For the NFL, the issue of players kneeling during the national anthem remains an issue and distraction, in part because it’s a good wedge issue for President Donald Trump. It’s red meat to Trump’s base, other news sources pick it up, and then a rather ridiculous and distracting discussion (that strays from the actual issues) stays in the spotlight.
The anthem has never been a real issue for the NBA (at least not this time around, it was with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf years ago). When the anthem issue was discussed on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher this week, Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer spoke for the NBA and quickly nailed why it’s not an issue.
That certainly is part of it. From NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on down, the league has encouraged players to speak out on social issues, to use their platforms, to make statements. NBA owners, even ones who politically disagree with the statements, encourage them. The players don’t feel the need to make a statement in the same way.
Part of that is the power dynamic between NBA owners and their star players is different — in the NBA, the elite players have it and own it. In purely practical terms, no NBA owner would push back hard against LeBron James, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, or any other star player on a social justice issue because those teams would feel the backlash quickly. Due to basic supply and demand, elite NBA players have a lot of power and they are learning how to wield it. A team that held back its stars in that way wouldn’t have any stars on the roster very quickly.
However, the primary reason the NBA doesn’t have an anthem issue is its core demographic is different from the NFL’s — it’s younger, it’s more diverse, and it’s more urban. If you prefer the political term, it’s much bluer than the NFL. If an NBA player protested during the anthem there would not be near the same vitriol and pushback from the fanbase, in fact, most would support the move. It’s a key reason President Donald Trump taking Twitter shots at the NBA or is players doesn’t have the same impact.