Until the past few days, the question of what NBA players would do to express solidarity with athletes who have joined in Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest was a mere abstraction.
But preseason games are underway, bringing clarity and immediacy to the issue. Now, many NBA players are following the lead of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks — who wanted to protest racial injustice and police brutality without appearing to protest military sacrifice.
“We are a team comprised of individuals with diverse backgrounds, and as a team we have decided to stand and interlock arms in unity,” Seattle’s Doug Baldwin explained in a video. “We honor those who have fought for the freedom we cherish, and we stand to ensure the riches of freedom and the security of justice for all people. Progress can and will be made only if we stand together.”
It’s a gesture that has resonated with NBA players since preseason games began Saturday. The Toronto Raptors linked arms before their preseason opener, and other teams, including the Knicks, Rockets, Celtics, Lakers, Wizards and Kings, have done the same as they stand together for the playing of the national anthem.
“We wanted to show solidarity,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “We’re a team, we’re all together, we’re all one race, we’re all human beings. We all understand that things in the United States and the things in the world [aren’t] the best right now.”
For NBA players, national anthem protests are tricky. Unlike the NFL, which encourages players to stand for the national anthem but does not punish them if they do not, the NBA has long had a rule stating that players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the national anthem. Applying that rule, David Stern, the former commissioner, suspended Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets for remaining seated during the anthem in 1996. His suspension was lifted after a day when Abdul-Rauf agreed to stand and pray silently.
NBA players had time to consider what their response to the national anthem protests would be, and LeBron James, for one, said he would continue to stand for the national anthem.
“That’s who I am. That’s what I believe in,” he said during media day last week. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect and don’t believe in what Colin Kaepernick is doing. You have the right to voice your opinion, stand for your opinion, and he’s doing it in the most peaceful way I’ve ever seen someone do something.”
NBA players, including James, have not shied away from expressing their feelings over social issues, such as the Trayvon Martin killing, Donald Sterling’s racism and other police killings of unarmed black men. For one player, though, protesting the national anthem is something he has done for a long time. Golden State’s David West told Marc Spears of The Undefeated that he has for years stood a bit behind teammates in a protest that even Warriors Coach Steve Kerr and teammate Draymond Green were unaware of. Kaepernick is protesting police brutality against minorities, but West’s concerns are broader.
“What about education? What about infant mortality? How about how we die younger and our babies die sooner?” he told Spears, saying that his protest dates to his years in New Orleans (2003-11). “We die. [Black men] have the shortest life expectancy. C’mon, man. The health care system? There are so many [issues]. It’s like, whatever. …
“I can’t start talking about civic issues. I can’t start talking about civility and being a citizen if [expletives] don’t even think I’m a human being. How can you talk about progress and how humans interrelate with one another when you don’t even recognize our humanity? We got to somehow get that straight first so we’re on the same playing field. And that’s how I feel. There is just a lot of stuff, man.”
The Celtics chose to send a second, off-the-court message about unity that focuses on the team’s history. “We are one. We are in this together. For years the people who have worn this jersey have stared in the face of social unrest, and each time they responded by coming together,” players say in a video montage. “We are honored to represent our fellow Celtics and humbly accept the baton to stand together, to demonstrate the power of unity, to face the issues of today and the ones that will come tomorrow.
“We ask that you join us in promoting unity, progress and love. Let’s all do our parts. And let’s all accept this challenge. Let’s all come together.”