The NFL may have tried to silence Colin Kaepernick, but the political tone in professional sports was anything but hushed just hours ahead of this season’s NBA tipoff on Tuesday night. While the “president” has been banking on NFL fans’ hate for players protesting the national anthem, the same bet may not prove as fortuitous for the basketball world’s top league.
Star power from players on the hard court and the gridiron has always been on unequal footing, with football players by-and-large playing second fiddle to NBA superstars. Case in point: Kaepernick, a former Pro-Bowler who came within a few downs of a Super Bowl MVP award, was far from a household name before he ever thought of kneeling for the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
In contrast, ESPN’s 2017 World Fame 100, an index of the world’s most popular athletes, included three NBA players in its top 20. (All-world quarterback Tom Brady, the NFL’s first entrant who is also a big fan of Donald Trump, came in at 21.) Each of those NBA players – Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and LeBron James – enjoy the highest caliber of name recognition and have been vocal in their disapproval of our current clown car of a White House.
But while Kaepernick has had his revenue stream dammed up for protesting this country’s social injustices at the expense of Black people, Curry, Durant, and LeBron are still cashing NBA checks while their sneakers fly off shelves and their commercials flood airwaves.
It’d be remiss to discuss the differences between activism in each respective sport without mentioning their disparate collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), which in part sets the terms for players’ earning power.
Football players are more akin to what baseball legend Curt Flood once called million-dollar slaves: However lucrative their contracts may seem, much of the money is not guaranteed, or wrapped up in incentives, with their jobs seemingly at risk each Sunday. The NBA, on the other hand, guarantees the contracts of its players, who must agree to a buyout in order for a deal to be terminated.
While both groups of athletes stand to be disciplined, or, as shown by Kaepernick, possibly banished, for bucking the status quo, its much less likely to happen in the NBA. That much was proven in 2014, when Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was rendered all but powerless as LeBron and his teammates sported “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts in the wake of Eric Garner’s murder by New York City police officers.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has come out mostly in favor of protest on the part of active players. He was supportive of the Los Angeles Clippers’ protesting then-owner Donald Sterling’s racist rants, and decided against fining players who donned those same “I Can’t Breathe” shirts which violated NBA dress code.
But now, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, widely considered to be the best league head in American sports, has made it clear that the league expects players to stand for the anthem.
That may have something to do with Silver helming a league which includes Trump mega-donors amongst its ownership ranks (the brain trusts of the the Spurs, Magic and Knicks have all given money to the president within the last 18 months.)
While more NBA fans may be sympathetic to the causes and concerns that players may or may not seek to address by protesting the anthem, the distance between the two fan bases, which often intersect, is far less than cavernous. Still, if this controversial NFL season has been any indication of what’s in store for the NBA, we’re likely to see more of the protests–and the support thereof–that promise to raise Trump’s heart rate.
Still, in reading this, should you find yourself feeling some renewed resolve, some vigor restored for The Good Fight™ that looms before and all around you and your skinfolk, pump your brakes. The NBA may be a more liberal league than the NFL, but the liberals among us behave more and more like the moderates Dr. King warned against decades ago. In this context, the term “liberal” in the space of well-moneyed franchise owners is subject to a great deal of interpretation.
Jay is a Celtics-obsessed writer and editor based on the East Coast.