Why NBA players should be allowed to take a knee

Michael Lee
The Vertical

The NBA already has a cap on salaries. No similar lid should be placed on dissent. If a player is so moved by the current climate to take a knee, sit on the bench or even stay in the locker room during the national anthem, the league should respect and applaud that courage, not punish it. These are serious times and the protests against racial inequality and police brutality shouldn’t be reduced to some bogus, patriotism litmus test.

Let’s be clear: Athletes are not possibly putting their careers at risk, opening themselves up to jeering fans in arenas and on social media, because they are anti-national anthem, anti-flag, anti-America, anti-military or any other “anti” that has been used to diffuse any honest discourse. That those arguments have distracted from the true purpose of this activism only goes to show why it is necessary. Change won’t come if no one listens. It certainly won’t come if a league that presents itself as progressive and forward-thinking discourages civil methods used to bring about awareness.

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There is some irony for a league that banished an owner for racist words now wanting to keep players in a predominantly black league from acknowledging that they didn’t revoke their citizenship in this country the moment they put on a uniform. These players understand that being a professional basketball player provides no special protections once they leave the arena. Their skin color isn’t wiped away by millions of dollars and fame. They can look to Thabo Sefolosha for confirmation. Sefolosha suffered a broken leg two years ago because a reckless police officer never took the time to ask any questions before wielding a baton. On any other night, NBA players recognize that it could’ve also been them, or their friends, or a relative.

The most frustrating aspect of this debate — which President Donald Trump co-opted with his dog-whistling, “son of a bitch” comments — is that those who either aren’t paying attention or willfully are choosing to ignore the gravity of this situation have conflated it into an “anthem protest.” The handful of NFL players who followed Colin Kaepernick’s lead aren’t protesting “The Star-Spangled Banner” any more than the students who led the sit-in movement were protesting restaurants. Making the request for America to uphold the principles that have been etched in our Constitution shouldn’t be turned into an attack on the flag or the military — especially when athletes have explicitly stated that they aren’t opposed to either. Protests are meant to make others uncomfortable and to squirm. This shouldn’t be a kumbaya, campfire moment of locked arms; it should be upsetting and enlightening. The outrage over the protests have far exceeded the outrage over police murdering unarmed black people without admonition. Symbolism should never be more infuriating than death.

No acceptable form of protest exists for those opposed to change. Those in power certainly shouldn’t make the rules of protest. Taking a knee or raising a fist isn’t some frivolous act of defiance from attention whores; this an opportunity to force people to not just blindly or mindlessly salute. This is a chance to demand more of our nation. We won’t be able to move forward until everyone recognizes the merit of this movement. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of consequences. Some behavior warrants swift chastisement. The NBA’s longtime rule requiring players, coaches and trainers to stand during the national anthem was in place decades before it became a political talking point. So the league isn’t being reactionary. But asking for equality, no matter the forum, shouldn’t be considered divisive. It definitely shouldn’t require disciplinary action.

Thoughtful protest is nothing new to the NBA. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

With so many lame counter-arguments now drowning out what needs to be heard, NBA players are perfectly positioned to steer the conversation back to where it’s needed. After Trump’s comments in Alabama escalated the debate, the NFL and its opportunistic owners turned the movement into corny, empty statements about unity. They lost sight of the argument because we can’t all be in it together without inclusion, without equal protection under the law. That protest gentrification again takes away from what America continues to refuse to confront: that systemic racism and oppression restricts progress for more than just people of color. It keeps this nation from reaching its full potential. Sports have often been hailed as an instrument to bring people together. But that belief is a facade if that connection is only rooted in our ability to cheer for or against the same teams but fail to recognize each other’s humanity once the game ends.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told The Washington Post last summer that Kaepernick would be more welcome in the NBA — a league in which LeBron James can freely call Trump “U bum” on Twitter and both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant can rebuke a White House visit without reprimand from the league. The stick-to-sports movement has met a cruel death, especially when players feel more emboldened to speak out for important causes. But while players are using their voices and their platforms to add weight to their political agendas, this is the same NBA that once had no place for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf when he sat – and later prayed — during the anthem nearly 20 years ago. Players have mostly been respectful and adhered to league rules regarding the anthem. Golden State Warriors forward David West has staged his own protest during the anthem for several years, standing two feet behind his teammates during the song. But few, if any, of the game’s top players are expected to divert from established rituals. They shouldn’t conform out of fear. Protest should be about personal conviction. If anything, players should be allowed to follow the lead of the great Bill Russell, who knelt in support of NFL players while wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In the infancy of his tenure as NBA commissioner, Adam Silver scored his first victory by dismissing Donald Sterling after the former Los Angeles Clippers owner was caught on tape making insensitive and bigoted comments. Only a few months after the league had entered into a new $24 billion media-rights deal with Turner Sports, ABC and ESPN, Silver built a reputation for standing with his players while allowing them — albeit reluctantly — to wear “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during warmups and the anthem after a grand jury decided against indicting an officer who used a chokehold to murder Eric Garner. No fines were levied by the NBA, though the players were in violation of on-court attire policy. And they moved on.

Two summers ago, James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony opened the ESPYs with comments about gang violence and police brutality, which came weeks before Kaepernick put his career in jeopardy by taking a controversial stance. But any chance of Kaepernick’s movement spreading to the NBA was effectively neutered before it even occurred when the league and the player’s union released a statement about plans to continue standing during the anthem. Players made comments before games. Teams made public-service announcements with players stressing unity. And a handful of players and teams engaged with local police officers and community leaders to bring about a healthy dialogue. The league continues to encourage those actions — doubling down with a memo sent to teams late Friday night — while also prohibiting anything but standing while the anthem is played. This doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario. Players can both be involved in the community while demanding people to recognize during the anthem the reason they desire change and justice.

The NBA’s recovery from its lowest moment of this century — the Malice in the Palace — remains one of the more remarkable comeback stories ever. Thirteen years after Ron Artest decided to chase down a beer-tossing fan in the stands, the league has rebounded with a crop of stars that is both popular and palatable. Ratings are up. The reach has expanded globally. So it is understandable, that with the pockets fattening for players and owners, Silver would be concerned with any publicity that could have a negative influence on profits. But patriotic gestures shouldn’t be mandated or regulated. And the purpose of this protest shouldn’t be diminished or trivialized with mendacious debates. Peaceful protest has proven to be effective and provocative without being disrespectful. Maintaining an archaic rule that doesn’t exist in any other major professional sport seems unnecessary and contradictory to what’s required to raise awareness to a serious social ill.

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