Reimer: Celtics won't shy away from racial debate this season

Alex Reimer
September 25, 2017 - 4:34 pm

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

CANTON --- The “stick to sports” contingent may want to tune out this NBA season. Donald Trump’s vulgar condemnation of athletes who protest during the national anthem was the preeminent topic at league press availabilities across the country Monday, with several stars and coaches weighing in. LeBron James, who called Trump a “bum” on Twitter, spoke about how the President doesn’t seem to respect the gravity of his office. Gregg Popovich, an ardent Trump critic, called America an “embarrassment to the rest of the world.” 

The tone at Celtics media day in Canton surrounding Trump was more reflective than bombastic. Head coach Brad Stevens opened the proceedings with a voice of support for players who decide to speak out about their dissatisfaction with the President or other social issues “We talk about trying to use our platform to create positive discussion, talk about things like uniting. We talk all the time about leaders unite and inspire people. Misleaders divide,” he explained. “So ultimately, if we can be a team that uses that in a positive way, if we can be individuals to use that in a positive way to create a good message that unifies –– we’re doing a small part with the platform we’re given.”

The racial dog whistles surrounding Trump’s attacks are obvious, despite his laughable insistence otherwise. The purpose of Colin Kaepernick’s protest last season was to bring attention to police brutality in black communities and the racial injustices that pervade our legal system. Race is the driving force behind the bulk of these protests, and most of the athletes who have participated are black. Since nearly 75 percent of NBA players are black, it’s not surprising many of the league’s most prominent stars seem to take Trump’s insults personally.

Kyrie Irving, for one, was open about the flurry of emotions he felt when hearing Trump’s words for the first time. 

"It was a heck of a weekend," he said. "It's been a lot of emotions. A lot of disconnect. A lot of opinions. A lot of feelings of things that have either happened this weekend or have happened in the past that people have problems with. To have that realization that our voices can be heard and to understand the intent on why individuals do the things they do, in order to feel like they're making a change in society or they are pushing forward a culture that ultimately was founded on some questionable things. It's your right to have that ability to stand up and say something."

Sophomore Jaylen Brown, who played in the NBA African game last summer to gain more understanding about his roots, said he’s reached out to his teammates about possible demonstrations they may plan this season. Last year, the Celtics aired a video promoting unity prior to their preseason opener. Every player and coach on the team stood with interlocked arms while the “Star-Spangled Banner” played.

“The President has made some comments and has come at players and teams, and I think it’s unconstitutional to do that; to tell them they don’t have the right to speak on whatever they feel like their heart needs to be spoken on,” he said. “I think basketball athletes have a tremendous opportunity, with our platform, to do something about it.”

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge –– hardly a left-wing liberal –– said he’s onboard with any messages of unity his team decides to promote this season. The challenge for Celtics players, and all athletes who participate in forms of protest, is to ensure their messages rise above the noise. Over the last year, much of the conversation about Kaepernick and others have been centered around their physical protests rather than the issues they’re trying to bring to the forefront. The President’s penchant for name-calling, rather than engaging in constructive conversation, amplifies that difficulty. 

So far, the protests have only created more division, as evidenced by the fervor surrounding the NFL anthem demonstrations on Sunday. But Irving is optimistic that can change, considering the number of athletes and stars who are speaking up. 

“Whether it be more athletes involved, or more people involved to come forward, it’s what’s happened throughout history. It’s just if you acknowledge it or not,” he said. “I hope it’s progression. I think the beautiful thing is people are starting to wake up.”

With 10 new players, the Celtics will face ample challenges on the court this season. But their most daunting task may come off of it. Protests are futile if those in positions of power are unwilling to hear the message. Irving and his teammates appear determined to change that. 

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