- On Wednesday, just six hours apart from each other, the NFL and the NBA made clear their respective views of the role sports play in modern society.
- The NFL released a new policy surrounding the national anthem that requires players to stand or stay in the locker room. The move is an attempt to “stick to sports” after some players had been protesting against police brutality.
- Conversely, the Milwaukee Bucks stood by their rookie Sterling Brown after body-cam footage was released of the police tackling and Tasing him over a parking violation.
- Contrary to what the NFL believes, the league may be better off taking a moral stance on some issues rather than attempting to please everyone and remain apolitical.
In just six hours, the NFL and the NBA showed just how wide the gap is between the two leagues regarding how they view the role of sports in modern society.
On Wednesday afternoon, the NFL announced its new policy regarding the playing of the national anthem before games. In 2017, ongoing player protests of police brutality and systemic racism throughout the criminal-justice system – protests that took the form of players kneeling during the anthem – put the league under a microscope after President Donald Trump began publicly criticising them.
To return the focus back to football, the new policy mandates that players who take the field for the national anthem stand and “show respect” – those who wish not to take part in the anthem can remain in the locker room as the song plays.
With the new rules, the league hoped to keep its sport apolitical, appeasing those who loudly claimed that player protest was somehow disrespectful to the flag while preventing players from using the moment to bring attention to an issue beyond football.
Unfortunately for the league, that thinking is emblematic of the mistake the NFL has been making throughout its mishandling of the anthem outrage – attempting to “stick to sports” when it’s clear that is no longer an option.
Just hours after the NFL passed its new policy, the Milwaukee Police Department released video of the Bucks rookie Sterling Brown being arrested and Tased by the police over a parking violation.
The incident took place in January. Brown was initially questioned for having been illegally parked at a Walgreens. The police took him to the ground and called for a Taser despite no signs of resistance from Brown.
It was precisely the type of interaction that NFL players like Colin Kaepernick were trying to bring more attention to and prevent in the future.
In response, Brown announced his intention to take legal action against the police. His statement appeared on the Bucks’ website, along with an assurance from the organisation that it would back its player 100%, saying “racial biases and abuses of power must not be ignored.”
Rather than shy away from the politics of the situation, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to embrace it, and in doing so acknowledging how the organisation’s role in its community goes beyond basketball.
The team isn’t alone. In March, the city of Sacramento was shaken after the police there killed an unarmed black man named Stephon Clark. Protesters marched through the streets, shutting down the entrance to the Kings’ arena and forcing many ticket holders to miss the game.
After the game, the Kings’ owner, Vivek Ranadivé, addressed the crowd, recognising the protesters’ right to march and be heard and offering a message of unity moving forward.
“On Sunday we had a horrific, horrific tragedy in our community,” Ranadivé began, going on to offer sympathies to the Clark family from the Kings organisation:
“We at the Kings recognise people’s ability to protest peacefully, and we respect that. We here at the Kings recognise that we have a big platform. It’s a privilege, but it’s also a responsibility. It’s a responsibility that we take very seriously.”
“We stand here before you, old, young, black, white, brown, and we are all united in our commitment. We recognise that it’s not just business as usual, and we are going to work really hard to bring everybody together to make the world a better place, starting with our own community, and we’re going to work really hard to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.”
He embraced the moment, realising there was something bigger at play than that night’s attendance numbers or the outcome of the game. He showed basic human empathy toward the unjust loss of life and asked that those whose night might have been disturbed do the same.
The NBA is consistent in this sense. The head coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich have become modern philosophers of sorts, often openly speaking their minds on social and political matters, whether gun violence in America or a proposed travel ban.
Kerr spoke out against the NFL’s recent rule change on Thursday:
“I’m proud to be in a league that understands patriotism in America is about free speech and peaceful protesting. I think our leadership in the NBA understands when the NFL players were kneeling, they were kneeling to protest police brutality, to protest racial inequality. They weren’t disrespecting the flag or the military. But our president has decided to make it about that, and the NFL followed suit, pandered to their fanbase, created this hysteria.”
The response was Kerr, off the cuff, responding to a question a reporter had asked him. His answer was pitch perfect not because it’s focused on pleasing anyone who might ever watch basketball in the next decade, but rather because it comes from his beliefs as a human being.
Had the NFL taken a similar stance as soon as the protests became drawing the attention away from football, chances are everyone could’ve moved on to being angry about something else a lot sooner.
The NFL backed itself into a corner, and it happened because of a lack of empathy and conviction. The vital difference between the two leagues is not their rules regarding the national anthem – the NBA has a similar policy requiring players to stand – but rather is how they view the role their organisations play in society.
The NBA has repeatedly shown a willingness to engage beyond basketball. It’s far from perfect, but by operating from that position as a default, representatives of the league – be they players, coaches, owners, or the teams themselves – feel freer to express true feelings on subjects off the court and have faith that the broader world of basketball will support them. They have embraced a role in society that goes beyond dribbling for the entertainment of the masses.
In contrast, the NFL watched as its season was hijacked by a conversation it didn’t want to have and, in response, attempted to appease the loudest voices in the room. Rather than standing by its players and risk wading into political waters, the league decided to punt and only caused itself more harm.
Trump has already suggested that players who don’t wish to stand for the anthem should leave the country, so their effort of appeasement fell short. And now, when Week 1 of the 2018 season rolls around, the focus will primarily be not on the excitement the new year has to offer but on the implementation of the new policy.
Which players will choose to stay in the locker room? Will any players defy the new rules by kneeling anyways? How much will their teams be fined?
Maybe with their latest misstep, the NFL will realise that there is no such thing as “sticking to sports” in 2018, no matter how much they might dislike it.
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