With very different pregame videos, Spurs and Mavericks raise questions of 'unity'

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The <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/sas/" data-ylk="slk:San Antonio Spurs">San Antonio Spurs</a> lock arms after the singing of the national anthem before their season opener against the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/min/" data-ylk="slk:Minnesota Timberwolves">Minnesota Timberwolves</a>. (Getty)
The San Antonio Spurs lock arms after the singing of the national anthem before their season opener against the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Getty)

Before their 2017-18 NBA season openers on Wednesday night, the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks each elected to broadcast video messages in their arenas intended to address ongoing discussion of, and controversy surrounding, athlete activism tethered to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the American flag. They went about it in pretty different ways.

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Dallas owner Mark Cuban had previously said that while he respects civil protests, he, like NBA commissioner Adam Silver, expected Mavericks players to stand for the playing of the national anthem. Cuban also said that he’d encourage any players with something they’d like to say to “stand in front of the video camera like this and make your statement” to be broadcast directly and unencumbered: “Don’t let anybody else take over the narrative for you.”

The video the Mavericks aired before Wednesday’s home opener against the Atlanta Hawks featured the images of many players, past and present, but no direct messages about the issues of police brutality against people of color and racial inequality, which have been at the heart of athlete demonstrations begun last year by Colin Kaepernick in the NFL and continued thereafter by players in other sports leagues. Rather, the “tribute video” featured first-person narrative from the perspective of the American flag, delivered over a backing track in the style of early Arcade Fire.

“I see a city and country where the people respect me for who I am and what I represent,” the personified flag says in the video. “I am this country’s common ground: the most recognizable symbol in the world.”

The “ultra patriotic” video was, in Cuban’s words, “a proactive effort to recognize that [the flag is] an important symbol for this country, but we’re also going to recognize that what it stands for is the right for people to disagree and to stand up for your beliefs.”

It was also, in the words of Josh Bowe of Mavs Moneyball, “strange.”

It may not be overtly offensive, but it also isn’t very effective in delivering its message. It’s a meandering narrative that’s tough to follow (there’s a lot about the Mavericks’ past success), but the message appears to be that the American flag has seen lots of great things, represents the pure ideals of America and can bring us together. […]

Unfortunately, the topics Kaepernick protested — racial injustice, police brutality — have hardly been discussed as the discourse has devolved into accusations of disrespect toward the flag and military (it isn’t hard to find out the meaning behind the protests; there’s even a Wikipedia article about it). The NFL took some better steps today, meeting with the NYPD and with players.

In that context, this video is disappointing and feels disingenuous. Mark Cuban has been very outspoken about players having the right to peacefully speak out on important issues, but last night’s offering fails to move the conversation forward from the muddled “respect the flag” debate to focus on what the protests are really about. Instead, the video’s upbeat tone and vague script seemed designed to reassure viewers that everything’s really okay.

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About 300 miles southwest, the Spurs — whose head coach, as you might have heard, has been pretty vocal in his support for athlete activism and his opposition to the rhetoric, policies and actions of President Donald Trump — started the season with a video of their own.

After standing for the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” members of the Spurs and visiting Minnesota Timberwolves then locked arms on their respective sides of the floor — a similar display of unity and solidarity to the one the Cleveland Cavaliers deployed on Tuesday — as the public address announcer at AT&T Center directed fans’ attention to a message presented on the video board above the court:

From Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich thanked fans attending Wednesday’s season-opening 107-99 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves for their rousing reception of the message of unity that the club posted on its scoreboard after the playing of the national anthem.

“I want to congratulate our fans on the way they reacted at the beginning of the game after the national anthem was played,” Popovich said in his postgame news conference. “They obviously also buy into the messages that were set up on the JumboTron. I’m so proud to be in this city when we have fans that understand that it’s important for everybody. Kudos to our fans.”

The text of those messages displayed on the big screen at AT&T Center:

“There are things happening in our communities that need our attention. We understand your desire to attend our games as an escape and chosen form of entertainment. In that, we feel there is a significant commonality in all of us that allows our community to be so special.

“That commonality should include aspirations for social justice, freedom of speech in its many forms, and equal opportunity for education, and economic advancement regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religion.

“It is our hope that we can, as a community, inspire and evoke real change. We ask that you join with us in your daily lives in the pursuit of equality. And in that, we honor our country by exercising demands for what this great nation has promised and what our military continues to fight for.”

Both videos emphasized “common ground” and “commonality,” but the differences in how they did it seem instructive.

The Mavericks’ presentation focused on the flag as a symbol under which people have long united, emphasized images of the flag juxtaposed with franchise heroes, and in some ways evoked a more standard pregame pump-up video. The Spurs’ presentation focused on the ideals that symbol is supposed to represent, highlighting some of the issues and disparities that have led many — including those players who have raised their voices and taken a knee — to question whether America is holding true to those ideals, and what “unity” really means. It came after a physical action, and eschewed high production value in favor of simple, stark, static words on a black background.

The former looked like it wanted to inspire a rally. The latter looked like a call for a conversation.

The former approach, while reportedly “well received by the crowd” at American Airlines Center, seems safer and perhaps less likely to spark further substantive discussion than the latter. As the season wears on, it’ll be interesting to see which tack players, teams and the league at large take as they work to navigate the complicated issues of systemic racism at the heart of athletes’ protests.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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