If Colin Kaepernick wanted to get people talking—or, rather, to amplify the conversation for the benefit of those who wish to avoid it—he succeeded. Just about every sports figure has been asked their takes on the national anthem protests, and on the issues at stake, and yesterday, at Spurs media day, it was the coach’s turn. Gregg Popovich is a national treasure.
Popovich, an Air Force veteran, cautioned that too-general questions reap too-general answers, and that demagoguery is the enemy of progress, but that there isn’t an issue in America that isn’t informed by race. (The San Antonio Express-News has transcribed the entire interview, and seriously, go read it.)
What are your thoughts on what’s going on in the country?
“I think it’s really dangerous to answer such important questions that have confounded so many people for hundreds of years, to ask me to give you my solutions, as if I had any, in 30 seconds. So if you want to be specific about a question, I’ll be more than happy to answer it because I think race is the elephant in the room in our country. The social situation that we’ve all experienced is absolutely disgusting in a lot of ways. What’s really interesting is the people that jump right away to say, one is attacking the police, or the people that jump on the other side. It’s a question where understanding and empathy has to trump, no pun intended, has to trump any quick reactions of an ideological or demagogical nature. It’s a topic that can’t just be swung at, people have to be very accurate and direct in what they say and do.”
Popovich was then asked a more specific question: Does he support the athletes who are protesting? Popovich offered an unequivocal yes, with the caveat that meaningful change ultimately seems to come by organized economic and political pressures, but those pressures don’t build in the first place without a groundswell to put the issue in the forefront.
“I absolutely understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I respect their courage for what they’ve done. The question is whether it will do any good or not because it seems that change really seems to happen through political pressure, no matter how you look at it. Whether it’s Dr. King getting large groups together and boycotting buses, or what’s happened in Carolina with the NBA and other organizations pulling events to make it known what’s going on. But I think the important thing that Kaepernick and others have done is to keep it in the conversation. When’s the last time you heard the name Michael Brown? With our 24/7 news, things seem to drift. We’re all trying to just exist and survive.
“It’s easier for white people because we haven’t lived that experience. It’s difficult for many white people to understand the day-to-day feeling that many black people have to deal with. It’s not just a rogue policeman, or a policeman exerting too much force or power, when we know that most of the police are just trying to do their job, which is very difficult. I’d be scared to death if I was a policeman and I stopped a car. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. And part of that in our country is exacerbated by the preponderance of guns that other countries don’t have to deal with. It gets very complicated.
“At this point, when somebody like Kaepernick brings attention to this, and others who have, it makes people have to face the issue because it’s too easy to let it go because it’s not their daily experience. If it’s not your daily experience, you don’t understand it. I didn’t talk to my kids about how to act in front of a policeman when you get stopped. I didn’t have to do that. All of my black friends have done that. There’s something that’s wrong about that, and we all know that. What’s the solution? Nobody has figured it out. But for sure, the conversation has to stay fresh, it has to stay continuous, it has to be persistent, and we all have a responsibility to make sure that happens in our communities.”
It’s striking that some of the most powerful, thoughtful, and forceful comments on the protests have come from coaches—Popovich, Chip Kelly (“We all have inalienable rights as a citizen of this country and they’re being violated”), Steve Kerr (“No matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, I would hope that every American is disgusted with what is going on around the country”). They are older white men, who aren’t themselves victims of the social imbalances that these protests are seeking to confront. But, empathy and insight can be universal. Maybe it’s not coincidence that both are traits that serve coaches well in all fields.