“In a time where bigotry seems on the rise and commitment to racial equality on the decline, I have an obligation as a citizen to speak out and to support, in any way possible, those brave and patriotic athletes who are working to bring change to our country,” Van Gundy wrote in an essay published by Time. “I believe all of us do.”
The 58-year-old coach, who has been at the helm of the Pistons since 2014, following stints with the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic, said he was reacting to critics of NFL and WNBA players who have “taken a knee, raised a fist or remained in the locker room during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.” Van Gundy noted that President Trump has sharply attacked the protests, including calling for NFL players to stand or lose their jobs, and he mentioned Popovich and Kerr as having taken heat for their criticism of Trump.
“Many have said that these protests dishonor our country and our military men and women,” Van Gundy asserted, but he made it clear that he sees them very differently. He cited scholar and author Michael Eric Dyson as having made a distinction between nationalism, defined as “supporting your country no matter what, right or wrong,” and patriotism, which is “caring so deeply about your country that you take it as your duty to hold it accountable to its highest values and to fight to make it the very best it can be.”
“Honoring America has to mean much, much more than standing at attention for a song (one which, by the way, contains racist language in later verses),” Van Gundy wrote. “One of the most important freedoms that our military has fought for over two-plus centuries is the freedom of speech. When these professional athletes protest during the anthem, they are exercising one of the very freedoms for which our military men and women fought so valiantly, thus honoring our highest values and, in turn, those who have fought for them.”
Van Gundy claimed that the U.S. was “founded by protesters” who felt that Great Britain’s laws and policies “abridged their freedoms.” He said that “protest has nearly always been the catalyst for meaningful change,” adding, “And it has always made people uncomfortable.”
Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began the NFL’s protests last season and has remained a free agent since March, was cited by Van Gundy as being among the athletes who have “been at the forefront of great advances in social justice,” and who have paid a price for their activism. The coach also mentioned Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos as other examples.
“What is it that they want?” Van Gundy wrote. “Simply and succinctly: equality. Equal rights. Equal justice. Equal treatment by police and others in authority. Equal opportunity.”
In the wake of Trump’s election last year, Van Gundy was among many NBA coaches and players who did not hide their dismay. “I don’t think anybody can deny this guy is openly and brazenly racist and misogynistic and ethnic-centric,” the coach said of Trump, adding, “We have just thrown a good part of our population under the bus, and I have problems with thinking that this is where we are as a country.”
In January, when the Trump administration first attempted to enact a travel ban, Van Gundy said, “It’s starting to get into really, really scary stuff now. … It’s just fearmongering and playing to a certain base of people that have some built-in prejudices that aren’t fair.”
In his essay, Van Gundy listed “several specific changes” being sought by The Players Coalition, an informal group of NFL players concerned about racial injustice. Those changes, according to the coach, are “focused on criminal justice reform” and include: changing harsh sentencing guidelines and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences; enacting clean slate laws; eliminating cash bail; reforming juvenile justice; and ending police brutality and racial bias in police departments.
“I stand with these athletes — in support of both these causes and their patriotism,” Van Gundy said. “I hope others will join me in supporting them.
“These athletes could take the easy route and not [have] placed their livelihoods at risk by standing up for what they believe in. They’ve put in their hard work. They could accept their paychecks and live lives of luxury. Instead, they are risking their jobs to speak up for those who have no voice.”