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The NBA’s greatest fear was a player radical enough to go beyond its collectively bargained, wink-wink, nod-nod “protest,” not a player so radical that he would protest the protest in the other direction.
But Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac felt so compelled to work his way into the loophole, a Black player doing the unthinkable of sorts, refusing to kneel during Friday’s national anthem and eschewing the Black Lives Matter shirt all the players have been warming up in during the restart at Walt Disney World.
In a way, Isaac performed a true protest and had his explanation been something besides the nonsense he offered, it could’ve been applauded. After all, Gregg Popovich didn’t kneel in his team’s opener along with assistant Becky Hammon, but the San Antonio Spurs head coach has a long history of letting everyone know where he stands on these issues while also possessing a rebellious streak, bucking and tweaking the league at every turn.
Isaac could’ve bargained that the league’s partners should be going to Capitol Hill to put pressure on the real power in an election year, or that the sayings on the back of the jerseys felt a little milquetoast and sterile compared to the raw emotion we’ve been watching for weeks now.
But he decided to trot out an explanation that’s the equivalent of Twitter burner handles firing off hot takes, those afraid to put their real names to their real feelings and gave life to the bad actors who needed a patron saint — a Black one — to put their collective energies around to call out the NBA and its players.
With two actions and two statements, Isaac firmly placed himself as a token for the crowd who claimed they were never watching the NBA again following the demonstration of players, coaches and referees taking a knee during the national anthem Thursday night.
If one were to guess who would nestle his way into the crevices of a sanctioned protest, you’d have to go far down the line before selecting Isaac. And on paper, his reasoning would be hard to argue with if it weren’t from the playbook of the disingenuous.
After all, who can argue against God?
You can find many a churchgoer praying to their god every Sunday, shedding tears over the senseless loss of a loved one at the hands of the state. Perhaps Isaac should’ve consulted them before stepping out front.
“I believe for myself, my life has been supported through the gospel, image of God, all God’s glory, we all do things we should do, we hate those we shouldn’t,” he said in a Zoom conference afterward.
This isn’t necessarily a market correction for the NBA. It’s embraced the idea of player activism, knowing how serious its constituency was about the matter through the absence, but the players aren’t monolith.
There will be some with differing beliefs, differing strategies and those who downright don’t feel the way of this particular bloc.
Isaac just so happened to walk through that door, and with his words did so with the support of his teammates. Perhaps not the content but the mere expression.
The face mask hid his apparent nervousness in being questioned for his actions, actions he has a right to perform or not perform given the freedoms and presumed liberties this country provides. But even using the almighty doesn’t preclude Isaac from the eyebrow-raising, stomach-turning reaction from those who heard or read his explanation.
He never expected the obvious, expertly worded follow-up from Bleacher Report’s Taylor Rooks, who asked what religion has to do with the task at hand.
The second verse in the book of Isaac was as bad as the first, as he continued with the trope so many use — not dissimilar from a crowd who can find any Bible verse to validate everything from child abuse to polygamy to even slavery.
Isaac played “What about Black on Black crime?” and “What about China?” in code. Or “all sin is sin” arguments.
“I don’t think kneeling or putting on a T-shirt for me personally is the answer,” Isaac said. “Black lives are supported through the gospel, we all have things that we all do wrong. Whose wrong is worse? We all fall short of God’s glory.”
Stating "we all fall short of God's glory," which in essence states no human is perfect, is true but again, there are levels to this.
What if it were taken further? If someone asked him what did the gospel have to do with a killing on video, a man having his neck being kneeled on for eight minutes, 46 seconds, or a woman being shot multiple times on a no-knock warrant?
He was given grace in that setting that his words didn't deserve. Using religion to avoid an intellectual conversation, a practical one or even common sense is an area nobody should have time or room for. There should be no “other side” to racism, no “other side” to police brutality given the obvious examples we’ve seen over the last several years.
He’s 22, so there should be space for grace and growth, should he seek it. It’s not necessarily a youthful indiscretion, like using illegal drugs or being caught driving while intoxicated, but it is a learning moment because his line of thinking is dangerous.
Dangerous like Dwight Howard saying he doesn’t “believe in vaccines.” Howard should be challenged and forced to account for his beliefs as opposed to such statements dangling in the air on social media, open to interpretation.
Using cancel culture for every transgression eliminates the blank spaces needed to bring those along who don’t have the perspectives or life experience to understand the topic of the day.
There’s also nothing wrong with using the commonalities of religion to tug at the strings of those to be better. One of Dr. Martin Luther King’s greatest strategies was his stated belief that white people were worth saving. That they should display their love for their fellow man — the Black man and woman — to make this a more perfect union.
King’s faith, one could argue, kept him from going full radical while using shame as his greatest weapon. But that is not what Isaac was attempting.
There was nothing direct from Isaac, nothing to the questions about the stated mission of the NBA to increase awareness about police brutality and attacking racism. His sentiments may have been genuine, if not wholly misplaced and immature.
He doesn’t have to be King, or LeBron, or fall in line with the masses to please the NBA. But he can’t be a puppet, use religion as a crutch or even a weapon against the humanity of his own people, because at worst, his own Black life deserves better.
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