When Victor Oladipo says the words, you can hear the excitement in his voice. “Oh, no question.” he told Complex Sports. “I truly believe [protests will come to the NBA]. 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.”
The OKC Thunder guard is one of many NBA players who are excited for the season because they’re anxious to extend the movement started by San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick into the NBA. Their thirst to be a link in this chain is partly driven by a sense of social responsibility and outrage over the police killings of unarmed black men and women, but also by a sense of competitiveness. The NBA has always been the league that has been seen as the socially conscious corner of the sports world. Players take pride in the fact that they are the league of Jason Collins, the league of “I Can’t Breathe” shirts and the league that told Donald Sterling to take his ball and go home.
Now here is Colin Kaepernick, who by just taking a knee, expressed what he has also spoken aloud, which is: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Dozens, by my count, of NFL players—some famous, some anonymous—have taken a knee or raised a fist during the anthem. We have seen the protest spread from middle schools in Beaumont, TX, to high schools in places like Seattle, Oakland, Denver and Prince George’s County, MD. We have seen it at colleges. We have seen members of school bands, cheerleaders and Team USA soccer player Megan Rapinoe all take a knee and say that there is a gap between what that flag represents and the reality of police violence in this country.
We know the NBA has players who are more than conscious about today’s issues. The League also has teams in Oklahoma and Charlotte, two places where the recent deaths of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott are sending shock waves through those regions. This is truly one of those moments where if a player—particularly a star—chooses to say nothing, it will be seen as political an act as them saying something. Already the League’s two most prominent coaches have made clear that they have no problem with players speaking out. Steve Kerr said, “No matter what side of the spectrum you are on, I would hope that every American is disgusted with what is going on around the country…Unarmed black people are being killed indiscriminately around the country. And that’s what happened two days ago. That’s the message. That’s what matters. Everyone should be trying to do something, whatever is in their power, to help in that regard.” Gregg Popovich told me, “Our players are well aware they are engaged citizens who must make their own decisions based on what they deem to be relevant, valuable and appropriate.”
The only outstanding question is how the League and fans will respond. Adam Silver and union chief Michele Roberts put out a joint statement that did not mention the anthem protests, but seemed to strongly suggest that players contact them if they want to do any activism; in other words, keep it off the court. The League has rules prohibiting players from protesting during the anthem, but that didn’t stop the WNBA’s Indiana Fever from all taking a knee before a playoff game, and they were not fined. My guess is that Silver will not punish anyone for any demonstrations. If the NFL isn’t doing it, then the NBA has to accept the fact as well that these are the times we are in.
The fans are a different story. The NBA is a majority black league with a majority white fan base. The hope is that white fans will make the choice to support players who are risking endorsements and inviting death threats by taking a stand. That’s the hope. If you are reading this, argue with your white friends that the moment calls for solidarity, not ignorance and certainly not hate. If your NBA players are good enough to cheer, then they should matter enough to hear.