NBA’s national-anthem demonstrations fall short of Colin Kaepernick’s meaningful protest

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP
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NBA teams are locking arms during the national anthem, believing they’re continuing the legacy of Civil Rights marchers in the 1960s and Colin Kaepernick today.

They are not.

Civil Rights marchers and Kaepernick took courageous stands against racism. NBA teams have so far responded with a demonstration too inoffensive to work.

Kaepernick found a nearly perfect protest method. He remained peaceful, drew attention and then advanced the discussion of police violence against blacks. By sitting then kneeling during the national anthem, Kaepernick shocked the senses of the viewing public. Though many have overly focused on his method of protest, they still wanted to hear his justification for such a “radical” demonstration.

But take a step back and consider whether Kaepernick’s display is truly outrageous. What’s a bigger affront to American values, someone sitting for a song or the country not providing full rights and protection under the law to its black citizens? Though not everyone has thoughtfully considered Kaepernick’s point, many have been forced to confront that question.

At best, NBA teams have distracted from Kaepernick’s message. At worst, they’ve undermined it.

Not every NBA team is locking arms for the exact same reason, but the buzz word has been “unity.”

Unity, of course, would be fantastic. But it’s such a vague goal, it allows people to ignore real problems.

Many will say they’re for unity. Are they willing to speak out against police killing people who are disproportionately black? Are they willing to speak out against a criminal-justice system that is more likely to treat blacks more harshly at every step than their white counterparts in similar situations? Are they willing to speak out against housing discrimination that has left black people disproportionately in poorer, less safe neighborhoods with worse schools?

That’s the unity we need – everyone standing together against specific injustices.

What NBA players are doing is the equivalent of someone responding to #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter.

Well, yeah. Of course, all lives matter. But people who respond to #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter are nearly always just trying to change the subject. Rather than listen to genuine concerns from #BlackLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter takes exception to the initial phrase. When it’s time to discuss whether a life mattered after the latest incident of police killing an unarmed black man, #AllLivesMatter is nowhere to be found.

There’s a real ignorance to the problems black people face in this country. Kaepernick is bringing attention to them. NBA teams are allowing people to ignore the specific issues and focus on a feel-good message of “unity” (and providing an excuse to hammer Kaepernick for not protesting more “respectably”).

Messages of unity too often lead to blaming those who recognize the divide, not those who perpetuate the divide.

I believe NBA players have their hearts in the right place, and many have shown they care through meaningful community work. That matters a great deal and shouldn’t be ignored. Neither should the fact that these are professional basketball players who have no obligation to take political stands.

But once they decided to demonstrate during the anthem, players are trying too hard to unite with their teammates who may hold differing views and conform to the NBA’s anthem rule that requires standing in a dignified posture. If you design a protest to appease your coworkers and bosses, you’re probably going about it the wrong way.

Not only is the message too milquetoast, so is the gesture fronting it.

If NBA teams locked arms during the anthem two months ago – before Kaepernick protested – nobody would have noticed or cared. It certainly would not have been perceived as a protest, let alone one on racial issues.

The Celtics best exemplify why NBA teams are falling flat in their anthem protests. They modeled their anthem posture after the 1960-61 team, which posed for a photo with black and white players crossing arms and holding hands:

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But 2016 is not 1960.

In 1960, Jim Crow still ruled the South. College teams across the region remained all-white. The Redskins, playing in our nation’s capital, hadn’t even integrated.

Black and white Celtics holding hands was itself an act of defiance. So was Civil Rights marchers locking arms in the South. Many Americans opposed integration and blacks’ right to peacefully assemble.

Black and whites teammates holding hands does not carry the same weight in 2016. All major sports leagues, pro and college, are integrated. When it comes to blacks and whites playing basketball together, there isn’t another side to demonstrate against.

While Kaepernick kneeling signals a clear protest, you could go to a Celtics game and have no idea the team is protesting – let alone ever bothering to find out what they’re protesting.

And what are they protesting? This team-posted video provides little real information:

There’s a lot more of that around the league, players speaking in overly vague terms about their anthem protests.

Raptors forward Jared Sullinger provided, by far, the strongest statement I could find from from an arm-locking player:

“We felt great (about the protest) because at the end of the day we know what is right from right and what is wrong from wrong,” Sullinger said. “And what is going on in the United States is wrong. I just hate how it is going. I just wish people would wake up and open their eyes and understand that minorities are getting picked on. It’s obvious.

“We are not progressing,” Sullinger said. “We are regressing. As time goes by all those long fights that all these people, who sacrificed their lives for, it’s almost like making a mockery of it. At the end of the day, we can make a change. I’m talking from my nephew who is 13 years old to my dad who is 67 years old. We all can make a change some way. Every gesture matters.”

Does every Raptor player and coach who locked arms agree that minorities are getting picked on, that racism is worsening? That’d be a heck of a lot of unity – a meaningful amount. If so, I’d like to hear every other team member speak to it.

Right now, NBA teams aren’t saying much.