Orlando Magic stepped into politics and created controversy for themselves

The Orlando Magic stepped into controversy by issuing a donation to a Super PAC supporting Gov. Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic stepped into controversy by issuing a donation to a Super PAC supporting Gov. Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

This is supposed to be the quiet part of the offseason. The only thing related to the United States we are supposed to be paying attention to is Paolo Banchero’s run with the U.S. Basketball Team (training camp opened Thursday in Las Vegas and Banchero plays basketball Monday!).

But here we are.

The last two days for Magic fans have been consumed with a small thing that has turned into a big thing. A completely unavoidable thing that has forced Magic fans to reckon once again with the realities of the team they cheer for (or not) and think long about how their team is perceived.

The fact that it was completely avoidable and completely set up to cause controversy only makes it worse.

The Orlando Magic have stepped into the spotlight after they made a donation to a super PAC supporting a presidential campaign. It has been roundly criticized and was just an unnecessary thing to invite.

Monday reporters discovered the Orlando Magic as an organization donated $50,000 to a super PAC supporting Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign.

A Magic representative later clarified the check was issued in mid-May before Gov. DeSantis officially declared his candidacy. It certainly was not a secret at that point that he was going to run for president.

The statement from the Magic representative added the gift was “given as a Florida business in support of a Florida governor for the continued prosperity of Central Florida.”

The whole story got a lot of Internet activity and discussion. Then the NBPA issued a statement of their own singling out who the Magic decided to donate to and stating that the donation does not represent the player’s support (necessarily):

Whether you see this as a big deal or not, it is a big deal to a lot of people. It is representative of supporting politics and policies that directly harm them or others, whether that assessment is fair or not.

The Magic stepped into the political arena willingly and they are getting criticized for supporting a candidate and his position.

The hubbub about this donation is indeed centered on Gov. DeSantis and whose support the donation would be directed to.

Everyone has their own opinions and feelings toward what the governor has done during his administration. Everyone is entitled to that opinion. Just as everyone is entitled to criticize and voice their displeasure at what the Magic have done (all donations are made public through filings with the Federal Elections Commission, which is where this donation was discovered).

As far as anyone knows, the Magic did not break any NBA rules by making a donation as an organization. They are not the first team to make such a donation either — in the 1990s the Phoenix Suns donated to the GOP. — although at least from initial reporting, this $50,000 is the largest donation made by a team to a presidential campaign.

Political donations are by their very definition partisan. There is probably no way to make any kind of political donation — much less comment on anything political — without upsetting somebody (this post itself will probably upset some people).

It is just that the organization sticking its neck out like this feels so unnecessary. And it has now forced fans — at least of a certain political persuasion — to question their affiliation with the team.

At best, the Magic made this donation as some sort of political horse trade. It was a sign of support for the governor to gain some political favor.

At worst, the Magic as an organization put their support behind a divisive political figure — particularly considering Orange County was one of four counties DeSantis did not win in his landslide re-election bid in 2022 — and made this donation to a candidate who has advocated directly against a lot of the charitable work the Magic do.

Orlando holds nights during the season celebrating diversity — whether it is Brazil Night, India Night, Pride Night or Jewish Heritage Night.

They recognize a Community Game Changer who typically works in Civil Rights and equality issues in the Orlando community. They have a diversity, equity and inclusion office in their corporate offices.

The DeVos Family Foundation made a $35,000 donation to the Zebra Coalition, an organization in Orlando that gives a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth when they face difficult and potentially unwelcoming home environments.

All of these causes and initiatives have been attacked in some form by policies Gov. DeSantis has advanced — his Parent’s Rights in Education Bill has taken away a potentially safe space for LGBTQ+ youth by banning their acknowledgment or discussion in classrooms and preventing schools from hosting or supporting LGBTQ+ groups.

The NBPA’s letter hints directly at issues with how Gov. DeSantis has directed Florida public schools to teach issues about slavery and race in the classroom — something that has been much debated publicly.

The Magic seem to be trying to have their cake and eat it too — all the potential economic and political benefits of supporting the governor while trying to ignore the social policies they advocate for but are not supporting with their donation dollars. They are probably not the only ones who hold their nose in such a way for political donations.

In the end, they are getting nothing for it. They are getting all the criticism that comes from sticking their neck out and trying to play both sides of the aisle.

Just about everyone is angry.

The Magic as an organization, like any business or individual, has the right to make this donation. It did not break any NBA rules. They have speech rights that allow them to make this donation.

But as a public organization (not that they are owned publicly, but that they are a prominent organization to the public), they are not free from criticism for those decisions. And everyone is free to agree or disagree with this decision as they see fit.

Clearly, rightly or wrongly, this touched a nerve with a lot of people.

And that more than anything is why making this donation is so puzzling. The team could only get bad publicity for doing this. That might be the case too if this were to a Democrat-leaning Super PAC.

Then again, according to Scott Maxwell of the Orlando Sentinel, the Magic have in the past donated to campaigns on both sides of the political aisle, but the Magic (like many NBA teams) have overwhelmingly donated to Republican-backed causes.

That is not a surprise considering everyone knows the conservative causes the DeVos family has long donated to and their involvement in Republican politics, including having Betsy DeVos served as Secretary of Education in the Trump Administration.

There is no imagining where Magic’s ownership stands. It is well-known and well-publicized. Every fan who has approached this team has had to reckon with that and find their peace with it.

But there was always that dividing line, as naive as that might sound.

The DeVos family did things in their own bucket and the Magic were apolitical. They donated to a variety of causes in the Orlando area — the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation annually gives out more than $1 million in donations to causes throughout the area.

The Magic are a net positive for the community.

But a lot of that work can get overshadowed by one mistake. Everyone will forget or overlook the general good this team does because they picked a side in a partisan fight.

No matter where you might stand politically, the Magic exposed themselves to criticism in a way the organization absolutely did not have to. Not only that, they made a political choice that goes against the grain of the community they purport to represent.

They have every right to make this donation. They did nothing wrong.

But no one should be surprised they are earning criticism. Amplify that by a dead spot in the offseason and everyone is suddenly watching the franchise and making their own judgments about them.

It just all feels so unnecessary.