The Conversation Around Kneeling in Sports Changed When Meyers Leonard and Jonathan Isaac Stood

Miami big man Meyers Leonard took heat when his gesture — or lack thereof — made the rounds online. But his team was behind him all the way.
Miami big man Meyers Leonard took heat when his gesture — or lack thereof — made the rounds online. But his team was behind him all the way.
Photo: Getty

This isn’t a column about kneeling.

But, it is one about how the conversation around the act has changed over the last few months. Too many discussions are being had about who is and isn’t kneeling, instead of the focus being on the awareness that the peaceful act brings about.


As Week 1 of the NFL season is officially over, it’s impossible to think that what happened to Meyers Leonard and Jonathan Isaac didn’t have an impact on who decided to stand and who decided to kneel this past weekend across sidelines.

Back in July, Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, a Black man, became the first player in the NBA’s restart to stand during the anthem. His decision wasn’t the issue, but his reasoning was, as it made no sense.

“I don’t think kneeling or putting on a T-shirt for me personally is the answer,” he said. “Black lives are supported through the Gospel, we all have things that we all do wrong. Whose wrong is worse? We all fall short of God’s glory.”

I’m still clueless as to what Isaac was trying to convey, so I’ll chalk it up as a learning moment for the 22-year-old. But, the ridicule that Isaac received days later when he tore his ACL was inhumane, as some on social media celebrated the gruesome injury to his knee as if it were some kind of cruel retribution.

The day after Isaac stood during the anthem, Miami Heat center Meyers Leonard, a white man, also stood. As you can guess, the imagery of a 7-foot white man standing while everyone else kneeled led to criticism. But, unlike Isaac, Leonard was prepared for it, and had the backing of his teammates as he stood with his hand over his heart during the anthem while wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt over a jersey that read “Equality” on the back.


“I haven’t slept. I’m a zombie right now. It’s been difficult because the truth of the matter is I have a loving heart, very compassionate and I’m very aware of what is happening in America today and what has been going on for many years,” Leonard told ESPN about what went into his decision.

“I [was] aware of some of the backlash that could happen. I understand. However, I believe in my heart that I did the right thing,” he said. “Our world right now is black and white. There is a line in the sand, and it says if I don’t kneel, then I’m not with Black Lives Matter. That is not true.”


Leonard had multiple discussions with current and former teammates before he made his decision, and once he did they supported him, especially since he’s someone that donated $100,000 to Black areas of Miami “because they were slammed by voter suppression and COVID.”


“His being out there with us, as our brother, it’s still showing strength, it’s still showing unity, it’s still showing that we’re coming together for a common cause,” said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, who is one of the most respected players in the league to the Associated Press. “People will question, ‘Why isn’t he doing it their way?’ Well, he’s standing by us. He’s supporting us. He’s with us.”

This same sentiment of criticism occurred when San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, the loudest white voice in sports (along with Megan Rapinoe) decided to stand, and assistant coach Becky Hammon joined him.


Like Leonard, they had the full support of their mostly Black team.

“With Pop and Becky standing, I have no thoughts (contrary to) belief in them that is all out of genuine, out of a positive side of their heart,” said Spurs forward DeMar DeRozan. “Same way we kneel. Don’t take away nothing from those guys. Pop speaks out. When it comes to Becky, she’s been (on the) front line, fighting for equality since I’ve been a fan of hers playing in the WNBA. So everybody has their own right of making a statement and you can’t vilify nobody for not doing what the other group is doing. I’m all for it.”


As all of this was going on, players in the NFL were watching and taking notes. Their time in the spotlight was on the way, and many of them were trying to decide what they were going to do as they saw what was taking place in the NBA and the performative wokeness that was happening in baseball.

In June, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield told us he was “absolutely” going to kneel. A few weeks ago, Zeke Elliot told us that some of the Dallas Cowboys would also be taking a knee.


Last Thursday, the Miami Dolphins put out a video explaining how they were going to stay in the locker room all season for the anthem. They were tired of the NFL’s publicity stunts.

On Saturday, Mayfield posted a statement about why he had a change of heart. He realized that too much of the discussion was about the act and not about the work, given that both are needed.


By Sunday, Dontari Poe was the only Dallas Cowboy that took a knee.

With college basketball looking like it’s going to happen in some fashion, and as it feels like we’re getting closer to football being played in the Big 10 with each passing day, college athletes still soon have to decide what they’re going to do.


Will they kneel, or will they stand?

Only time will tell.

But, in the meantime let me leave you with this question:

If the responses to Meyers Leonard and Jonathan Isaac would have been different, would football players have felt more comfortable expressing themselves?


We’ll never know.

But I can’t help but think that knowing what people stood, or kneeled, for would have given us a lot more clarity. Especially since people pretending as if they care about Black lives in public, while promoting a system that discards them in private, is what got us here in the first place.

Saginaw Native. Morehouse Man. Syracuse (Newhouse) Alum. 2019 & 2020 NABJ Award Winner. 2016 PABJ Journalist of the Year. I only eat my wings lemon-peppered. And I like brown liquor & brown women.