NBA preseason media days are usually no-drama affairs where players and coaches can discuss their hopes for the season and maybe throw the media a low-level story or two. However, this year has proven quite different due to the ongoing controversy over the decisions of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players to not stand during the pre-game “Star-Spangled Banner” in protest of police killings and treatment of minorities throughout the country. The NBA is a predominantly black league that did not shy away from these issues this summer even before Kaepernick started his protest in August, and the expectation has been that its players will engage in similar protests once games get started with the support of coaches and executives. In fact, the league and players’ union are already working together to attempt to take “meaningful action.”
Not surprisingly, players and coaches fielded many questions about the possibility of anthem protests as most teams held their media days on Monday. The answers were varied, but all suggested that the NBA will be much more hospitable to players kneeling or engaging in some other form of dissent when the anthem plays.
The two most anticipated reactions came from the league’s two biggest stars — Cleveland Cavaliers icon LeBron James and back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. While both players indicated that they would continue to stand for the song, they also said that they respect Kaepernick for his actions and would think the same of any teammates and opponents that go that route.
LeBron made it clear that he will stand but did not shy away from discussing the personal relevance of the issue:
LeBron: "Me standing for the national anthem is something I will do … But that doesn't mean I don't respect (Kaepernick)"
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) September 26, 2016
Full clip of that 14 second clip of lebron everyone is sharing pic.twitter.com/duWwIszAnl
— Idris Elbruh (@CapitalSS) September 26, 2016
Curry did not discuss police brutality in such specific or personal terms, but he did try to get people to focus on the issue and not which players stand or do not stand (via USA Today):
“I respect everybody’s voice, everybody’s platform, and their opportunity and right to protest what they feel in their heart is something they want changed. I’ve said that plenty of times about Colin (Kaepernick). I respect what he’s doing. I respect the message that he’s fighting for, and I hope all the spotlight is on that particular message and the things we can do to make changes that are blatantly obvious we need change, so I hope going forward it’s not about who’s raising their fist, who’s kneeling, who’s standing, who’s doing this or that. It’s about what Colin and other guys – what the message is, and what we don’t want to stand for any more.”
Such comments can be read uncharitably as an attempt to deflect criticism from those players who do not protest, but it’s more likely true that the NBA just doesn’t consider this act in the same manner as the NFL does. The more liberal-minded league sees these protests as expressions of players’ rights and beliefs, not assaults on the moral fabric of the country.
That attitude is perhaps most apparent in statements from the NBA’s coaches, who have so far universally supported and encouraged their players in any current or future decisions to protest. San Antonio Spurs legend Gregg Popovich made a particularly strong case on Monday. From Melissa Rohlin of mySA.com:
“I absolutely understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I respect their courage for what they’ve done. The question is whether it will do any good or not because it seems that change really seems to happen through political pressure, no matter how you look at it. Whether it’s Dr. [Martin Luther] King getting large groups together and boycotting buses, or what’s happened in Carolina with the NBA and other organizations pulling events to make it known what’s going on. But I think the important thing that Kaepernick and others have done is to keep it in the conversation. When’s the last time you heard the name Michael Brown? With our 24/7 news, things seem to drift. We’re all trying to just exist and survive. […]
“My players are engaged citizens who are fully capable of understanding what their values are, and what they think is appropriate and inappropriate, and what they feel strongly about. Whatever actions may or may not be taken are their decisions, and I’m not going to tell anyone ahead of time that if they don’t do A, B and C, they’re going to be gone or traded. I think that’s ignorant.”
This is just a snippet of Popovich’s comments — he addressed both his players’ rights and racial issues as a whole with the intelligence and consideration of someone who has clearly thought about racial strife and a white person’s responsibility at some length. For all Popovich’s accomplishments with the Spurs, his answers are among the most impressive things he has done as the team’s coach.
Other coaches expressed similar sentiments, albeit not as eloquently. Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Bobcats made it very clear that he would support his players:
"It's a personal right. What democracy is built on." — Clifford on pro athletes making public demonstrations regarding social justice.
— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) September 26, 2016
At least one general manager has his players’ backs, too:
— Sean Bell (@seanbellfox29) September 26, 2016
Ultimately, though, any anthem protests at NBA games will be about the young black men who take the court. While James and Curry do not plan to kneel, others most likely will. New York Knicks All-Star Carmelo Anthony, arguably the league’s leading voice for change this offseason, expects as much and has spoken with Kaepernick about taking further steps:
Anthony says he expects a lot of NBA players to make some kind of gesture once games begin & the national anthem is played.
— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) September 26, 2016
— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) September 26, 2016
It’s not yet clear what those steps would be, but players seem committed to using Kaepernick’s protest as a springboard for their own efforts rather than a model to copy directly. Several players quizzed by reporters on Monday could not explain how they would protest, and many, including Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, said they would prefer to do it as a team. Regardless, it seems clear that the NBA will meet the issue of protesting police brutality head-on. The league seems united in believing that any protest, no matter its form, would be the right thing to do.
– – – – – – –