“U bum,” LeBron James tweeted, assailing President Donald Trump on Saturday for symbolically rescinding the NBA champion Golden State Warriors’ invitation to visit the White House, and 658,000 (and counting) retweets later, social media had the most famous four letter-word post since Roger Mason’s, “How u.” The NFL may have engaged Trump first on his racially charged attacks on the league’s anthem protesters, but as NBA training camps opened en masse on Monday, the league’s players let the world know that they were ready to join the fight.
The NFL is the world’s most profitable sport, a $13 billion behemoth. The NBA? It’s the most visible. LeBron James, Stephen Curry and John Wall are global stars. They are recognizable, with enormous platforms. This week, they and others used them.
“It’s not about the disrespect of our flag and the military that’s made this world free,” James said on Monday. “It’s about equality.” Indeed, lost in the outrage over anthem kneeling and declarations that anyone who does is, as Trump declared, a “son of a bitch,” is why they do it. What Colin Kaepernick started, a movement intended to draw attention to social injustice in the black community, others adopted. As Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said, “No player is trying to disrespect anybody, no flag or anything like that.”
The country has pressing issues, several players said, so why is Trump choosing to engage on this? “Puerto Rico doesn’t have water or power,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said. “But you’re worried about guys kneeling during the national anthem.” If Trump expected team officials to side with him, think again. When asked what he would do if his players kneeled during the anthem, Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said, “I’ll be on my knee.”
It’s unclear how NBA teams will respond to Trump’s rhetoric. Will they kneel like their NFL counterparts? Will they show another form of solidarity? Expect the conversation. “I think we’ll open up a discussion about that and maybe do something as a team, or at least open up a dialogue about it,” said Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown. DeRozan, who was raised in hardscrabble Compton, California, said the Toronto Raptors will do something as a team to show unity.
James is arguably the world’s most influential athlete. He’s without question its most visible. He has 38.6 million Twitter followers and a fan base that stretches from the inner cities to the farmlands. When asked if he would kneel during the anthem this season, James said no. “My voice is more important than my knee,” James said. “I talk [to the media] every single day. What I say, I think it should hit home for a lot of people. I don’t believe I have to get on my knee to even further what I’m talking about.”
Whatever players decide to do, expect organizations to back them up. The San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich is the NBA’s preeminent coach. He’s also the league’s most outspoken Trump critic. On Monday, Popovich didn’t hold back.
“Our country is an embarrassment in the world,” Popovich said. “This is an individual that when people held arms during [NFL] games, [he thought] that they were doing it to honor the flag. That’s delusional. But it’s what we have to live with. You’ve got a choice: We can continue to bounce our heads off the walls with his conduct, or we can decide the institutions of our country are more important, people are more important, [the] decent America we all have and want is more important [and] get down to business at the grassroots level and do what we have to do.”
In Oakland, Warriors coach Steve Kerr mused that free speech was “fine if you’re a neo-Nazi chanting hate slogans, but free speech is not allowed to kneel in protest?” In Detroit, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy – who once branded Trump as “brazenly racist – called peaceful protests “a hallmark of our democracy.” In L.A., Clippers coach Doc Rivers declared that “if Donald Trump did his job, players would not be kneeling.”
The NFL has no rules against players kneeling. The NBA does. Officially, players, coaches and trainers must line up in a “dignified posture” along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the national anthem. In 1996, the NBA suspended Denver guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for one game for ducking into the locker room before the anthem; later, a compromise was brokered that allowed Rauf, a Muslim, to close his eyes and bow his head in prayer if he stood with his team.
Two decades later, the NBA is a different league. Adam Silver is the NBA’s most progressive commissioner. Earlier this month, Silver co-signed a letter with Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts that encouraged players to express their views on social issues. Discussions are underway at the league office about how to handle player protests, and while the NBA will have its say, don’t expect Silver to be heavy-handed.
Trump’s attacks on NFL protesters united its players, and the NBA has followed suit. The rank-and-file – close to 75 percent African-American, per recent data – have a platform, and many have decided to use it. The NFL made its statement over the weekend. The NBA, it seems, is ready to make one, too.
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