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The NBA Is Bracing Itself For Possible Protests

Is a talking flag video the answer?

Image by Jeramey Jannene/Flickr.

There is no easy solution for the NBA when it comes to potential protests that could take place during the national anthem. Commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA president Michele Roberts have encouraged players to speak out on issues and get involved with political causes. In a portion of the letter that was made public by ESPN, they promised that “the Players Association and the League are always available to help you figure out the most meaningful way to make [a] difference.”

But of course, they would prefer it if said activism didn’t occur on the court or, at least, not in a way the NBA and NBPA can’t properly frame and brand. Specifically, they want players to stand during the anthem.

Per NBA rules, all players have to stand, a regulation that was put to the test in 1996, when Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was Muslim, first refused to leave the locker room, then began silently praying in a compromise after meeting with then-commissioner David Stern. Abdul-Rauf was out of the NBA two years later and remains convinced that he was blackballed.

In a memo obtained by the Washington Post, Silver reiterated that standing was mandatory and anyone who didn’t do so would face some form of discipline. He also instructed all 30 teams to lean into their already existing outreach efforts, while still speaking with players and making sure their “thoughts and ideas” are heard. There are a lot of friendly sounding words about engagement in the community and “thought leaders,” but the word “race” somehow never made it into the final draft.

The NBA also suggests this:

“??A video tribute or PSA featuring players, community leaders, faith leaders and team leadership speaking about the issues they care about and photos from past community events.”

On Wednesday, the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs followed Silver’s suggestion, showing videos prior to the opening tip. The Mavericks’ version was, as the SB Nation blog MavsMoneyball described it, “strange.” That’s not the half of it. The two-minute film is narrated by a presumably sentient American flag. Yes, a flag.

This flag has watched every Mavericks game and so recounts pivotal moments in team history before saying, “I see a city and country where the people respect me for who I am and what I represent. I am this country’s common ground: the most recognizable symbol in the world.”

The flag then asks fans to rise for the national anthem.

The Spurs’ video wisely left weird jingoistic and anthropomorphic banners behind, going with a plain-text message that was blandly inclusive enough so as not to offend anyone.

Transcription via ESPN:

“There are things happening in our communities that need our attention," the message read. "We understand your desire to attend our games as an escape and chosen form of entertainment. In that, we feel there is a significant commonality in all of us that allows our community to be so special.

That commonality should include aspirations for social justice, freedom of speech in its many forms, and equal opportunity for education, and economic advancement regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religion.

It is our hope that we can, as a community, inspire and evoke real change. We ask that you join with us in your daily lives in the pursuit of equality. And in that, we honor our country by exercising demands for what this great nation has promised and what our military continues to fight for.”

What are the “things” that require attention? What is the “real change”? How do they define “social justice”? The latter is the closest the Spurs came to a specific point, but still a far cry from what head coach Gregg Popovich told The Nation earlier this week, when he called Trump a “soulless coward” and a “pathological liar” who is actively working to divide the country.

That’s fine. Really. No one should have expected the Spurs to reprint the entirety of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ treatise on reparations, but even so, a pro team or league can’t serve as the vanguard for a protest movement. Moreover, no matter how many owners were willing to anonymously say that they sympathize with their employees, per Bleacher Report, the questions of systemic, structural racism and state-sanctioned police violence aren’t its chief concern or even a subject they really want to address at all.

The league is worried about getting embroiled in controversy or finding itself on the receiving end of a Trump tweet banged out after the president watched a misleading segment on Fox & Friends. It does not want to be seen as hostile to the large chunk of the population that will blindly lash out at any purported “enemies” of the administration. It’s ridiculous, and letting a pollster know how deeply enraged one is doesn’t necessarily make much of a dent in viewing habits, but to some degree, that’s what’s happening to the NFL.

It seems that the NBA plans to co-opt and neuter any attempts at real activism. They’ll send nice memos trying to square an unsquarable circle by trying to gently nudge players into the kind of sponsor-friendly community efforts that won’t upset any apple carts — specifically the carts belonging to their advertising partners.

Eventually, though, some player is going to do or say something that will make people uncomfortable, possibly in response to being infantilized by the NBA’s suggested courses of action and possibly during the anthem. And while Popovich might be untouchable, when a player crosses Silver’s line, we’ll see how “progressive” the NBA really is.

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