The NBA schooled the NFL on social justice issues this week, but let’s not go overboard

Senior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

ATLANTA – Around noon Wednesday, the NFL announced a new anthem policy that incurred the wrath of many and appeased few.

Only hours later that same day, the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA — a league that requires all of its players to stand during the anthem, with an unclear recourse if they don’t — released a statement that got, largely, the exact opposite reaction.

Really?

Look, I know it’s easy to crush the NFL. Believe me, I get it as the league is so stodgy and out of touch at times that you can’t help it. I’m only in my first month writing at Yahoo Sports and already I’ve joined the rest of the media in chasing protest stories with the same gusto Alex Knox chased “The Batman.”

But let’s be fair here. While NFL owners decided to throw (or pledge, depending on your point of view) $90 million to social justice causes at the behest of the Players Coalition while preaching the importance of “players respecting the anthem,” it can be argued that the NBA — which has long had a hard-and-fast rule in place mandating that players stand for the anthem — is in a similar boat, since its commissioner, Adam Silver, has encouraged players to express their views on social issues affecting their communities in other ways.

As NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, pictured with Golden State’s Steph Curry in October, has enjoyed a relatively warm relationship with the league’s players. (AP)
As NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, pictured with Golden State’s Steph Curry in October, has enjoyed a relatively warm relationship with the league’s players. (AP)

The only other difference between the NBA and the NFL, beyond a basketball player’s ability to use direct messaging on T-shirts during the pregame or slogans on sneakers, is the NBA’s willingness to state publicly that its players have a point. And while it’s certainly important that the NBA’s anthem policy was collectively bargained – which dramatically reduces the amount of hostility between the two sides on this issue – the end result of that negotiation still led to a similar result as the NFL’s, with players standing for the anthem and avoiding the protests that are so unsightly to portions of their viewership. That’s what matters. That’s the key.

With the NFL’s new policy, if a player is adamant about not standing for the anthem, he can sit in the locker room. In the NBA, a player can either stand for the anthem or be subject to discipline, one in which Silver didn’t specify when the issue bubbled up last fall. After the way the NFL got lampooned hours before, it’s understandable how the Bucks and the NBA can be hailed this week.

The Bucks’ statement supporting Sterling Brown, a rookie guard who was tased by police on Jan. 26 and arrested for a parking violation, was admittedly impressive and more “woke” on the surface than anything the NFL officially put out in years. A 30-minute video of the Brown incident shows the Bucks player being taken to the ground, tased and handcuffed. The team responded Wednesday with a strong and unflinching statement that it’s hard to imagine any NFL team writing due to fear of backlash from its fan base.

“The abuse and intimidation that Sterling experienced at the hands of Milwaukee Police was shameful and inexcusable. Sterling has our full support as he shares his story and takes action to provide accountability.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated case. It shouldn’t require an incident involving a professional athlete to draw attention to the fact that vulnerable people in our communities have experienced similar, and even worse, treatment.”

The Bucks also called for more accountability from police, and — gasp! — even validated the social injustice its players have been speaking out about and tackled it head-on.

“Incidents like this remind us of the injustices that persist,” the statement reads.

What a novel concept. It would be nice to see NFL teams use this time type of language because this is precisely the message the players who are kneeling and raising fists are hoping to convey in an effort to bring awareness to a problem that afflicts people of color in this great country of ours. Even millionaire ballplayers cannot get away from the injustices they’re protesting, and certainly their families and friends — who are not millionaires — continue to encounter these issues to a greater degree.

While the Bucks’ statement was satisfying, it wasn’t bold. The Brown incident involved one of the Bucks’ own players, and after the Milwaukee Police Department released video of the stop and apologized for the “inappropriate” actions of its officers earlier in the day, Brown released a statement saying he believes the incident was racial in nature. Of course the team would issue a strong show of support at that point, especially with the police apologizing.

Even NFL owners, the same people being dragged right now by half the country, was at least in the ballpark of doing the same last fall, when President Trump called any protesting player a “son of a bitch.”

Last season, the Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones, center, took a knee prior to the national anthem before a Monday night game in Arizona. (AP)
Last season, the Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones, center, took a knee prior to the national anthem before a Monday night game in Arizona. (AP)

Remember how, way back in September, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones took a knee with his players before the anthem in an effort to show solidarity with his players following Trump’s blast? Remember how it happened a day after scores of other team owners either locked arms with players during the anthem or released statements defending their players?

Defending players from unjust situations or critiques that are fairly cut-and-dry is on Page 1 of professional sports’ “How to be an owner” handbook. You don’t get credit for that. If you don’t defend your employees from public attacks from influential forces (like police and presidents), you’ll never engender any sense of purpose or community within the organization. And good luck selling that “family” message that all professional sports teams like to push.

Still, there are signs of hope for the NFL, and it’s important to recognize and appreciate that. New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson said the team will pay fines for any players who protest on the field during the anthem, and San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York not only abstained from voting on the new policy — citing concerns over the lack of compromise the league had with players over the new deal — he also pledged to stop selling concessions during the anthem.

“I don’t think we should profit during the national anthem if we’re going to ask people to be respectful,” York said.

York’s stance on the latter should be duplicated by the other 31 teams. At least on the surface, it signifies the presence of empathy and self-awareness that more teams really need to start operating with. The sooner more teams do, the sooner the NFL can improve relationships with its players and prevent PR nightmares like the one that occurred this week.

And not get showed up by the NBA.

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