On Tuesday, the Cavaliers and Warriors practiced at Quicken Loans Arena in advance of Game 3 of the NBA Finals. But while they were officially there to play basketball and discuss the series, players on both sides spent a good portion of the media availability talking about the ever-widening chasm between the White House and athletes who use their platform to speak out against racial inequality and social injustice. There was no avoiding the conversation—not that anyone wanted to.
The Eagles were effectively disinvited from visiting the White House in a statement issued Monday evening. Not surprisingly, that became a serious topic of conversation around the NBA. On Tuesday, James called Trump’s decision not to host the Eagles at the White House “typical.” “I know no matter who wins this series,” James said, “no one wants the invite anyway. It won’t be Golden State or Cleveland going.”
When Curry took the podium a little later, he said, “I agree with Bron.” So did Kevin Durant, who said that he expected Trump not to meet with the Eagles after they informed the White House that precious few players would attend.
“When somebody says they don’t want to come to the White House,” Durant said, “he disinvites them so the photo op don’t look bad. We get it at this point. It’s good that guys are sticking to what they believe in. Like guys said before me, I’m sure whoever wins this series won’t be going.”
It’s not new or surprising that prominent NBA figures spoke out against the president and his decision. The three biggest stars in the NBA were simply reiterating the sentiments both their teams have expressed over the past year. Back in September, Steph Curry said he wasn’t interested in visiting the White House to commemorate the Warriors’ 2016-17 NBA championship, which prompted President Donald Trump to rescind the invitation. Steve Kerr responded by cracking that Trump “was going to break up with us before we could break up with him,” while LeBron James famously referred to Trump as “u bum” on Twitter.
At this point, it’s expected that whenever Trump makes or tweets a controversial statement, there will be public and forceful pushback from members of the NBA—even in the middle of the NBA Finals. As my colleague Claire McNear surmised, “In Trump’s view, the debate over NFL protests isn’t about inequality or racial injustice,” and it’s not “about the sanctity of the national anthem,” either. It’s about Trump. Perhaps that’s partly why NBA players and coaches keep speaking up every time the president lashes out—as opposed to what we’ve seen from the NFL, which somehow made a bigger hash of things with its recently revised anthem policy.
“Overall,” Curry said, “just thinking about how the league has supported players and we’ve had that open dialogue, I’m happy to play in this league and know that we can speak on what we believe without people breathing down your neck. That’s a good environment to come to work in.”
It should be noted, as it was several times on Tuesday, that the NBA has had a rule in place for decades that mandates that players stand for the national anthem. (Curry said he was unaware of that until someone informed him during the press conference.) Before the NBA Finals began in Oakland last week, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked to address that policy given the uproar over how the NFL has handled its anthem situation over the last two years. Silver contested that the NFL is in “a very different situation” than the NBA, though he said standing for the anthem is about “respect for the institution, respect for the country that these players are playing in.” The difference, Silver argued, is that “25 percent of our league is comprised of players who aren’t American. So it’s hard to say in the case of the NBA it’s about patriotism when a quarter of our players aren’t even American.”
“Frankly,” Silver said, “it’s been a different dialogue in the NBA than it’s been in the NFL.”
That’s something you hear a lot when talking to people in the league. I’ve asked players, coaches, executives, and agents why the NBA has so often been in the foreground on matters relating to racial and societal injustice and direct opposition to the president. I’ve gotten a lot of answers ranging from guaranteed contracts and the CBA providing cover—in contrast to the NFL’s nonguaranteed structure—to the league being predominantly African American and largely progressive-leaning on the political spectrum. But beyond that, the thing that most people mention is the willingness to simply have the conversation rather than avoid it.
“I think the point I was trying to make a couple of weeks ago is that the NBA has always been very much a partner with the players and the union on this issue and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve gone through this together and there haven’t really been any issues in the NBA,” Kerr said. “Players are very socially active and teams and management and the league itself are very supportive not only of community service, of course, but political commentary. It’s just a partnership. That’s the point I was making compared to the NFL.”
Which doesn’t mean that a potential issue couldn’t arise if a player decided to defy the NBA’s directive to stand during the anthem. Curry said that if that happens, he hoped and expected there would be an open, continuing conversation about the player’s intentions and the message he wanted to send. Meanwhile, Kerr said that he would be “perfectly fine with any of our players doing so” because “they’re protesting police brutality and racial inequality,” not the military.
That’s the thing that seemed to gall Kerr the most about the situation with the White House and the Eagles—that none of the Eagles knelt during the anthem or stayed in the locker room last year, yet in the White House statement, the team was nonetheless uninvited under the guise of patriotism. The Eagles’ approach was further taken out of context during the ensuing television coverage. In a recent broadcast, Fox News used a picture of tight end Zach Ertz and some teammates praying before a game last year to push the narrative about football players kneeling for the anthem being unpatriotic. Ertz called them on it, and Fox News was forced to issue a retraction and apology.
“The irony is that the Eagles have been nothing but fantastic citizens in their own community,” Kerr said. “They’ve done so much good. I’ve read a lot about their team. Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long—these guys are studs. They’re amazing.”
To that point, the difference between how the last two Super Bowl winners handled their relationships with the White House is striking. The Patriots mugged for photos—even though Trump’s favorite quarterback begged out to supposedly spend time with his mom. Where the Patriots literally (and figuratively) stood with Trump, the Eagles refused to do so. And because of that refusal, they were warmly embraced by an NBA community that likely won’t send a team to the White House again until there’s a new occupant in the Oval Office. The Eagles might be outliers in their sport, but not in sports writ large. They have become part of a larger, like-minded society of activist athletes.
“People will always call you a champion for the rest of your life,” James said about the Eagles. “Let’s not let someone uninvite you to their house take away from that moment.”