Ahead of his team’s Game 5 matchup with the Rockets tonight, Warriors coach Steve Kerr took time to blast the NFL for its new rule banning players from kneeling during the national anthem. Kerr called the policy, which compels all NFL players to stand for the anthem or stay in the locker room while it’s played, “typical of the NFL,” and said the league was “playing to their fanbase, basically just trying to use the anthem as fake patriotism ... It’s idiotic.”
The easy smartass response to these otherwise correct comments is, “Wait until Kerr hears about the NBA’s anthem policy.” And that’s not entirely uncalled for. While the NFL rule is new, and a shameless reaction to right-wingers’ criticism directed at the players who have protested racism and police brutality in America by kneeling, the NBA has long held a similar rule requiring players to stand. Even if that rule wasn’t conceived as a hostile rebuke to peaceful protests, it’s still difficult for anyone in the NBA to take the moral high ground as long as it exists.
The NBA’s rule has faced its own challenge though, albeit in a time before social media or Donald Trump’s presidency. Basketball’s similar controversy came in 1996, when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, then a guard for the Denver Nuggets, refused to stand for the national anthem before games. Abdul-Rauf said at the time that his Muslim faith informed his actions:
The flag is “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny,” (Abdul-Rauf) said. “This country has a long history of that. I don’t think you can argue the facts. You can’t be for God and for oppression. It’s clear in the Koran, Islam is the only way. I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting. I won’t waver from my decision.”
He did, however, soften his rhetoric later, in a television interview.
“I’m able to make a lot of money in the United States,” he said. “I’m from here and I’m not saying, again, that it represents everything bad. I never said that. I’m just saying that it also represents the bad.
Abdul-Rauf was suspended indefinitely by the NBA. He sat out one game before compromising with the league by standing, lowering his head, and praying while the anthem played. But despite averaging respectable scoring numbers after a trade to the Kings, the 29-year-old Abdul-Rauf was unable to sign another NBA contract after his deal expired in 1998, and left to play overseas. He would come back with the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 2000-01 season, but only had minutes in 41 games.
The NBA is lucky the Abdul-Rauf controversy happened two decades ago. While there was plenty of backlash at the time—he received death threats and hate mail, and some Denver radio station DJs barged into a mosque while blaring the national anthem—it’s difficult to compare with the saga of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who have kneeled for the anthem. This multi-year story has seen fans boo players before games, multiple collusion grievances filed by those who have kneeled, and explicit calls from the president for teams to fire anthem protesters.
At the same time, Abdul-Rauf’s supporters—the writers and activists who would have come after the NBA’s suspension—had little means of organizing outside of the ACLU. With no Twitter, no lefty sports blogs, and no means at all to send mass communications throughout the country other than legacy news organizations, any backlash to the NBA’s indefinite suspension would have been scattered and muted. The league escaped a more substantial wave of scrutiny for its actions.
The NBA has changed now too since the ’90s, of course. The extent to which players and coaches speak their minds on politics—usually from a liberal point of view—is unparalleled in major sports. Coaches from Kerr and Gregg Popovich to Stan Van Gundy and David Fizdale have regularly spoken out against Trump and racism. Star players including LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and Kyrie Irving wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in warm-ups following the unpunished killing of Eric Garner by an NYPD officer. Adam Silver, at the time, gave a response to the t-shirts very conscious of the potential controversy they represented.
One could argue that the only way that NFL players could get their message on racism heard is to kneel, while NBA players enjoy multiple varied opportunities to speak their minds, which makes the anthem rule less relevant. The Golden State Warriors shut down a trip to the White House after winning their 2017 championship. LeBron James seems to enjoy calling Trump a “bum.” Coaches speak more critically of the U.S. than a lot of Democratic politicians. In a follow-up question to his statement today, Kerr noted how comfortable he was with the high-ranking officials in the NBA’s hierarchy, who haven’t disciplined him for the same comments that formed the basis of Abdul-Rauf’s protest because Kerr’s making them away from the court:
“Adam and his leadership, I do feel like we’re partners,” Kerr said. “Players, coaches, management, the league’s management — I do feel like we’re all partners.”
But one part of Kerr’s comments still comes off a bit strange—when he says, “I’m proud to be in a league that understands patriotism in America is about free speech and peacefully protesting.” If that’s the case, why would the league send a memo warning teams not to protest during the anthem at the start of this season? Why would the NBA appear to be just as worried about kneeling players as the NFL? The obvious answer is that the league is a huge business, not an organization dedicated to social justice, and big business falls short of nobility on a regular basis.
While the NBA seems to avoid the traps of the NFL by remaining open to its players’ concerns, as it reportedly was on the anthem protest issue, holding it up as “the Woke League” still glosses over some of its problems. The NBA is entirely complicit in the system that forces talented teenagers to either go off to Europe or give a year of free labor to a university before playing professionally in the league, then it limits their salaries once they do enter. It imposes a dress code created with racist connotations. The WNBA, which is owned by the NBA, disciplined teams and players for wearing all-black shirts in warm-ups following the 2016 Dallas shootings. Donald Sterling, a longtime known racist in both his professional and private life, was allowed to continue owning the Clippers until his beliefs became too public to ignore. The Dallas Mavericks were recently discovered to be a cesspool of sexual harassment.
And of course, the NBA doesn’t allow its players to peacefully protest during the national anthem, because doing so would open the door to just as much controversy as the NFL is currently experiencing. The NBA certainly isn’t the complete shitshow that the NFL is, but that’s a low bar to clear.