United they stand: The NBA, social injustice and the national anthem

Players and coaches for the Boston Celtics crossed arms and held hands during the National Anthem. (Chris Marion/Getty Images)
Boston Celtics players and coaches crossed arms and held hands during the national anthem. (Chris Marion/Getty Images)

If we’ve learned anything from the first few days of preseason, it’s that if NBA players plan to join a movement started by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and designed to raise awareness about social injustice, they will do it as teams standing united during the national anthem.

If you can’t appreciate players of all races coming together, often times with hands on heart, in an attempt to respectfully further a complicated conversation about the manner in which a portion of police officers treat African-Americans in this country, then you’re likely more concerned with sweeping racial discrimination under the rug than advancing a meaningful discussion on the issue.

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Six of the NBA’s 12 franchises in preseason action on Tuesday night organized demonstrations during “The Star Spangled Banner,” including two games in which both sides joined the peaceful movement. Truly unified, both the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks stood together interlaced arm in arm.

“Coming together, two teams coming together, you know,” said Knicks center Joakim Noah, who along with teammate Carmelo Anthony presented the idea to Rockets guard James Harden, via the Bergen Record. “We understand that there are issues in this country and we wanted to show solidarity and show that we’re all in this together.

“We just talked to a few guys, a few of their leaders on their team and asked them if they wanted to come together and do something during the anthem. I think it was very respectful. But at the same
time, just bring awareness to some of those issues.”

Likewise, the L.A. Lakers and Sacramento Kings stood on opposite ends of the court, locking arms as teammates, both facing the American flag located at the far end of the Honda Center in Anaheim.

Inspired by a team photo of the 1960-61 Boston Celtics, who stood with arms crossed and hands joined in support of civil rights, this year’s group did the same, with all players and coaches involved.

“We need change in this world,” said Celtics forward Jae Crowder, via ESPN Boston beat reporter Chris Forsberg. “We need to do it together. Just not one individual; it’s got to be a team-type deal, a unity, a togetherness. Whatever we decide our message to be, it has to be about being together as one and coming together as one.”

Following the New York Liberty’s lead of linking arms amid the WNBA Playoffs last month, the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Washington Wizards have all done the same since the NBA preseason began Saturday. To the best of our knowledge, no NBA player has sat or kneeled during “The Star Spangled Banner,” as one Liberty player and two Phoenix Mercury players did, respectively.

In fact, none of the aforementioned NBA teams’ demonstrations have departed from league policy, which mandates: “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the national anthem.” Furthermore, the NBA has not issued fines to the Portland Trail Blazers for forming a circle in the paint and standing arm in arm.

As Harden told reporters Tuesday, “It’s something that we’ll continue to do and we have a platform and we want to use it. It’s just the beginning.” Along those lines, the Hawks will ask everyone in their arena to lock arms at Monday’s game, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Chris Vivlamore.

The wide-ranging online response to these demonstrations has varied from, “I will not watch a Celtics game this year in protest,” to, “I can get worked up pretty easily but am struggling to see how this minor civic gesture can cause such outrage,” and, “I thought it was a smart move. We do need unity.”

Even for those who denounce Kaepernick’s individual expression of his First Amendment rights, it’s hard for the movement’s most patriotic opposition to quarrel with NBA players quite literally standing united. After all, it was the pre-Revolutionary War “Liberty Song,” penned by Founding Father John Dickinson, that first coined the oft-cited American slogan, “By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall.”

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Just don’t tell them Tupac used the line in 1993 for a “Last Wordz” verse blasting police brutality. Then, again, supporters of “All Lives Matter” should also appreciate this inclusive response from a league that features the highest percentage of black players of all North American major professional sports.

As somebody who supports their freedom of expression, even I can admit to frustration with the lack of any call to action beyond an open dialogue and a hashtag in statements like this from the Celtics:

“For decades, the people who have worn this jersey have stared in the face of social unrest, and each time they responded by coming together. We are honored to represent our predecessors and humbly accept the baton to stand together and demonstrate the power of unity as we face the issues of today and the ones that will come tomorrow. We ask that you join us in promoting unity, progress and love.”

Without a more focused mission statement beyond “promoting unity, progress and love,” the fear is that arm-in-arm and hand-in-hand national anthem demonstrations will fall on deaf ears. So, Lakers coach Luke Walton’s comments to The L.A. Times after Tuesday’s game were an encouraging sign.

“I know a lot of the media runs with what happens during the national anthem, which is a very big subject because it’s touchy from both sides,” said Walton. “To me it’s about what kind of change can we make. And that comes from getting with organizations that are in action, doing stuff in the community and giving our time and money and whatever else we can do to help this problem.”

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After all, it was NBA superstars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul who first broached this subject in the realm of sports at the ESPYs this summer, urging professional athletes to “go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help build them, help strengthen them, help change them.” And it was Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan who pledged a pair of $1 million donations to the Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Similarly, when reached Thursday about whether they will link charitable causes to their national anthem demonstration, as Kaepernick did in pledging proceeds from his top-selling jersey sales, the Celtics said in a statement to Yahoo Sports, “Specific plans are still under discussion, but the team is continuing dialogue among players, front office, law enforcement, and Celtics legends with the mission of making an impactful, ongoing commitment to our community that promotes unity.”

So, it certainly sounds as though more substantial plans to promote social justice are in the works. For the time being, NBA players have vowed to continue furthering the discussion in the only manner that might actually bridge the complex racial divide in this country: United we stand, divided we fall.

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Ben Rohrbach

is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!