NBA players and owners have a chance to reset an uncomfortable conversation about systemic racism when the season tips off this week.
The league has watched with great interest at how the NFL has struggled with Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem, seeing a protest initially motivated by racial injustice and police brutality transformed into an argument about a perceived disrespect for the American flag and perceived anti-patriotism. In recent weeks, NBA owners have been in discussions among themselves and their players about what statements can and should be made and how to prevent their message from being swept into the divisive political discourse in which the NFL has been caught.
"The movement has been hijacked," a member of an ownership group told B/R last week. "When those demagogues say the athletes are ungrateful, we all know they're really saying, 'You insert racial slur here.'"
The league office and its owners appear ready for statements of some kind, though the exact nature is unclear. B/R spoke with two owners who were present at the board of governors meeting the first week of training camp, when the matter was discussed. After the meeting, a lengthy memo was drafted by the league office and distributed to the 30 teams. A copy was obtained by B/R, and at the bottom, it reiterated standing respectfully for the national anthem was a league rule, not something teams could bend and change at their will.
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"The intention was never to reinforce it to the players," a high-ranking league official said.
Added the member of the ownership group: "There's something that's off-note. It just doesn't feel right for predominantly white owners of teams to tell predominantly black players how they should protest, how they should express [themselves]. That's up to them.
"I don't want to sound paternalistic and try to dictate how any of our players who grew up in their own situations as black men in America ... should express themselves other than they do it in a thoughtful and respectful way."
Kobe Bryant said if he were playing today, he would kneel, following the example set by Kaepernick and other NFL players. LeBron James has rarely been afraid to voice his opinion on social matters, going as far as calling President Donald Trump "U bum" on Twitter when Trump went after Stephen Curry for Curry's reticence to visit the White House this season.
LeBron James @KingJames
U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!2017-9-23 15:17:24
As of now, NBA players have not become political targets the way some in the NFL have, but the league is acutely aware of how the NFL didn't help with its inconsistent messaging and bowing and cowing to the whims of political pressure in a divisive time.
The potential challenges NBA owners will face was such a huge topic the league suggested ways for franchises and players to directly impact their respective communities.
The memo proposed creating "Building Bridges Through Basketball" programs as a way to unify youth, community leaders and law enforcement, while also recommending establishing team initiatives and partnerships in the way of criminal justice reform.
As for the optics, the NBA encouraged having a player address the crowd on opening night prior to the national anthem or putting together a video PSA.
While the memo did not intimate what punitive action would be taken, if any, should a player or team personnel member not stand for the anthem, the owners with whom B/R spoke acknowledged the risk that comes with that decision.
"There's a bit of frustration that our guys, our players, should they choose to protest ... will be cast by the demagogues as being somehow unpatriotic or anti-military or anti-American values when the exact opposite of that is true," the member of the ownership group said. "Kneeling down is thoughtful and respectful. You're at risk of being co-opted. But it's thoughtful and respectful."
The biggest worry from his ownership group and the rest of the league's owners is players falling into the same rabbit hole of diversionary tactics that has caught the NFL, leaving the Kaepernick movement co-opted by extreme members of the opposition who have no interest in a serious conversation about the issues, the member of the ownership group argued.
Another owner present at the board of governors meeting addressed his team upon returning.
"What I told the guys was, if you're gonna take a knee or lock arms or whatever, just do it respectfully. And do it as a group, as a team," he said, while also suggesting the NBA not play "The Star Spangled Banner" because of its troublesome verse referring to slaves, believing "America the Beautiful" would be a more appropriate song.
When asked what he would do if a player didn't want to lock arms but rather make his own individual statement or gesture, the owner sighed and said: "You know what? I don't know. That would be for the league to handle."
Another league official suggested there would be no disciplinary action taken by the NBA, citing the example set by WNBA teams who've used the anthem to protest societal issues without being fined.
"I'm just as interested as the public to see what will happen when Cleveland plays Boston," the member of an ownership group said, pointing to James' history of taking strong stances without veering into a controversy like the one surrounding the national anthem.
Though there's sure to be a reaction to anything that's done when the regular season begins, the owners believe they would respond differently than their counterparts in the NFL. Around a third of NBA teams have undergone ownership changes since the start of the decade, with one owner saying, "We're a lot more progressive than owners in other sports—at least the owners I'm close with in the NBA."
Players also have more personal relationships with their owners and the league, in part because of the smaller roster sizes and also because Commissioner Adam Silver is viewed as more player-friendly than his predecessor, David Stern.
Silver got rid of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling when his bigotry was revealed, and he has modified league procedures that appeal to the better interests of players and their long-term health. And though he did encourage the Warriors to accept an invitation to visit the White House, he did so saying he hoped it would present an opportunity to voice concerns about issues important to them with Trump.
If Silver is cashing in his goodwill with the players by gently nudging them to use a platform other than the national anthem, the players may capitulate, knowing the level and volume of criticism sure to head in everyone's direction with a tweet from the president.
"I don't know if owners are going to the league or Adam and saying, 'Help us,'" one owner said. "We're going off their recommendations and how they see it. We know Trump is dividing the country."
Both ownership sources acknowledged protests are meant to be uncomfortable, and because of that there is no perfect answer in how to approach an uneasy fanbase, especially the faction who would want to discuss anything but the subject at hand.
"The challenge for all of our guys is, 'How do I use the platform as an athlete during the national anthem in a positive way to send the message I want to send without allowing the demagogue on the other side to turn that around and suggest I'm doing something I'm not doing?' That's what they gotta figure out," the member of an ownership group said.
There's also the challenge of being comfortable with a certain amount of discomfort and what will happen should the players or any player step outside of those parameters. Separately, the owners brought up James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul's speech at the ESPYs over a year ago as a model they quietly hope is followed, but they also hope players do not stand idly for the sake of comfort. According to the two owners, they're not concerned about losing money or fans, a noble thought that's yet to be put to the test.
Backing those words, however, will likely require action.
So when the inevitable backlash comes to whatever the NBA players decide, the owners can make a statement by strongly backing their players.
It's clear the NBA has made preparations and taken precautions for the rocky days ahead, but to endure everything that may come its way, it'll need to forge a new path of response, one built by players and owners together.
Vincent Goodwill has covered the NBA for a decade and presently covers the Bulls for NBC Sports Chicago. Follow him on Twitter: @vgoodwill.