Athlete activism a hot topic as NBA braces for season

Players considering options to make voice heard on social issues

Stick to Sports.

It is the cudgel of the uncurious.

There are people who desperately do not want their Real World to infect their Sports, like kids keep the tomato sauce from their spaghetti from mixing with their hot dogs. Often, the reaction is the same: Ewwww. Gross.

If you’re involved in sports in any way, and ever express an opinion of any kind on something that doesn’t involve catching and tackling and shooting, you get variations on this theme. You often hear it even more fervently if you’re a professional athlete.

But ideas tend to be on their own timeline.

San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick set off a spark when he began kneeling during the national anthem in preseason NFL games. Kaepernick was clear — he hoped to call attention to the killing of African-Americans at the hands of police.

His gesture took root; on NFL sidelines on that sports’ opening Sunday — the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — players on several teams knelt and raised their fists in solidarity. There were many who didn’t think that particular date, with its horrific memories of death and loss, was the appropriate time. Of course, a more appropriate time is never suggested. College and high school teams, and non-athletes as well, have also made gestures during the anthem in recent weeks.

It is thus just a matter of time until an NBA player does the same before an exhibition game in October, or during the regular season.

Players have taken to social media to express their anger and frustration about the recent killings of African-American civilians in Tulsa and Charlotte. After the shooting of Terence Crutcher, who was unarmed, in Tulsa, Russell Westbrooktook to his Instagram page to denounce the killing, saying Crutcher’s skin was the reason he was shot.

The NBA has specific rules regarding player deportment during the anthem. In its “Comments on the Rules,” Section II: Basic Principles, Subsection H: Player/Team Conduct And Dress, the rule is laid out clearly:

(2) Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.

This is the rule that was flouted by former Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1996, when he refused to come out for the anthem. Abdul-Rauf was suspended a game by the league without pay, but then reached a compromise with the league that allowed him to pray during the anthem while standing with his teammates.

What the league will do now when players act is still unknown. Yet the times and the NBA’s position on social issues suggest that the reaction will not be more benign. A suspension and/or fine for players who kneel or otherwise make gestures during the anthem would be a surprise. The WNBA took no action last week when the entire Indiana Fever team knelt during the anthem before its playoff game against Phoenix.

The league and the National Basketball Players Association are each looking to get in front of this before the season starts. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts sent a joint letter last week to all current players last week, detailing joint plans, based on suggestions received from players, to reach into communities with NBA teams and engage youth, parents and police in what the letter called “candid dialogue.”

Several players, texting and messaging anonymously, indicated they were contemplating taking action during the anthem, or expected others to do so.

“I think we will do something,” one player said of himself and his teammates. “Just not exactly sure yet!…Meet (today) for first time officially. So will see if it comes up, or before preseason game.”

Said another veteran player: “I think some players will, just don’t think it will be the kneeling because of (potential) fines. No players like to lose money…Maybe the arm fist in the air.”

But not everyone is going to take action. A former All-Star said he would not protest when the Anthem is played.

“I am standing,” he said. “Never had a reason not to.”

Another player said he would not do anything because it wasn’t his normal nature to do so. But he acknowledged where he played also has an impact. “I think it wouldn’t go over too well with our fans and our city,” he said.

One well-known player and NBA champion said he would not be doing anything on the floor. “Just feel that stage/phase is over. Now we need to do something next…(that’s) bigger. Doesn’t have to be controversial but definitely needs to be effective. But Kaep sparked the convo and got their attention. I applaud him.”

Some players who aren’t planning on-court protests say they’re focusing their efforts on reaching out more to their local communities.

Said another former NBA champion: “I’m not doing it like Kap. I’m fighting a different fight..and that’s where my focus is and what’s important to me. My fight is different right now and I don’t want that to take away from what I’m doing and trying to do in my city.”

Players born outside the United States are monitoring what their American brethren do.

“It is a matter that I take seriously,” said a well-known international player. “I have not planned anything personally, but in my opinion If the main guys in our league take leadership and do something, many of us would follow, because they represent the league globally.”

Coaches and teams are trying to meet their players halfway. Teams whose camps opened this weekend because they’ll be playing exhibition games overseas have taken advantage of the extra time to talk about what’s going on in the world.

One head coach told his team that his organization will support what they do “100 percent.” Another, though, wants his players to know that their actions could have consequences. He will remind them that Muhammad Ali lost three years of his prime as a boxer because of his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and barred from fighting from 1967 to 1970.

The likelihood is there will be both greater impact and backlash for NBA players than there’s been for other athletes. They are simply more famous than most, and have more to lose than just a few.

“I’m on the fence right now,” a veteran guard said. “Leaning more towards ‘doing something.’ Because I think our platform will reach even more people and create more of the conversations that NEED to be had.”

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Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.