Opinion: This time, expect some NBA players, teams to kneel during national anthem
NBA players have no shortage of places to voice their opinion on race and social justice.
They have verified social media accounts with thousands and thousands, if not millions, of followers. They talk with print, digital, radio and TV reporters regularly – before and after games and at practices. They have podcasts. They can write for The Players Tribune and in some cases, like LeBron James’ Uninterrupted, they have their own media outlets.
They can wear shirts and take part in protests spreading their message.
But the one thing NBA players haven’t done to protest racial injustices and police brutality in this country: kneel during the national anthem.
Which NBA players will kneel when teams resume the 2019-20 season at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Florida?
Expect a lot of players – even entire teams – to do so, at least initially when the restart tips off Thursday with two games: New Orleans-Utah (6:30 p.m. ET, TNT) and Los Angeles Lakers-Los Angeles Clippers (9 p.m., TNT).
On Wednesday, Anthony Davis and Danny Green said the Lakers ''plan on doing something'' before their game but didn't share details.
The NBA has a rule that states, “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.”
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During the height of the Colin Kaepernick kneeling protests, when the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback brought social issues back into the national spotlight, not one NBA player kneeled. In 2017, the NBA sent a memo to teams reminding them of this rule, and Commissioner Adam Silver said then he hoped players used the anthem as a moment of unity and players understood “how divisive an issue it is in our society right now.”
But that’s a long three years ago. Today is different. Since George Floyd's death on Memorial Day while in police custody, the conversation around racial inequality, police brutality and Black Lives Matter has been reignited globally. As sports slowly restart after the novel coronavirus outbreak put them on hold, several baseball players have taken a knee during the anthem. WNBA players retreated to their locker rooms before the anthem was played.
In July 2020, amid a COVID-19 pandemic and heightened awareness and much-needed urgency on racial justice and reform, can Silver expect every player to stand for the national anthem when the NBA resumes its season?
No, he cannot. Now is not the time to enforce such a rule nor would it be a good look for a league that promotes its progressive approach on social issues. Silver understands that, too. He has built a tremendous amount of goodwill with the players and perhaps that’s why they adhered to league policy three years ago.
But the circumstances today are different, and the league, I'm told, does not plan to discipline players for kneeling. That’s the right move.
A month ago at a Time 100 talk, Silver was asked if players will be allowed to kneel during the anthem when the league resumes play.
“I am not comfortable with the word ‘allow,’ ” Silver said. "We have had a rule on our books that goes back to the early '80s that precedes even David Stern's tenure as commissioner that calls for players to stand in a line and attention during the national anthem. I also understand the role of protest, and I think that we'll deal with that situation when it presents itself."
He added: “I don’t disagree with this notion that people come together in a unified way to stand for the national anthem. I also recognize there are appropriate times for protest. And I also understand that when that line-drawing comes into play, invariably you’re going to upset some faction out there. And at the end of the day, we just sort of have to be true to ourselves, and the values that underlie this league and try to make values-based decisions rather than political ones."
The NFL had a public-relations nightmare and had to withstand the backlash of fans who didn’t like and/or understand Kaepernick’s on-field protest and the repeated demands of President Donald Trump to force players to stand or else. Many, but not all and especially not former NFL coach Mike Ditka, have gained a better understanding of Kaepernick’s message.Another big blow to MLB: Phillies-Blue Jays series postponedSEC announces 10-game football schedule with only conference gamesDr. Fauci explains his terrible first pitch: 'It was my bad'NBA restart power rankingsLonely MLB mascots roam empty ballparks
It wasn’t anti-military. It was anti-racism, anti-oppression and anti-police brutality. It remains that way today, and it’s a powerful gesture, asking people to confront centuries of systemic racism and find solutions.
Equality for all and an end to racism are what protesters are saying. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban gets it. Three years ago, he said he would stand for the anthem with his hand over his heart. Recently, he indicated he is willing to kneel alongside Mavs players if they decide to do that.
The NBA will have to deal with any fallout, too, from angry fans who don’t understand the nature of the protests. The league will also have to deal with grandstanding from politicians such as Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is in a Twitter fight with Cuban over this issue and put up with potential tweets and retweets from Trump. Trump already tweeted, “any time I witness a player kneeling during the National Anthem, a sign of great disrespect for our Country and our Flag, the game is over for me!"
It’s not my place to tell NBA players, 75 percent of whom are Black, how, when and where to protest. That’s their choice.
But they have a significant platform to spread a message, and many will use it – including kneeling during the anthem.
Follow NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter.
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