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The NBA’s smart approach to protests



Another NFL season is soon to begin, which means another round of NFL protests and controversy. In preseason games last week, The Washington Post reported that multiple players either raised fists or knelt during the national anthem, with some of the same players speaking to the media about racial issues. And to the surprise of no one, Donald Trump ignored these issues and tweeted that most NFL players are unable to define their outrage.

As the NFL looks to deal with this issue for a third straight season, some may ask why the NBA and other sports leagues have not been embroiled in said controversy to the same extent. It is true that to some extent, the NBA has things easier. Less attention is paid to the NBA being a smaller league, and its fanbase is younger and more progressive.

But the real reason is that the NBA’s leadership has shown intelligence and moral fortitude in contrast to the NFL’s spineless attempts to assuage everyone. The NFL will likely never make the anthem issue go away entirely, but they could both lower its impact on the league and show its commitment towards fighting for social justice if they took a look at what the NBA does.

Giving Players a voice

Did you know the NBA bans players from kneeling during the national anthem? As SB Nation points out, the official rulebook in 2016-17 stated that players “are to stand and line up in a dignified posture” during the anthem. In the 1995-96 season, the NBA used that rule to harshly punish Muslim player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for not standing for the anthem and drove him out of the league.

How far would the NBA go in enforcing the rule if a player knelt today? No one knows, because no one has knelt. But while no one has knelt during the anthem, that does not mean NBA players have been banned from making political gestures during the warm-ups and on the court. Players have worn “I can’t breathe” shirt memorializing those who engaged in struggles with police. Elite coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich regularly criticize President Trump. LeBron James famously tweeted that Trump was a “bum.”

The NBA has consistently stood by its players, stating that they have the right to speak and protest. Meanwhile, the NFL in May attempted to have its teams fine players for protesting during the anthem, but they couldn’t do it.  The pressure from the players, the social media fans and the millions of fans who regularly livestream from outside the US, was too much. NFL owners appear to be more interested in fulfilling Trump’s mercurial wishes than they are in doing right by their players, but this antagonistic stance only spurs players to kneel, causing more controversy and hurting the league.

Politics and Workers’ Rights

Now is the NBA’s generous policy solely due to commissioner Adam Silver’s enlightened rule? Hardly. Part of it is due to the different natures of the two leagues. The majority of NFL players are far more replaceable than the majority of NBA players, which means that the NBA must consider the players’ wishes.

But why are NBA players more replaceable? NBA fans may argue that NBA players are more skilled, but there is no shortage of players able to replace the NBA’s role players. NBA players are less replaceable because they have guaranteed contracts while NFL players do not.

NBA players cannot be waived at a moment’s notice for temporary underperformance or for saying things which the Commissioner may not agree with. And while the NBA players’ union has certain issues and has made bad decisions (such as the refusal to go along with a cap smoothing plan which would have prevented Golden State from breaking the league), they have the freedom and power to make mistakes in contrast to a powerless NFL union.

In summation, the NBA has granted its workers, the players, greater rights both from a financial and political perspective. This makes the players feel like they are respected and part of the system, which lessens their incentives to make grand gestures like kneeling which invite controversy. The NFL by contrast exploits its players as much as possible, which creates rancor and makes them less inclined to adhere to league directives. The contrast between the two leagues and the different results could even serve as an example to our global economy, as nations must figure out how to ensure social stability under globalization.

There are those who argue that the NBA can still do much better to fight for social justice. But by giving NBA players guaranteed contracts, letting them speak freely without punishing them, and showing a commitment towards listening to their concerns, the NBA has managed to avoid the mines which the NFL has consistently blundered into for the past few years.