NBA makes its stand: If you can’t handle player protest, then move on

Shoulder to shoulder. Baseline to baseline. Sea to shining sea.

Inside a mostly empty youth sports facility, inside a bubble designed to keep the coronavirus from getting in, the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans made a statement before the NBA’s reopening that they wanted to make sure got out.

Black lives matter, of course. Police brutality needs to end. Equality must be pursued. 

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It was more than that, though. 

When it comes to speaking out on social justice issues in the United States, there will be no fear of retribution, no holding back to appease some segment of the masses. If the old days need to go, then old fears of what some might think of it do as well. 

It is time, most Americans believe, for significant change in the country, and if having players kneel during the pregame national anthem is too much change for you to accept, then move on because this generation is going to move forward without you. 

If the sight of players demonstrating so turns you off that you turn the channel, then the NBA is just going to shrug press on without you. 

This was a moment for reflection, a moment for contemplation, a moment to consider what the players were trying to say. It was a time to listen to them, not to shout them down. 

The players would dribble soon enough. Before the game, they certainly weren’t, without a word, going to shut up.

As an instrumental version of the Star-Spangled Banner by New Orleans native Jon Batiste was played, both teams silently took a knee. They linked arms or rested them on each other’s shoulders. Some held up fists. Coaches participated. So did game officials. White people. Black people. Americans. International players. 

The New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz kneel together around the Black Lives Matter logo on the court during the national anthem before Thursday's NBA restart. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)The New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz kneel together around the Black Lives Matter logo on the court during the national anthem before Thursday's NBA restart. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)
The New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz kneel together around the Black Lives Matter logo on the court during the national anthem before Thursday’s NBA restart. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

What so proudly they hailed. 

“Black Lives Matter” was painted in front of them on the court. Social justice messages were stitched into their uniforms on their backs. 

It was respectful. It was peaceful. It was unified. It was appropriate.

It was patriotic. 

And it was a reversal for a league that remained standing post-Kaepernick. It wasn’t that players or coaches weren’t outspoken when it came to politics. They were. And then some. 

Business was considered business though, and league rules prohibiting anthem protests were followed. Not now though. Not in 2020. Not after George Floyd. 

“I respect our teams’ unified act of peaceful protest for social justice and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our long-standing rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. 

America is changing and changing fast. That can scare the hell out of some. 

Back in 2016, when Colin Kaepernick first sat, then knelt during the anthem before NFL games, the backlash was significant. Now, a CBS News poll says that 58 percent of Americans view it as an “acceptable” form of protest. For younger Americans, the number is far higher.

And so here came the NBA, lining up with the future. As part of the deal to get players to leave their communities and sequester in a Disney World bubble for the 2020 playoffs, the league accepted that they would find a way to get their message out. 

There was no way the players were going to ignore the opportunity. Just hours before, civil rights icon and United States Rep. John Lewis was laid to rest in Atlanta. As a young man Lewis risked beatings and imprisonment to desegregate lunch counters and bus stations, to push for voting rights and equal justice. 

He often called his tactics “good trouble.” 

In this case, there wasn’t even trouble. 

There will be critics, of course. The anthem means different things to different people. There will be fans who swear the league off. There will be howls from some media and plenty of politicians. There will be cries of “What about China?” and there is no question the NBAs muted criticism of that country is wrong and problematic. 

That said, the shrill of “China, China, China” is dubious. How many of those screaming actually care about China, or just want to drown out the players? How many hold other multinational businesses, or the federal government itself, to the same standards? 

It’s an old, tired playbook in this old, tired fight. That’s how America is, was and always will be. Any action forward will be met by resistance. So too will this. 

Yet eventually what seemed threatening to some will sound unbelievable to their children and grandchildren. There were actually people so opposed to desegregated restaurants or African American voting?

Yes, there actually were. 

There are people actually outraged that Zion Williamson took a knee?

Yes, there actually are. 

It’s the right of the players to make their statement. The NBA no longer opposes it. 

And it’s the right of the fans who can’t accept it to go watch something else. 

That’s America. Old and new. The NBA is clear on where it wants things to head and what audiences it wants to serve — it is showing it, without apology, stretched out for all to see, from one end of the court to the other.

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