HOUSTON — The NFL’s move Wednesday to change its policy to effectively ban players from protesting on the field during the national anthem drew no shortage of reaction, both in support of the move and of withering criticism. Before Thursday’s Game 5 of the NBA’s Western Conference finals, Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr added his voice, calling the move “idiotic.”
“It’s just typical of the NFL,” Kerr said. “They’re just playing to their fan base. Basically just trying to use the anthem as fake patriotism, nationalism, scaring people.”
It’s far from the first time someone within the league has spoken out on social issues. Kerr, San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich and recently deposed Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy have all been repeatedly outspoken about topics ranging from President Trump to gun violence. The league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, specifically implored those attending the Sports Business Awards on Wednesday night to “not stick to sports.”
But the comments of Kerr, Silver and others got at a key distinction between the NFL and the NBA: the leagues’ relationship with its players. Consider Kerr’s answer to a follow-up question about the NBA’s national anthem policy.
“Adam and his leadership, I do feel like we’re partners,” Kerr said. “Players, coaches, management, the league’s management — I do feel like we’re all partners.”
It is that idea — forming a partnership with its players — that has allowed the NBA to avoid some of the land mines involving sensitive issues like the anthem protests that have roiled the NFL.
Silver has gone out of his way since taking over from David Stern a little more than four years ago to foster a sense of inclusion and understanding with the players and their union, the National Basketball Players Association. He has listened to players pertaining to on-court issues like rest, cutting down on back-to-backs, eliminating playing four games in five nights and extending the all-star break.
He has listened to them about off-court issues as well. The league has been behind a recent mental health initiative spearheaded by Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan. It has worked with the players on issues of gun violence and police brutality.
All of that has helped foster a sense of trust in what the league is about and what it stands for — a trust that has helped the NBA remain in step with players on sensitive issues.
Just look at how the leagues have approached the topic of the anthem protests. As the NFL was engulfed in daily discussions about the merits of standing for the anthem, the NBA was faced with its own situation. For decades, the NBA has had a rule in place about standing for the anthem — a rule originally intended to ensure players weren’t shooting or stretching while the anthem was played. But in the current climate, the NBA’s policy faced greater scrutiny.
The NBA did not change its policy. In fact, it sent a memo shortly after training camps opened in late September reinforcing that players would still be required to stand for the anthem. But that memo also offered several ways that teams can continue to create dialogue with their players and the communities they reside in about the protest movement that has spread across the sports world. It also came in the wake of a joint statement a few weeks earlier by Silver and Michele Roberts, the NBPA’s executive director, that addressed the issue.
“None of us operates in a vacuum,” Silver and Roberts said in the letter. “Critical issues that affect our society also impact you directly. Fortunately, you are not only the world’s greatest basketball players — you have real power to make a difference in the world, and we want you know that the Players Association and the League are always available to help you figure out the most meaningful way to make that difference.”
Players could have pushed back on the rule and created a difficult situation for the NBA to manage. But they did not — something that came as a great relief to the league. Why? Because the NBA had earned their trust and shown willingness to work with players to advance issues the players care about.
One such example was when six players — including LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Garnett — wore shirts emblazoned with “I Can’t Breathe” before a 2014 game between the Cavaliers and Nets in Brooklyn, making a statement about Eric Garner police brutality case. Doing so was a violation of the league’s dress code and left the players subject to a fine. The NBA took no action.
That’s not to say the league agrees with everything its players and coaches do and say, or vice versa. But that’s not what makes a successful partnership. Instead, it’s trust on both sides that goals are aligned, and that working together is in the common interest.
It’s the same reason, after a contentious labor negotiation to create a collective bargaining agreement five years earlier, the NBA and the NBPA crafted a new deal more than six months ahead of the deadline.
That wasn’t possible in 2011. By late 2016, things were different.
For all of the attention on rhetoric coming from figures like Kerr and Silver — and understandably so — it is not the willingness of people in the NBA to speak out that makes it different from the NFL. It is that there is a trust and partnership between the sides, and a belief each is working in the best interest of the other.