NBA training camps will open in just two weeks. Preseason games will soon follow, and the regular season will tip off in just over a month, on Oct. 25. Before those games, arena public address announcers will ask all in attendance to please rise for the singing of the American (and, in Toronto, Canadian) national anthem.
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That prompt, as you’re probably aware, is a little more complicated these days than it’s been in years past. In the aftermath of Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing refusal to stand for the singing of the national anthem before NFL games — a decision the San Francisco 49ers quarterback says he has made in protest of the oppression of black people and other people of color, one that has drawn plenty of criticism, but has also elicited support and spurred displays of solidarity from some fellow athletes — fans, media and everybody else are paying close attention to what players do during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” noting whether they’re standing like they did before or taking an alternate path to make a statement about their positions on issues like police brutality and racial and social inequality.
With NBA games (blessedly) coming soon, it’ll be interesting to see whether players elect to join in Kaepernick’s protest by sitting or kneeling during the national anthem. One player, at least — Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo — said during a chat with Russ Bengtson of Complex Sports that he expects at least a few will:
I’m sure you’re paying attention to the Colin Kaepernick situation, protesting during the anthem, do you think that’s something that will transfer to the NBA?
Oh, no question. I truly believe it will. Because at the end of the day it’s a sport, and people are gonna be looking at some guys in the NBA to see what they’re gonna do as well. At the end of the day you just control what you can control, so your opinion is your opinion, that’s the beauty of the United States, so, do whatever you feel is best that will help you do whatever you believe.
Is that something you’ve had conversations with teammates about?
Not yet, but a few people just in general I’ve had conversations with about that, I tell ‘em the same thing, people’s beliefs are people’s beliefs, you know what I mean, you can only control so much, you can only control what you can control, and the most things you can control is yourself. So whatever you believe, believe in to the utmost. But I think definitely, we’ll see a few guys in the NBA doing the same thing.
Multiple NBA players have expressed support for Kaepernick’s protest, including three Golden State Warriors All-Stars — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green — and Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker. Kaepernick’s dissent also drew praise earlier this week from new Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale, who took critics of the quarterback’s message and method to task during an event unveiling the team’s new Martin Luther King Jr.-inspired alternate uniforms, according to Geoff Calkins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
“It’s very interesting to me, how this Colin Kaepernick thing has started to transpire and how he’s receiving so much criticism for nonviolent protest,” Fizdale said. “You notice that all the critics who come out are people who aren’t impacted by it, or who don’t understand it, and they’re talking about this is a distraction to my team? You don’t get it. It’s up to us to make them get it and make them understand what these young guys are standing up for. It’s bigger than a sport, it’s bigger than a basketball game, it’s bigger than a football game; it’s about people’s rights, it’s about equality.”
That said, support for Kaepernick exercising his constitutional right to protest and lauding him for sparking greater conversation about the differences in how white people and people of color experience American institutions doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to follow suit and take a knee. Asked directly earlier this week if he plans to sit or kneel once the 2016-17 NBA season begins next month, though, Curry said, “I’ll most likely stand.”
That could be due in part to the fact that the NBA actually has a rule about this. The “Comments on the Rules” portion of the NBA’s official rule book (Section II, “Basic Principles,” subsection H, “Player/Team Conduct and Dress”) reads as follows: “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.” This, you might remember, was the justification for then-Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf getting suspended without pay for his similar national anthem protest in 1996 (and part of why Dwyane Wade caught flak this past postseason for doing some warm-up shooting during “O Canada” in the middle of the playoff series between the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors).
Abdul-Rauf’s suspension — which was lifted after one day when he agreed to stand during the anthem, while closing his eyes, looking down and praying silently to himself — came under a different NBA regime, though. To this day, he feels his punishment came due in part to then-Commissioner David Stern and league disciplinarians wanting to stem athlete activism and dissent. Under Adam Silver, however, the NBA has become the most progressive league in major American sports, with the game’s biggest stars routinely speaking out on pressing issues of the day and social activism increasingly becoming part of the fabric of the league.
It’s possible that Silver might be willing to take a more flexible view of the rulebook clause. He has said on multiple occasions that, while he supports players “voicing their personal views on important issues,” he would prefer that players “abide by our on-court attire rules.” And yet, when NBA players have made such statements with their clothing — like when the Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat wore their shooting shirts inside out to protest incendiary racial comments made by then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling, or when LeBron James, Derrick Rose and the Los Angeles Lakers wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in solidarity with those protesting the death of unarmed black man Eric Garner at the hands of police officer Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island, N.Y. — Silver did not fine them for doing so.
Whether or not Silver plans to take a similar tack here, he’s surely got some kind of plan in mind, because — as David Steele of The Sporting News wrote earlier this week, and as Oladipo suggested — some nature of national anthem protest is almost certainly on its way once NBA games start.
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