Would the NBA be more accepting of a Colin Kaepernick than the NFL?
Recent history shows the league is no cornucopia of acceptance and liberalism
On Sept. 28, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told reporters that despite how “divisive an issue it is in our society right now,” he expects players in the league to continue to stand for the national anthem “as a moment of unity.” A day later, the league sent out a memo reinforcing the league-mandated policy that all players and coaches stand for the national anthem.
In lieu of kneeling, which the NBA says it has the discretion to discipline players for, teams were asked to share messages of unity, community building and leadership to their home crowds during the opening week of the season. A collection of teams, including the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets, did just that, choosing to link arms or bow their heads during the playing of the anthem.
The memo and league-approved demonstrations are in response to the NFL’s reinvigorated player protests against police violence and racial injustice in America during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” NFL players kneeling during the anthem had mostly subsided since last season but have constantly been a divisive topic since President Donald Trump called demonstrators “sons of b—-es” during a political rally last month.
The catalyst of the demonstrations, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, has yet to sign with a new team since the end of the 2016 season, unable to get a job over such future Hall of Famers as Brandon Weeden, Mark Sanchez, both McCown brothers and Brock Osweiler.
At this point, it’s clear that quarterback-needy teams are staying away from Kaepernick for football- and non-football-related reasons, adding to the belief that he’s being blackballed by the overwhelmingly white majority of NFL owners.
In August, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and former New York Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy posited that the NBA would be a more welcoming environment for a person like Kaepernick.
“I don’t know what his status is in the NFL, but I’m glad the NBA doesn’t have a politician litmus test for our players,” Cuban told The Washington Post. “I’d like to think we encourage our players to exercise their constitutional rights.” Van Gundy added that he believes “some of our players in the NBA feel very empowered to speak their mind.”
There’s no questioning Van Gundy’s sentiment. From the NBA champion Golden State Warriors being the first team in recent memory to refuse to visit the White House to players rocking “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in the layup line to superstar LeBron James calling the president a “bum,” professional basketball players surely have a longer leash on their First Amendment rights than their faceless, voiceless counterparts in the NFL.
But is the NBA really this cornucopia of acceptance and liberalism that it’s served up to be? Are players truly “empowered” by the billionaire owners of the league’s 30 teams to freely express themselves? Recent history does not agree.
For one, Cuban has proved to not truly understand the plight of African-Americans, once comparing “a black kid in a hoodie” to white-power skinheads, or “a white guy with a shaved head and tattoos.” And unlike the NFL, the NBA mandates that players and coaches stand for the national anthem, with those choosing to ignore the rule risking suspension. Although there was much talk before the 2016-17 season that NBA players would join Kaepernick’s controversial protest, not a single player took a knee during the national anthem.
James, rightly, said his voice on social issues is more powerful than his knee, and you can’t blame him and other players for resisting that specific form of protest, as we’ve seen firsthand what the NBA does to dissidents. In 1996, Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended one game by then-commissioner David Stern for refusing to stand for the national anthem, and within two seasons, Abdul-Rauf, whom famed coach Phil Jackson once compared to two-time league MVP Stephen Curry, was out of the league.
(Further proof that women have to do all the work, every player for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever knelt during a September 2016 playoff game, and women’s basketball players have led the charge in civil rights activism, league warnings be damned.)
Years after Abdul-Rauf, the league prevented Hall of Fame guard Allen Iverson from releasing a notably vulgar rap album. Stern admitted that while Iverson had a right to free speech, “there is no constitutional right to participate in the NBA and I have the power … to disqualify players who engage in offensive conduct — including inappropriate speech.” The league followed that up by changing its player dress code, banning T-shirts, jerseys, headgear, chains and sunglasses, the universal wardrobe of young black men during the early 2000s. Then-Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters caused a mini firestorm back in 2014 when it was reported that he didn’t come out of the locker room for the national anthem because of his Muslim faith. Outside of it being a miscommunication, and Waiters not being a superstar in the league, the “protest” barely made it out of the sphere of casual basketball fans.
The league should be applauded for evolving dramatically since Silver took over as commissioner in 2014 — removing the All-Star Game from Charlotte, North Carolina, over an anti-LGBT law, getting rid of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, standing up to President Donald Trump’s initial travel ban — but the underlying issues remain.
Last season, when New York-based singer Denasia Lawrence knelt while singing the national anthem at a Miami Heat home game, the Heat distanced itself from Lawrence, stating that “we were unaware of it ahead of time.” Ten days earlier, another singer knelt at a Sacramento Kings home game during parts of the anthem, and while the Kings respected the singer’s right “to exercise her freedom of speech,” they, too, distanced themselves, explaining that a partner organization, not the Kings, chose the singer. Sevyn Streeter, a 31-year-old musician who has collaborated with Chris Brown, Usher and Alicia Keys, was prevented from singing the anthem before the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2016-17 season opener because she wore a jersey that read “We Matter.” The team followed up with a statement that said it “encourages meaningful actions to drive social change.” (Two months later, Streeter was allowed to perform in the jersey.)
During the Brooklyn Nets’ first home game of the 2017-18 season, singer Justine Skye, signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation entertainment company, knelt after singing the national anthem. The Nets, like the Heat and Kings, distanced themselves, stating that “we recognize that tonight’s national anthem singer kneeled briefly at the end of her performance and we were not aware that she was going to do so.”
The Atlanta Hawks, the home of Southern hip-hop and black culture, have had multiple issues in just the past few seasons. The team’s most recent white general manager made an insensitive racial joke last December, just two years after the team’s then-white general manager said Sudanese player Luol Deng “has a little African in him.” Then-team owner Bruce Levenson, also white, sold the team because he once complained about the fan base being too black.
While Silver was lauded for kicking Sterling out of the league after the release of a secretly recorded racist rant during the 2013-14 season, a year later, when former league MVPs Derrick Rose and LeBron James, among others, decided to wear the sneaked-into-the-arena “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, in recognition of slain New Yorker Eric Garner, during pregame warm-ups, Silver invited players to voice “their personal views on important issues” but asked that they “abide by our on-court attire rules.” Players weren’t fined for wearing the shirts — unlike what the WNBA would later do to the Fever, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury (the fines were later rescinded) — but it’s clear Silver and the NBA prefer player activism to be heard and not seen.
And that may very well extend to the league’s 30 team owners as well. Last November, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, speaking at a business conference, said he doesn’t think anthem protests are a good thing. “We have free speech, free country. There’s a lot of ways to protest. I don’t think it’s a good thing for the sport. I don’t think it’s a good thing for them personally.” The 55-year-old businessman, born in Detroit five years before the 12th Street riot, said last month, in response to hate mail he received for James’ “bum” tweet, “There’s an element of racism I didn’t even realize existed in this country this much.”
Gilbert, who was recently approved to build a jail complex in Detroit, isn’t the only owner who may not be accommodating if a player chooses to sit or kneel. Last summer, then-candidate Donald Trump told Kaepernick he should leave the country if he didn’t respect the U.S. flag, and in March, Trump took credit for the quarterback not having a job. Knowing this, owners of the Cavaliers, Orlando Magic (part-owner Betsy DeVos is Trump’s education secretary), New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs all donated money to Trump in one way or the other. James Dolan, owner of the Knicks, donated $300,000 to the president’s fundraising committee before last year’s election.
Recently acquired Knicks center Enes Kanter, a Turkish Muslim, told The Undefeated this month the team provided a room specifically for him to pray in during the season. A few days earlier, it was announced that Dolan donated another $125,000 to Trump, who is still trying to push through his “Muslim ban.”
That doesn’t mean each owner 100 percent agrees with Trump’s stance on the anthem — most owners donate to both parties — but since no owner has come out and publicly supported player protests, it begs the question how they would actually react. (Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke, who also owns the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, said in September he supports Rams players’ “freedom to peacefully express themselves and the meaningful efforts they make to bring about positive change in our country.”)
Even with guaranteed contracts, higher salaries and the newfound power exerted by players such as James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Paul George to choose their own career paths and mold their own “superteams,” the NBA still has a ways to go before it can be viewed as the more tolerant league compared with the NFL, MLB or NHL.
Because the NBA had its own Kaepernick conundrum before.
At the conclusion of the 2012-13 regular season, journeyman center Jason Collins announced he was gay. Without saying the word “gay,” Stern and the NBA released a statement of support, saying “we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue.” Droves of current and former players, including John Wall, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson, applauded Collins’ decision. Outside of a few horrible people on the internet, public reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
But the Washington Wizards, Collins’ team at the time, went 29-53 that season, missing the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, meaning Collins wouldn’t play in the 2013 playoffs. Not to mention, he was in the last year of his contract, meaning he’d be a free agent. Sound familiar?
Once on the free market, Collins’ support quickly turned into opposition. Despite playing 12 consecutive years as a bruising, 7-foot-1 defensive center known to throw his 250-pound frame around the court, Collins wasn’t on a single opening-week roster. The excuse? He wasn’t “good enough” to play. Because of the “ongoing media frenzy” over his sexuality, “most teams are going to decide it’s just not worth it.” Sound familiar?
Collins waited half a season before the Brooklyn Nets signed him to a 10-day contract in February 2014.
This isn’t to say NBA owners colluded to prevent a gay man from playing in the league, or even that they would do the same to a national anthem protester. But the notion that professional basketball is the ideological opposite of professional football isn’t rooted in much evidence. Yes, the NBA has the only African-American owner in the four major (male) sports and has allowed more open dialogue on social issues. But when you put a magnifying glass up to the league, it, like the NFL, still has a long way to go.