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The Return of the NBA, and Maybe Even Sanity

Is it possible for a pro sports league to be a force for good?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Tuesday night, as teams began the preseason with exhibition games all over the country, NBA players continued the protest that Colin Kaepernick had joined weeks ago. While no one knelt for the national anthem, players expressed their support with collective gestures. The Celtics held hands. The Rockets and the Knicks locked arms. The demonstration was the result of likely months, if not years, of discussion about exactly when and how they’d join this movement — and it is a movement. But that discussion began formally last Monday, on NBA media day.

NBA media day is really just a circus. A giddy hodgepodge of people shoulder cameras or wave smartphones, hoping to capture cocksure declarations about the upcoming season, joking accounts of the past offseason, or Freudian slips about free agency. DSLR cameras flicker as abnormally large humans struggle to keep straight faces while palming basketballs that look like cantaloupes in their hands, playing at quiet intensity for promo photos against logo-splashed backdrops. Circuses aren’t usually venues where thoughtful, rational, sensible people say thoughtful, rational, sensible things. Except that’s exactly what happened last Monday.

At the Spurs training facility on the northwest side of San Antonio, head coach Gregg Popovich, sporting his snowy “I just slayed a Balrog” beard and a team-issued polo, squinted into a studio light and looked as though he’d rather be anywhere in the world but in front of a dozen cameras. He has always treated the media with good-natured contempt, like a slightly funnier Bill Belichick, and last week was no different. Pop was asked to apply some broad brushstrokes to “what’s going on in the country.” He thought better of attempting to solve in 30 seconds what we haven’t collectively been able to solve in hundreds of years. He asked the reporter to refine the question.


When asked more specifically about Kaepernick’s protest of the disproportionate and unjust treatment of minorities in America (read: POLICE BRUTALITY) and whether he agreed with how the Niners quarterback was protesting (kneeling for the anthem), Popovich applauded Kaepernick’s courage and said: “To each his own. I think it depends on a person’s life experience, and what they value, and how strongly they feel about it.”


On that same day, speaking about the same topic, in Oakland, Golden State coach Steve Kerr said that no matter your reservations about Kaepernick’s method of protest — which literally could not be more genial — “you better be disgusted about the things that are happening.” He spoke about the police killing of Terrence Crutcher in Tulsa specifically.


In Cleveland, LeBron James said that he would be standing for the anthem, but he, too, voiced support for Kaepernick and praised his ability to find a nonviolent avenue through which to protest glaring societal issues. James talked about having a black son coming of driving age in four years’ time, and how his son could conceivably be killed during a seemingly routine traffic stop, or while seeking roadside assistance and complying with an officer’s orders. James called it a “scary-ass situation.” And he was right, it is. He might’ve chosen less loaded words than “all lives do matter,” but given that he has organized silent protests with players leaguewide after failures to hold people accountable in the wrongful deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, funded the college educations of thousands of kids who might not have been able to pay for school otherwise, and crafted that powerful moment with The Brotherhood at the ESPYs this summer, I’ll hazard that he’s not on the wrong side of history.

Pop and LeBron hit the mark that the NFL’s Seahawks harmoniously and ever-so-agreeably aimed for, but completely missed: Protest isn’t about some flimsy, swaying, round-the-campfire “solidarity” that “respects all opinions” while drowning out individual voices. It’s not about some public-facing gesture that dilutes the message. A protest is a collection of persons gathered in pursuit of a specific, common goal. One that we can, you know, see, so we can get about the business of ordering actionable steps to reach it. In that way, protest is personal. Have you ever truly been swayed to a cause that you haven’t felt connected to?

The NFL breeds a bland, homogenized “unity.” Aside from jersey numbers, bits of visible skin, physical stature, hair peeking out from beneath helmets, and cleats — when they’re not being fined over them — football players are basically indistinguishable from one other in their work clothes. It’s an everyman, lunchpail league where there is no dancing nor are there any I’s, especially not in “teamwork,” and the path to success is paved with acquiescent, grunting, effortful labor. There are stars, of course, but we get to see their faces for one-tenth of the time they’re in the public eye. And in that time, they seem legitimately scared to have opinions.

Take, for example, Cam Newton and his booming hubris addressing the killing of Keith Lamont Scott at a media availability two weeks ago, the quarterback squirming to remember what Frank Luntz had said to him about the perils of telling the truth to a crowd of people who don’t want to hear it. The air around professional football is thick with jet exhaust and bleeding-heart conservatism. People will tell you, in different ways, that you’re not worthy of your message. Some will tell you that bad stuff wouldn’t happen to black people if they could just, like, be perfect. Others will lazily belly-ache about “the freedom that soldiers have given us” and cry disrespect of the military. There is even a contingent of windbags threatening to quit the sport entirely, and that is why, in part, what Kaepernick has been doing is so great. He’s created a large ripple with an action so small and unobtrusive, and he’s flushed these idiots out into the open.

The NBA, by contrast, is propelled on the strength of its distinctive stars. It’s a team sport, yes, but games can be won with individual, otherworldly efforts. People wear crazy (ugly) shoes and have crazier hair and wear rolled-up ski masks on their heads while tomahawk-dunking reporters into recycling bins. There are full-on dance routines during warm-ups. While by no means perfect, the NBA feels like a league oriented toward and more suited to the modern world — the one where “awareness” exists and we can get on with what follows after it. In an illuminating conversation on The Vertical Podcast With JJ Reddick, Chris Paul said, “In all honesty, I’m tired of talking about it. We really have to try to make change.” The Knicks have also moved past symbolic gestures, already working toward some sort of solution. Draymond Green is similarly concerned about “what’s next.”

The league and the National Basketball Players Association have joined together in a pledge to take “meaningful action.” They hope to build on a series of town hall events around the country centered on much-needed local police reform, one of which was led by Carmelo Anthony in Los Angeles in July.

Most importantly, and with all due respect to Kaepernick, these aren’t faces in the crowd; these are the most notable names in the sport. The basketball oligarchy. The ones who have reached the pinnacle and have garnered most if not all that this country has to offer, and can still appreciate the ways in which it has failed and continues to fail them.

The nuts and bolts of Colin Kaepernick’s message have been somewhat lost in the discussion swirling around his protest. The well-reasoned conversation he’d hoped to start isn’t the one that we’re having, largely because a well-reasoned conversation isn’t something that we can reliably have at the moment.

Actually, limiting this to the present is intellectually dishonest, because this country is busy being horrible when it isn’t being amazing.

There are no hard-and-fast answers for how and why we became so well and truly screwed, and there are no hard-and-fast solutions that will unscrew us. These imaginary answers will not originate out of professional sports leagues barely bound by morality, let alone social responsibility. But it is fair — important, even — to have standards about how the leagues react to affronts to human decency. While it might be a stretch to wrap the blanket of “good” around the NBA’s shoulders, the league does — at least recently — tend to meet those standards. When Donald Sterling was caught on tape talking about how he didn’t want all those Negroes at his roundball games, Adam Silver acted decisively in handing him a lifetime ban. In the wake of North Carolina’s heinous HB2 bill, which limits discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community, the NBA pulled the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte.

In terms of social justice, these are mandatory minimums, and that’s just fine — we don’t necessarily need “good,” we just need “not horrible” for the time being. Or maybe just “sane.”