The Washington Post
Anthem issue demonstrates the NBA is all about trust
houston — The NFL’s move Wednesday to change its policy to prohibit players from protesting on the field during the national anthem — or face fines — drew no shortage of reaction, both for and against. 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,” he said. “They’re just playing to their fan base. Basically just trying to use the anthem as fake patriotism, nationalism, scaring people.”
It was far from the first time someone in the NBA has spoken out on social issues. Kerr, San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich and recently deposed Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy all have been outspoken about topics ranging from President Trump to gun violence. NBA 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 their 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 such as the anthem protests that have roiled the NFL.
Silver has gone out of his way since he took 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 about on-court issues such as rest — cutting down on back-to-backs, eliminating playing four games in five nights and extending the all-star break.
And 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 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 issue. For decades, the league has had a rule about standing for the anthem — a rule originally intended to ensure players weren’t shooting or stretching while the anthem played. 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 still would 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 and created a difficult situation for the NBA to manage. But they did not — which came as great relief to the league. Why? The league had earned their trust and shown a willingness to work with players to advance issues the players care about.
One 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 the Eric Garner police brutality case. Doing so was a violation of the league’s dress code, meaning the players were 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 contentious labor negotiations 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, circumstances were different.
For all of the attention on rhetoric coming from figures such as Kerr and Silver, 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 that each is working in the best interest of the other.