It was two years ago that former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem in an effort to bring attention to police brutality. In the time since, the NFL has dealt with some fans insisting they’re boycotting; players rejecting efforts at a kneeling ban; and President Donald Trump tweeting angrily for a full year about the league and its management of the protests.
Throughout all of it, onlookers have wondered how the NBA avoided the same controversy.
In fact, the NBA has a league rule, in place since the 1980s, that players must “stand in a dignified posture” during the national anthem. In a memo sent to teams last year, the NBA reiterated its rule about standing for the anthem. How is that no NBA players have broken the rule to follow the lead of protesting NFL players?
Michael Rubin, chairman of the licensed sports merchandiser Fanatics and a co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, says it’s because the NBA already encourages its players to be outspoken on social and political issues in whatever way they choose off the court, so they don’t feel the need to do it on the court before a game. He is certainly not the first to voice this theory.
“I’d say in the NBA, we have a league that really encourages players to stand for what they believe in,” Rubin said on stage at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit on Sept. 20 in New York City. “And I think that has created a great relationship between the players and the league. And so when someone comes up and says to LeBron, ‘Shut up and dribble,’ the league is behind LeBron, saying ‘speak out for what you believe in.'” (Fox News host Laura Ingraham said in February that James ought to “shut up and dribble” rather than comment on social issues.)
U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 23, 2017
Rubin shared a personal example to illustrate his point: his friendship with the rapper Meek Mill. When Mill was sent to prison in November 2017 for violation of his parole from a decades-old charge, Rubin says, “I went to the NBA and said, ‘This is something that I have to take on, this is one of my closest friends, I’m not letting him go to jail for no reason.’ They said, ‘Whatever you believe in. Use the NBA and the Sixers as a platform to help shed a light on this issue.'”
In April, Mill was released on bail; Rubin picked him up and brought him straight to a Sixers playoff game.
The NFL, on the other hand, has not typically been as open in encouraging its players to use their platform to speak out. Rubin, who is also a co-owner of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and considered buying the Carolina Panthers, is hesitant to criticize the NFL. He said that the league has, “made tremendous progress with what originally started with implementing a rule that I think had a very adverse reaction. They then paused the rule.”
So, how much of the NBA’s culture of openness is directly thanks to Commissioner Adam Silver? Rubin says, “Honestly, a lot. I think Adam is very progressive in his thought process. I think he knows how important it is to support these issues. And he cares deeply about the issues himself.”
To watch Michael Rubin’s full interview at the Yahoo Finance summit, click here.
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.