Reimer: Why does NBA avoid criticism for its stringent anthem policy?

Alex Reimer
May 25, 2018 - 9:43 am

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

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The NBA is often lauded as a league that undertakes progressive causes and encourages its players to be socially outspoken. In many respects, that is correct. LeBron James has ardently campaigned against police brutality and gun violence, whether it’s through wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt or delivering a joint monologue with other star players at the ESPYs. This season, Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan brought awareness to mental health with candid first-person stories. The Bucks, who recently released a statement condemning Milwaukee police for its handling of Sterling Brown’s arrest, interviewed a woman for their head coaching vacancy. Coaches Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich and Stan Van Gundy attack Donald Trump harder than most Democrats. 

With those facts in mind, it’s easy to hold up the NBA as a bastion of liberalism in comparison to the NFL. The juxtaposition came into focus this week, with the NFL essentially banning national anthem protests. The league’s new policy says players on the field for the “Star-Spangled Banner” must show the “appropriate” level of respect for the flag and anthem. Players who want to kneel or sit must stay in the locker room, or else their teams will be subject to fines. 

The NFL has taken a warranted public relations beating for its unnecessary and cowardly edict. An infinitesimal number of players were still kneeling at the end of the season. The two-year-old topic had faded away, but now it’s back, because owners are apparently afraid of desperate Twitter missives from President Trump. 

But it’s worth keeping in mind the NFL’s national anthem policy still isn’t the most stringent in professional sports. That honor belongs to the NBA, which mandates all players, coaches and trainers must “stand respectfully” for the anthem. They aren’t even allowed to head to the locker room or out of public view. 

Prior to the start of the season, NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum issued a memo to teams reminding them of the edict. It said clubs “do not have discretion” to waive the rule. That’s different than the NFL, which says teams can set their own regulations. 

Long before Colin Kaepernick, the NBA dealt with its own high-profile anthem controversy. Forward Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf didn’t stand for the song in 1996, because he views the flag as a symbol of oppression. 

"This country has a long history of that," he said at the time, per the New York Daily News. "I don't think you can argue the facts. You can't be for God and for oppression. It's clear in the Koran, Islam is the only way. I don't criticize those who stand, so don't criticize me for sitting. I won't waver from my decision.”

The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf one game and fined him $31,707 for the crime of enacting his First Amendment rights. 

While that was long ago, the NBA has more recently curtailed its players freedom to express themselves at the workplace. Following the Malace at the Palace brawl in 2005, the league instituted a dress code that banned casual attire –– including hip hop attire, jewelry and even jeans. 

Imagine if the NFL did something like that.

Kerr was one of several prominent sports figures who spoke out against the NFL this week, calling the anthem policy “idiotic.” The Warriors head coach says he’s proud to be in a league that “understands patriotism in America is about free speech.”

That is, unless players want to kneel during the anthem or wear jeans and a graphic t-shirt to the arena. Then they’re silenced.

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