NEW YORK – NBA commissioner Adam Silver can’t fine players for not standing for the national anthem.
Technically he can because a league rule states a player must “stand in a dignified posture” for the national anthem.
More precise: Silver won’t fine players because that would run counter to the NBA’s progressive, longstanding stance on social issues and players’ voices on those issues.
For decades, NBA players have had a voice beyond what happens on the court, and since taking over as commissioner, Silver has encouraged those actions.
“I’m extraordinarily proud of our players,” Silver said Thursday evening. “They’ve always found ways to make meaningful change in their communities and to work toward social justice.”
While Silver said he expects players will stand for the national anthem, he did not say he expects them to do so. It’s a subtle difference in phrasing – expects they will as opposed to expects them to. One is an idea that something probably will happen; the other is more of a demand that it will.
NBA players did not kneel last season when they could’ve followed Colin Kaepernick’s lead, and that’s one reason Silver isn’t expecting a kneeling protest now. He prefers a show of unity.
But Silver is not demanding they stand. When asked what kind of punishment the league would have for players who did not stand for the anthem, Silver delivered what seemed like a foreboding response: “If that were to happen, we’ll deal with it when it happens.”
In the wake of Silver’s comments, the league reiterated the existence of the anthem rule in a memo sent to general managers and team presidents on Friday.
“These are difficult and nuanced issues,” deputy commissioner Mark Tatum wrote in the memo – titled “Next Steps: Building Stronger, Safer Communities” – that was first reported by ESPN and obtained by USA TODAY Sports. “We support and encourage players to express their views on matters that are important to them. The NBA has a rule that players, coaches and trainers stand respectfully for the anthem. The league office will determine how to deal with any possible instance in which a player, coach or trainer does not stand for the anthem.”
Do you know what happened the last time NBA players violated league protocol in the name of social justice? Nothing.
Derrick Rose and other NBA players, including LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Garnett, wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts during warmups – a violation of league rules for on-court attire – to honor Eric Garner in 2014. Garner was an unarmed black man who died as the result of a chokehold by a New York Police Department officer.
Silver did not fine players then, and I do not expect him to fine players who kneel or otherwise protest during the national anthem – if that happens.
Silver’s actions and words over the years serve as an authentic roadmap to what he will do.
He fought to remove Donald Sterling as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers after a series of ugly, racially charged comments from Sterling were made public. He’s made homophobic comments in the NBA unacceptable, and he withdrew playing an All-Star Game in Charlotte. Charlotte did not, according to Silver, provide an inclusive environment for NBA employees and fans because of a bathroom bill that discriminated against the LGBTQ community.
He is a commissioner with a conscience and understands players’ views on social issues. He’s made it clear he wants them to be heard.
“One of the core principles of this country is freedom of expression.”
“Given the platform that they have, whether it’s the regular engagement they have with the media, whether it’s social media, whether it’s other opportunities they have to work in the communities, they have those opportunities for their voices to be heard.”
He would prefer players stand for the anthem, but punishing players for not standing would undo some of work he has done to make the NBA the most progressive pro sports league in North America. He has generated immense goodwill among players for his leadership.
Think about the week the NBA has had. LeBron James, Bradley Beal, Steph Curry, Carmelo Anthony, Jaylen Brown, Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, among others, spoke out with thoughtful comments against social injustice and President Trump’s inflammatory comments.
So did Basketball Hall of Famers Bill Bradley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell. If you want to trace the NBA’s social conscience to its early days, let’s go to Russell, whose grandfather was a first-generation free man. Russell’s great-grandfather was a slave.
Russell posted on Monday a powerful photo of himself on Twitter kneeling while wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom with the words: “Proud to take a knee, and to stand tall against social injustice.”#takeaknee#medaloffreedom #NFL #BillRussell #MSNBC.”
Sure, Silver could fine players for protesting during the anthem. But why would he want to do that given what he’s pushed for and what the league and players stand for. It would be borderline hypocritical and counterproductive.