LeBron James on Colin Kaepernick: “I stand with Kaep. I kneel with Kaep. I feel what he was talking about, when nobody wanted to listen to him.” (Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports)
Columnist

Even in the NBA, a league that flaunts its independence and progressive attitudes, the players appreciate Colin Kaepernick as a sports figure beyond their comprehension. He’s not the prototype for the modern athlete activist; he’s the unattainable new standard.

The NBA may be considered the league of the free and the home of the brash, but the players know that Kaepernick — with his 2016 on-field protest during the national anthem and his two-year legal fight against the NFL, which blackballed him — took his beliefs to a place they never would. It makes Kaepernick the freest star in sports, even though he has suffered plenty for his actions. It also defies our tendency to look at LeBron James and his dribbling brothers as the ones living in liberty.

As Kaepernick and the NFL ended our most provocative sports culture war with the stunning Friday news dump of the settlement of his collusion lawsuit, it was striking to be at NBA All-Star Weekend and realize both his significance and incomparable audacity. He just took on the NFL — with its seemingly infinite funds, legal resolve and stubbornness — and stared until the league blinked. The NFL doesn’t settle, at least not this soon; it pulverizes. It doesn’t matter whether the issue is health care for retired players or Tom Brady’s deflated footballs. The league likes to fight. It likes to wear down adversaries, financially and emotionally. It likes to win — and win clearly.

But Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid and their legal teams held their own and prospered. While the terms of the settlement are supposed to remain confidential, it’s fair to speculate that the players received a lucrative amount to end their lawsuits. And by the way, that’s not selling out. The settlement isn’t hush money to stop pushing for social justice. It’s the resolution of a labor disagreement. It can be taken as an acknowledgment that these players deserved restitution for their claims that the league conspired to keep them unemployed (Reid returned to the NFL with the Carolina Panthers last season; Kaepernick remains unsigned) because their social stances were bad for business. Or at the least, it was a case that concerned the NFL so much that it went against its litigious instincts and made it disappear.

During times of NFL player unrest, we like to use the NBA as a symbol of contrast. The popular belief is that the NBA, as a player-driven league, would have handled protesting players in a more thoughtful and less combative manner. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s also a fact that the NBA has a strict no-protest policy during the anthem, unlike the vague, toothless suggestion of a rule that left the door open in the NFL. And it’s also a fact that former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf suffered a Kaepernick-like fate after refusing to stand for the anthem in 1996.


The details of Kaepernick’s settlement with the NFL have not been disclosed. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

Former NBA commissioner David Stern made headlines this past week when he suggested that Kaepernick still would have a job if he were an NBA player.

“As we were digging out of a terrible hole for us — in the late ’70s and ’80s, when there was a fair amount of racism exhibited about players — we felt as a matter of policy we had to promote our players and show that they were real people,” Stern said on the “Bloomberg Business of Sports” podcast. “And it worked.”

There’s no definitive way of knowing how the NBA, in this climate and with the league thriving, would have handled Kaepernick. But it would have been a complicated decision. Over the past few years, some of the NFL’s actions toward protesting players have been illogical, reactionary and desperate. Perhaps a star-driven league would be more equipped to govern with nuance and understanding.

The NBA and NFL share the same mission: to satisfy the diverse interests of a large fan base and make as much money as possible. The difference is that the NBA has more of a spirit of partnership with its players. It allows the league to set strict policy and still make it seem as if everyone is in this thing together. This is how the NBA has avoided a protest problem. The players feel supported, so they don’t use civil disobedience to be heard. Instead, they are encouraged to voice their opinions, and then they work with their teams and the league to make an impact.

During All-Star Weekend festivities Saturday, players said they admire Kaepernick as the maverick that they don’t have to be. They are with him, but they know they don’t have to be him. His journey makes them feel privileged. They understand him. They support him. But no matter the influence they have had in their own ways, they know they are not the same.

“I stand with Kaep,” said James, the most influential athlete of this era. “I kneel with Kaep. I feel what he was talking about, when nobody wanted to listen to him. Nobody ever really wanted to actually understand where he was coming from. I think that anyone who would sacrifice their livelihood for the benefit of all of us — I can respect that. He’s done that.”

James paused briefly.

“You’ve got a guy who basically lost his job because he wanted to stand for something that was more than just him,” he continued. “I’m happy to see the news come out [Friday] that he [settled] his suit. I hope it’s a hell of a lot of money that can set not only him up but set his family up, set his grandkids up for the rest of their lives. And I hope that the word of what he did will live on throughout American history but also world history because it’s important for all of us, not only African Americans but for everybody, to stand up for something that’s more important than them.”

Dwyane Wade praised Kaepernick because he “educated all of us on something that we didn’t know about.” Like James, Wade trusts that, over time, Kaepernick’s sacrifice will be less polarizing and more revered.

Kaepernick lost his career to bring attention to police brutality and systemic oppression. He is imperfect, and he can be a frustrating public figure, but that shouldn’t diminish his concerns.

“I appreciate him for taking a stand and being a leader in our community,” Wade said.

For NBA all-stars, who can say and do almost anything, that’s high praise not because Kaepernick is like them. As he proved to the NFL, he is different — and way more formidable.