NBA players, coaches and referees knelt during the national anthem in a coordinated protest on Thursday, the opening night of the league’s restart, violating a longstanding league policy to make a political statement during a summer of reckoning about social justice and racial equality.
The first game since the league shut down in March began with the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans using the spotlight of basketball’s return to unveil a symbolic demonstration that had been planned over several days inside the NBA “bubble.” The Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, including LeBron James, followed their lead in the second game of the night.
The players in “Black Lives Matter” warm-up shirts took a knee as a recording of the national anthem played in the empty arena. Some raised their fist. Others locked arms. Nobody stood.
The league has maintained a rule against kneeling during the national anthem since the 1980s, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver signaled on Wednesday there wouldn’t be punishment for those who chose to kneel given the “highly unusual times.” He confirmed that decision on Thursday night.
“I respect our teams’ unified act of peaceful protest for social justice,” Silver said in a statement, “and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our long-standing rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem.”
After the players knelt during the national anthem, the first points of the restart were scored by Jazz center Rudy Gobert, the player whose positive coronavirus test resulted in the suspension of the NBA season nearly five months ago. He also scored the last two points of the night in the Jazz’s 106-104 win.
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It was the first of what could be many protests for the rest of the NBA season among players who have embraced activism in recent years.
The unified protest stands to be a polarizing event as the collision of sports and politics intensifies. NBA players followed MLB, WNBA, MLS and NWSL players in protesting the national anthem as their sports leagues returned during the pandemic. Many of them were inspired by Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, whose kneeling in 2016 fueled a bruising clash with President Trump.
Many NBA players supported Kaepernick, but they decided not to kneel with him. Their actions now, and the league’s expected response, mark a shift on both sides.
The NBA reminded teams of the rule and suggested that it would be enforced in a memo sent in 2017, after Trump called a hypothetical kneeling NFL player a “son of a bitch” who deserved to be fired for his silent protest, the beginning of a convulsive period for sports in national politics that included the White House publicly feuding with the Golden State Warriors and LeBron James calling Trump “u bum.”
In response to the Kaepernick crisis, the NFL passed a rule in 2018 that required players to stand and “show respect” for the national anthem or stay in the locker room, but it wasn’t implemented once the NFL Players Association objected and threatened litigation. Some players continue to kneel during the national anthem. Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL for three seasons.
But the NBA kept its rule on the books, and Silver said he expected players to honor it. The league’s memo three years ago never clarified what the punishment would be if players violated the rule—and it never had to make that call. The players felt their voices were being heard and that the inevitable commotion from kneeling en masse would be counterproductive.
That changed over the past two months. The professional athletes with millions of fans and followers on social media have made it known they are reluctant to distance themselves from the simmering rage across the country as they return to work in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
The league and the players’ union say they are united in their goal of “collective action to combat systemic racism and promote social justice.” The NBA setup inside the league’s Walt Disney World bubble prominently displays the words “Black Lives Matter” on the courts. Hundreds of players replaced their names on the backs of their jerseys with personalized messages—like “Equality,” “Vote,” and “Say Her Name”—chosen from a list of political statements negotiated by the league and the union. Some of them have responded to basketball questions in media sessions by demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was killed by police in March. One of the three police officers was fired, and none have been charged criminally.
The National Basketball Players Association tweeted hours before the game that the players wouldn’t allow basketball restarting to distract from the pandemic response, the national protests or political action before the election. “Our fight will not stop,” the union said.
The league’s tacit endorsement of player activism on domestic issues comes as U.S. lawmakers are scrutinizing its foreign business.
The season of turbulence began in October with a geopolitical standoff between the NBA and China after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of Hong Kong’s protesters, and Silver has said that Beijing cutting ties with its most popular foreign sports league cost the NBA hundreds of millions of dollars. Rockets star James Harden apologized to China, and Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James said that Morey’s tweet was “misinformed.” Both players have lucrative sneaker contracts and personal business in China.
A new report on Wednesday from ESPN contained allegations of child abuse at NBA training academies in China, including one in Xinjiang, where Western governments and human-rights groups say that about one million people, the majority of them Uighurs, have been detained in what appear to be concentration camps. The NBA expanded its academies to China in 2016, and deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said the league wasn’t aware of human-rights issues in Xinjiang at the time, according to ESPN. The league said last week that it closed the Xinjiang academy last year.
The league responded to letters from Republican lawmakers probing the NBA’s relationship with China in the past month, as diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing crumbled. Senators Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) and Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) addressed their letters to Silver. The league’s replies came from Tatum.
“We support the ability of our players and other team representatives to speak out on issues of public concern that are important to them,” he wrote.
Write to Ben Cohen at email@example.com
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