery, the sacrifice, and heroism of our military, retired military and first responders.” In another statement, excerpted in The Oregonian, the team claimed that its agreement “is primarily with the Leupold & Stevens consumer products division for sporting optics and binoculars.” This might be the case from a marketing perspective, but even a big cartoon cat could look intuit how the binoculars division might be intimately involved with the part of the company that manufactures military grade sniper scopes.

Gregory McKelvey, an organizer for Portland Resistance, sports a Colin Kaepernick t-shirt while addressing the crowd.

Gregory McKelvey, an organizer for Portland Resistance, sports a Colin Kaepernick t-shirt while addressing the crowd.

The Trail Blazers aren’t the only NBA team that receives a corporate check for celebrating the military. The Los Angeles Lakers’ Salute to Our Troops is brought to you Delta Airlines; Sanderson Ford Dealers are honored to sponsor the Phoenix Suns’ Seats for Soldiers program; the Crown Royal corporation sponsors Hoops for Troops on behalf of the world champion Golden State Warriors. But these corporate sponsorships are not from companies directly profiting off the sale of the tools of war, a company paying to celebrate the same troops whose guns they manufacture scopes for. In its portion of the statement given to reporters at the protest, Leupold insisted it adheres “...to all International and US export control laws,” and that it is not “a military or political organization, nor are we a weapons manufacturer. We are a fifth-generation, family-owned company that designs, machines, and assembles the World’s best sporting optics and other optical accessories, while providing nearly 700 family wage jobs for hardworking Oregon families.” It’s hard not to be taken aback by how much work “other optical accessories” is doing in that sentence, presuming they’re not referring to sniping Palestinian protesters as “sporting.”

Modern Portland is not exactly a bastion of pro-gun, pro-police feelings, but the city has flirted with militarized violence as a solution. A few weekends ago, for instance, Portland Police heaved smoke bombs and flash grenades at a group of leftist counter-protestors at an alt-right demonstration in Downtown Portland. But fans have mentally drifted through these Hometown Hero segments, not really taking proper notice of who their sponsor is. “The thing is most people have no idea what Leupold & Stevens is, so they just see the Hometown Hero segment” McKelvy pointed out. “It feels good, but I think that if most people in Portland knew what the Trail Blazers were supporting, then it would be a problem for the organization. They’re probably worried about awareness increasing around that.”

During the tournament, the protesters took turns speaking through a PA to the assembled crowd, the sound of play audible in the background. “The Portland Trail Blazers support a myriad of causes in our community, dedicated to supporting children and families,” Olivia Katbi Smith said. “We see kids of all ages and families participating in the Rip City 3-on-3 across the street. So it’s ironic that kids and families, just like those, have been shot to death thanks to a company that the Portland Trail Blazers have chosen to enable.” She ended the presser with a plea from the podium: “This is such a small part of the game. They do not need to have this sponsor, and yet, they do. So please call them and let them know this is not okay.” After a smattering of applause, the crowd dispersed, off to to watch the tournament or head home.

Corbin Smith is a writer from Vancouver, Washington. He also hosts Take it or Break it, a podcast about sports.