The demonstrations were inspired by NFL star Colin Kaepernick and accompanied by a video featuring player activists and coach allies speaking about systemic racism. They continued over the weekend with participation from virtually every player and coach from the 22 invited teams. There were, however, a few exceptions.
Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac was the first player to remain standing during the anthem Friday. Soon after, Miami Heat center Meyers Leonard, San Antonio Spurs coaches Gregg Popovich and Becky Hammon, and referee Brent Barnaky all chose to stand.
Isaac, 22, also did not join his teammates and other NBA players in wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt during the anthem when Orlando debuted Friday against the Brooklyn Nets.
“Absolutely I believe Black lives matter,” said Isaac, who is Black. “Kneeling while wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt doesn’t go hand in hand with supporting Black lives. … I don’t think kneeling or putting on a T-shirt for me personally is the answer. I feel like for me Black lives are supported through the gospel. All lives are supported through the gospel. We all have things that we do wrong. Sometimes it gets into a place of pointing fingers. We all fall short of God’s glory. Whoever will humble themselves and seek God and repent of their sins, we can see our mistakes and people’s mistakes and evil in a different light. Racism isn’t the only thing that plagues our society, our nation, our world.”
For Isaac, standing was an opportunity to shift the conversation “out of the realm of skin color” and to argue that “the answer to all of our problems and everything that goes on in our world is Jesus.”
Leonard, who is White, rooted his decision to stand in the military service of his older brother Bailey and others close to him.
“I listened to my heart,” he wrote on Twitter. “I felt an overwhelming amount of emotion as I stood there during the National Anthem. My brother, and many close friends have sworn to protect this country at all costs, and that means something to me, as does the flag and our nation.”
In a statement to Yahoo, Leonard, 28, said he “absolutely did not” think that kneeling was disrespectful to the flag — a common counter from critics of Kaepernick’s protests, which began in 2016. Leonard also told the Associated Press that he planned to donate $100,000 to support Black voting rights efforts in Florida.
Popovich, 71, said standing was a “personal decision.”
“I’d prefer to keep that to myself,” said the U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, who is White. “The league has been great about that. Everyone has the freedom to react any way they want. For whatever reasons I have, I reacted the way I wanted to.”
Barnaky, a referee with 10 years of NBA experience, told ESPN.com he “fully supports the social justice movement and everyone who chooses to kneel as a means of peaceful protest.”
“For me personally, it’s important I stand for our national anthem which is what I chose to this evening,” said Barnaky, 45, who is White. “I believe you can be committed to both ideas.”
While their decisions were dissected on social media, they didn’t immediately prompt backlash from within the NBA community. Heat forwards Andre Iguodala and Udonis Haslem vouched for Leonard, Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan defended Popovich and Hammon, and Magic guard Evan Fournier said Isaac was free to express himself. Popovich has a long history of advocating for social justice issues and of criticizing President Trump, and he opened a Sunday news conference with a brief history lesson on literacy tests intended to disenfranchise Black voters.
Even without 100 percent participation in the demonstrations, the NBA’s Black Lives Matter messaging is ubiquitous, gracing the courts, the giant video boards behind the team benches, signs outside the arenas and the T-shirts worn by ballboys. Of course, the greatest visibility still comes from the athletes who organized the efforts: at least 46 players are wearing the words “Black Lives Matter” on the back of their jerseys as part of an agreement with the NBA that enabled players to select from a list of approved advocacy messages.
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