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Why Adam Silver’s Stance on NBA Protests Will Be Problematic

Activism in the NBA is not inevitable. It’s already happening.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For a league frequently crowned the most progressive of the Big 4, NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s comments on national-anthem policy on Thursday felt surprisingly regressive. During a Board of Governor’s news conference (in which the league also announced lottery reform), Silver told reporters that “it's been our rule as long as I've been involved with the league, and my expectation is that our players will stand for the anthem.”

“We have a rule that requires players to stand for the anthem,” Silver said. "That is our rule. I'm not going to prejudge any player conduct.” The commissioner gave no specifics on what kind of fine or punishment a player should expect if he decides to take a knee during the anthem, but added that the NBA will “deal with it when it happens.”

There’s little doubt that it will happen, not only by players, but by coaches, too. NBA personages have responded loudly since Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest began—including the formerly reserved Stephen Curry, who repeatedly voiced his support of the unemployed QB, and a flurry of players and coaches who responded to President Donald Trump’s comments on NFL protesters on media day. The month before Kaepernick first kneeled in the preseason, unnoticed, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade spoke out on racial injustice at the ESPYs.

Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, and David Fizdale all used their media day platforms to speak out on racial injustice in the country; the latter specifically said he would kneel alongside his Grizzlies players if they chose to. John Wall called on white quarterbacks Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers the same day, requesting they speak out on behalf of their teammates, who are predominantly black. The list goes on: James followed up on his comments; DeMar DeRozan spoke out; Bradley Beal; Kyle Lowry; the list is a blog itself.

Tom Gores, owner of the Pistons, stated in a press release that the franchise would “support [our players’] right to raise awareness in a manner they believe is both thoughtful and impactful.” Kneeling. He’s talking about kneeling.

The NBA undoubtedly will have to, as Silver says, “deal with it.” And the commissioner, who has built his popularity on being a refreshing, anti-Goodell, progressive, modern league leader, can surely anticipate the blowback that would result in fining players who protest. Even the NFL, through the booing and cringe-worthy pregame conversations, is not fining players who kneel.

In his position, Silver is forced to separate personal beliefs from his duty in his job; many working Americans can relate. Even in what is considered the most liberal of the major pro sports leagues, the commissioner is still beholden to league owners, who time and time again have prioritized their bottom lines. (For reference: Silver hammering down on players choosing to rest is rooted in ownership’s money; nothing would decelerate ticket sales at an away game or chase away TV viewers like Cleveland announcing LeBron James will sit out).

What’s made the league easy for me to support, especially compared to the modern NFL—is how progressive it continues to be. From the start, Silver was easy to rally behind, even as he ultimately served the owners. As The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote in August, “The Donald Sterling saga in 2014, which happened in Silver’s first few months on the job, made Silver appear as someone who would stand up to the owners, but forcing out Sterling was not a matter of social justice outweighing business considerations. The two were working in concert.”

With James and Curry leading the way, social activism is a part of the league. It could be in the league’s best interest to nix the rule that prohibits kneeling during the anthem. But until then, there’s no stand for Silver to take.