Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy offered his most ardent support to date of athletes pursuing equality, outlining for Time magazine their rationale for protesting and his reasons for backing those efforts in a way that should make it all easier to understand for those who still oppose their actions.
“These athletes and many others are risking future contracts and endorsement opportunities to speak out on issues of racial injustice because they feel duty-bound to do so,” Van Gundy wrote in his 2,000-word op-ed piece. “These are patriots of the highest order.”
Van Gundy credited former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for starting a movement that has since seen many NFL and WNBA players protesting social injustice and racial inequality during the national anthem. The Pistons coach criticized President Donald Trump for suggesting those athletes should be fired for exercising their freedom of speech, and he lauded fellow NBA coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr for speaking out against a president whose comments they consider “xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic” and “the perfect storm in a very negative way.”
“In a time where bigotry seems on the rise and commitment to racial equality on the decline,” wrote Van Gundy, “I have an obligation as a citizen to speak out and to support, in any way possible, those brave and patriotic athletes who are working to bring change to our country. I believe all of us do.”
As far back as 2011, Van Gundy suggested he might get into politics. And in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election last November, he said, “We just elected an openly, brazen misogynist leader.” Van Gundy went even further following the president’s failed travel ban this past January: “It’s just fear-mongering and playing to a certain base of people that have some prejudices that aren’t fair.”
Van Gundy began his Time piece by saying, “I do not claim to be an expert on race in America,” but cited his “unique” qualifications to speak on the subject — namely two decades working for a majority black company and his efforts to better understand the obstacles his coworkers’ families face.
One such endeavor was bringing in “Tears We Cannot Stop; A Sermon to White America” author Dr. Michael Eric Dyson to speak to the Pistons. Dyson explained the distinction between nationalism (“supporting your country no matter what”) and patriotism (“caring so deeply about your country that you take it as your duty to hold it accountable to its highest values and to fight to make it the very best it can be”), and this idea clearly struck a chord with Van Gundy as it relates to player protests.
“When these professional athletes protest during the anthem, they are exercising one of the very freedoms for which our military men and women fought so valiantly,” he wrote for Time magazine on Tuesday, “thus honoring our highest values and, in turn, those who have fought for them.”
Three of the biggest complaints about player protests you will hear from that base Van Gundy referred to earlier, and take it from somebody whose inbox is filled with these takes following every mention of Kaepernick’s name, are: 1) the misguided notion that they are protesting the national anthem, 2) the misplaced concept that inequality and injustice are abstract ideas unworthy of protests and 3) the mistaken impression that the athletes are doing nothing to further the cause beyond kneeling.
Van Gundy addressed all three of these arguments in the same straightforward manner you’d expect from a coach and executive who once compared former NBA commissioner David Stern to a dictator.
The Pistons coach ran through a history lesson, explaining how the United States is a nation built by protesters, how those protests led to the country’s most significant advancements, how athletes from Muhammad Ali to Tommie Smith and John Carlos to Kaepernick have been among those protests’ most outspoken leaders and how the protests themselves are the embodiment of a U.S. ideal — an example of freedom of speech that pays respect to the men and women who fought for that right.
“Honoring America has to mean much, much more than standing at attention for a song (one which, by the way, contains racist language in later verses),” he wrote. “One of the most important freedoms that our military has fought for over two-plus centuries is the freedom of speech.”
So, what are the athletes in favor of, exactly?
“Simply and succinctly: equality. Equal rights. Equal justice. Equal treatment by police and others in authority. Equal opportunity,” he added. “The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence starts with, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ In over two centuries, from slavery to segregation to lynchings and police brutality to the mass incarceration of people of color, we have not even come close to that ideal. It is our systemic racial inequality, not athletes kneeling during the national anthem, that dishonors our country. If we truly want to honor our country, this must change.”
And before you argue that point about players doing little beyond kneeling, Van Gundy drops some knowledge about that, too. He cited as an example the group of NFL players who formed The Players Coalition to help advocate for criminal justice reform and restrain racial profiling and police brutality.
“I stand with these athletes — in support of both these causes and their patriotism,” Van Gundy finished. “I hope others will join me in supporting them. These athletes could take the easy route and not placed their livelihoods at risk by standing up for what they believe in. They’ve put in their hard work. They could accept their paychecks and live lives of luxury. Instead, they are risking their jobs to speak up for those who have no voice. They are working to make America live up to its stated ideals. We should all join them in ensuring their collective voice is heard.”
Few know how to be heard better than Van Gundy. Turns out he’s equally adept with the written word.
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