Two hours before Donald Trump called him a son of a bitch, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills was sitting at his dining room table in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, eating a bowl of spaghetti during a break from a B/R Mag fashion shoot and explaining why he decided to kneel during the national anthem in the first place.
Stills, 25, was one of the few NFL players who joined Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racism and police brutality for the entirety of the 2016 season. It was September 11 of last year, and Stills had called his old Pop Warner coach—a Marine veteran—to explain his decision: “He told me that he hoped I wouldn't take any kind of stance about this situation or the American flag,” Stills said, staring at the table, his jaw tightening at the memory. “That was tough for me to hear, but it wasn't very hard for me to stick to what I felt like was right. I prayed about it and knew I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I didn't do something.”
Something is happening, all right: Athletes are sticking to what they feel is right, because sticking to sports is no longer an option. Not after Stills finished his dinner and the American president—the commander-in-chief—said what he said about Kaepernick and the NFL in Alabama, tweeted what he tweeted about Steph Curry, and then tweeted some more.
The third week of this NFL season became historic as Stills and hundreds of players knelt or locked arms or just plain didn’t come out of the locker room.
And the first days of the NBA preseason became something like the Roman forum of tweetstorms as LeBron James and dozens of leaders in the most progressive of the professional sports leagues called the president’s comments an “outrageous” “embarrassment” from a man who “needs to get his shit together.” (“If Colin Kaepernick were in the NBA,” Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy told B/R Mag, “he'd have a job.”)
In the 72 hours between Trump’s speech in Alabama and the entire Dallas Cowboys team taking a knee before the anthem on Monday Night Football, B/R Mag interviewed 32 people on the record—11 current NFL players, five NFL fans, four NBA players, three WNBA stars, two NBA head coaches, two NBA owners, two agents, one commissioner and the CEO of a nonprofit—about what happens next.
The methods and motivations to respond were different, but the message permeating pro football and basketball was clear: Silence is impossible, and there’s no turning back now.
“I told them that if they wanted to protest, we can discuss what their goals are and work towards achieving those goals,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told B/R Mag in an email on Monday, of conversations with his players this week. “That my preference is that they stand with their hand over their heart. But I would respect their choices.”
In moments like this, when the leadership vacuum is deep and wide enough to feel like you’re falling to the sunken place in Get Out, it’s tempting to look for answers in unusual places. Sometimes it’s a late-night talk show host or a famous actor; at the March on Washington in 1963, it was Bill Russell joining Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and representing, as former NBA Commissioner David Stern told B/R Mag, “the stake in the ground” for sports activism.
Right now, athletes are learning how to be a new kind of hero. Something is happening here, and it is not “for the culture”—it’s a culture war. It is not simply about “unity” or “division”—it is the product of a movement about racism, about police killing people of color. Going forward it may be a bunch of semi-accidental 20- and 30-something activists who turn it into action, who figure out how to deal with racism just like the rest of us: one weekend at a time.
“We’re finally talking about issues that are usually swept under the rug,” Knicks center Joakim Noah said Monday in New York. “Because somebody takes a knee, we’re finally talking about what’s important.”
Inside the Locker Room, an American Melting Pot
Three hours and one very close game after he’d stood during the national anthem, arms linked with his New England Patriots teammates—Trump golf partner Tom Brady among them—defensive end Cassius Marsh sat outside his locker in Foxborough, Massachusetts, preparing for questions about his protest. “It’s a unifying thing in every locker room: You support your guys,” said Marsh. “I’m mixed—I grew up with a black family, a white family, Native American family. I’ve seen all different kinds of sides of things. I’m not picking a side. My side is people.”
All around the New England locker room, the shared purpose was there: “We talk about those things in private, and we just want to see change,” Phillip Dorsett said. “I love them,” said Brandin Cooks, his fellow wide receiver. “I love my neighbor. That’s what The Word said to do, right?”
Cooks was talking about the New England fans booing him for taking a knee—and many more at home trolling the 24-year-old son of a Marine. But he might as well have been talking about the culture of the American sports clubhouse, where men and women from all walks of life, many from humble circumstances and self-made, shower next to each other, dress with each other, go into “battle” together.
The locker room can be a refuge, but now its secret conversations and evolving dynamics—from racial tensions exacerbated by Trump’s candidacy to Kaepernick’s activism education on the fly to an inconsistent but nonetheless widespread protest sparked by Trump’s presidency—are splaying out in public. It’s fitting that the Seahawks and the Titans, the Steelers and almost the Raiders—the teams that avoided protest not just in silence but behind closed doors—spent “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Sunday where they did.
“We wanted to stay in the locker room as a unit,” Los Angeles Sparks center Candace Parker told B/R Mag, before her entire team skipped the anthem at Game 1 of the WNBA Finals in Minneapolis on Sunday. “Some believe in kneeling; some don't. We shouldn't put people in that position, and so I feel like we're going to stand united in the locker room, not being disrespectful to America, the country that we love, the country that we're fortunate enough to play basketball in.”
Inside locker rooms across the country, a sense of purpose is developing. It has to, here inside one of the last influential American melting pots.
As Americans, we love using military analogies to describe our sports—bombs, shots, blitzes—but our athletes are not soldiers. They aren't employees of the state. They're citizens, like you and us. Maybe not exactly like us, if you look at their bank accounts or their vertical leaps, but they have opinions...opinions with which we might not always agree. Still, they are forced to learn to live with contrary ideas in a way so many of us never have to, due to the sheer level of intimacy they have with their diverse co-workers. That's why you see these attacks from President Trump affecting athletes so much: These aren't just colleagues; they're brothers and sisters.
“The locker room is definitely a sacred place to all athletes,” Connecticut Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike of the WNBA said Sunday. “The reason why sports is being targeted is because it’s the most pure form of American culture. If you have talent, it doesn’t matter what you look like. It doesn’t matter what gender you are, it doesn’t matter what background you have. You play and help your team win. And that is synonymous with American culture. So when you attack athletes, we obviously are going to stick together because we feel we represent much more than the game.”
In the NBA, a Partnership—and a Knee?
David Fizdale had an eye on football as he spoke Sunday from Memphis, where he is working to rid the city of Confederate statues while coaching the Grizzlies.
And he was proud.
Proud of the now-infamous “U bum” tweet from LeBron James directed at Trump—not for those two words but for sticking up for Steph Curry’s revoked “invitation” from the White House, for “really showing that it don’t matter what team you play for, an attack on him is an attack on me and what’s right is right.” Proud of football players who were picking up the mantle of King and Muhammad Ali. Proud of fellow NBA head coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, “who could easily stay on the sidelines on these issues and not say a word, but because of their deep belief in humanity and what’s right, they stepped up for our guys and they stepped up for our league and they stepped up for our country.”
Most of all, Fizdale, who was born to a black mother and white father, was proud that he was about to begin another season of keeping his players informed about basketball but also about civil rights and women’s rights and transgender rights. “It’s my obligation to make sure that they understand what’s going on in society and what’s going on as civilians,” Fizdale told B/R Mag. “The job isn’t done.”
The job of the athlete as activist—or at least the star athlete as would-be uniter—may be easier in the NBA, and not just because of the guaranteed contracts and the lack of face-obscuring helmets. Once embroiled in racial and cultural tensions of its own, pro basketball had Bill Russell, then accepted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s religious conversion and largely supported Magic Johnson when he announced he was HIV-positive. Indeed, it was in the NBA where Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf protested the national anthem in 1996, though teams then reacted to him much like NFL clubs have to Kaepernick now; it was WNBA players who spoke out against police brutality in peaceful protest before a more conservative NFL created the ideal environment for Kaepernick to make his statement on inequality in America.
Of course, James can call Trump “U bum” or “that guy,” has worn an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt in response to Eric Garner’s death and taken a photo with his team in hoodies after the killing of Trayvon Martin. But in the last year, NBA players still haven’t taken the highly visible actions of their NFL brethren—haven’t put their endorsements or short-term contractual futures on the line. “LeBron is more presidential than our actual president,” Ogwumike said. “He handles personal beef with diplomacy,” said Indianapolis Colts linebacker Joshua Perry. But as LeBron himself said on Monday: “My voice...is more powerful than my knee.” (Indeed, kneeling during the anthem is not allowed, according to NBA rules.)
Trump says “[t]he issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race,” but that’s exactly what it’s about. That’s what it’s always been about, and to deny that is to deny the grievances of African-Americans. (“I can’t be a role model if I’m not a role model in every aspect of my life—I can’t remove the fact that I’m black, because that’s who I am,” Imani Boyette of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream said, adding that “we have to have white allies speaking.”) And Stern, who as commissioner oversaw the NBA’s transition into a business fashioning itself into the hippest sport in the country (albeit one with an arguably racist dress code), sees a tipping point.
It’s almost as though the success of the NBA was like a political movement in effect, because we were busy battling. —David Stern, former NBA commissioner
“I would say our relationship with our players is grounded in a mutual effort, going back decades, to fight racism,” Stern told B/R Mag on Saturday. “It’s almost as though the success of the NBA was like a political movement in effect, because we were busy battling.
“It’s fair to say that people now, as [Trump] has debased the presidency by insulting a war hero like John McCain, by failing to do what he should have done after Charlottesville, and equating those who were opposing hate speech with the hate speakers, people are just losing their patience and they’re looking for heroes to speak up. And for better or worse—and I say for better—sports heroes are being looked to, to say more than just, ‘We played hard.’”
As for Kaepernick’s wave of protests making their way to the NBA this year, after a 2016-17 season focused on community work over kneeling: According to a source with knowledge of the discussions, players from multiple NBA teams—including Washington, Detroit, Miami and New Orleans—were on text chains over the weekend, both about whether they might demonstrate and how to respond to Trump’s comments at multiple team media days on Monday. But that choice might fall to the likes of President LeBron.
“Is it possible? For sure,” Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie said when asked about a possible anthem kneel on the hardwood. “But I think at least as far as our team goes, it will be a group decision.”
In the meantime, athletes are trying to make sense of everything—the systemic racism, the pandering symbols, the president saying the flag and heroes existed on his turf—just like we are. The difference is in their being public figures.
“NBA owners are far more supportive of their players,” Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry said. “I’m not saying NFL owners are not,” he clarified, and who could argue that the NFL owners—even and especially Jerry Jones down on a knee—were not trying...something?
“I think the NBA views their players as their partners,” Lasry continued. “It’s their league. I think it’s totally up to them, and whatever they do I support. If I was a player, I’d probably be speaking out.”
Learning to Protest
Since he decided to speak up and kneel down, Kenny Stills has seen firsthand the consequences of being an athlete and an activist at the same time. “Contracts, marketing deals, all kinds of things have slowed down for me or just been less, because I’ve used my voice in a way that higher-ups don't really like or want to hear,” he said Friday, over spaghetti at his home in Florida.
But he wound up signing a four-year extension with the Dolphins, in no small part because Stephen Ross was the type of owner who founded RISE, an organization that has encouraged players to speak out and this week launched a campaign for players from the NFL and the NBA to register to vote.
Initially, Stills wasn’t even going to take a knee this season—an act of solidarity with Kaepernick, whose agent had said that even Kap wouldn’t kneel for the anthem if he got signed, which of course he hasn’t. Stills remains adamant that the Dolphins themselves would have signed Kaepernick were it not for Jay Cutler’s relationship with his head coach.
“It’s bullshit that he's not on a team,” Stills said of Kaepernick. “If one owner came out and said, ‘We didn’t really agree with what he was doing and we didn’t understand it, but now we do’—whatever the honest truth is for the owners, and I don't know what that is—that’s when I'll feel like we've done something.”
While he remains upset that the NFL did not at least support Kaepernick’s efforts against police brutality, Stills has focused on learning more about his activist bent—he read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow during training camp. “It's really...kind of hard on your happiness and your soul to read about a lot of the stuff that goes on,” he said. “You just feel let down by it, and by the people you're supposed to have a ton of respect for.”
“It’s frustrating when the league doesn't seem to care about things we care about,” Stills said, ticking off the NFL’s top causes of cancer awareness, promoting healthy diet and exercise for children, and Salute to Service. “But what about what’s most important to the players? What about the future of your league? The league is majority black. The future of your league are these young, poor, black kids, and what are you doing for them? You’d hope that they’d at least pretend like they gave a fuck about us, or the future of their sport and their league and all that money. It’s all going to come from these young kids that, right now, feel like you don't care about them.”
The NBA, he added, “does a really good job of supporting what their players do.”
By Sunday, the “U bum” tweet had gone around the world, and Curry had said his piece, and the playing of the “The Star-Spangled Banner”—that passive moment of reverence, reverse-engineered by the NFL and the U.S. Department of Defense to drum up patriotic sentiment as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on—had become an act of defiance, of unity, of figuring it out together, somehow.
Stills found Trump’s comments so “bizarre” and “unbelievable” that he and three other members of the Dolphins decided to kneel after all. “We had a group of guys that wanted to kneel, and it would have been their first time,” he said from the visitors’ locker room at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. “I didn't want those guys to be by themselves.”
Across the locker room, Dolphins tight end Julius Thomas was wearing an #ImWithKap T-shirt and agreeing that “our league has had some of the largest backlash—the NBA players have been allowed to do their thing, and it's probably because football is like, America’s game.”
And he was right: Football is America’s game, despite everything. But even before Trump attacked our games and tried to claim “our flag, our country and our heroes” as his own, a new kind of hero was emerging.
“People welcome me places because of the things that I've accomplished in my life, athletically,” Thomas said. “If I hadn't, I'd be in the same position as the people who are screaming for equal rights. I can't go home to my family and tell them I love them and I care about them—and I had the opportunity to stand for them, and didn't take it.”
“I don't think that inequality is going to stop,” he said, “by next Sunday.”
Dave Schilling, a B/R Mag writer-at-large, reported from Los Angeles. Natalie Weiner, a B/R Mag staff writer, reported from Fort Lauderdale and East Rutherford. Additional reporting by Jonathan Abrams in Charlotte and Oklahoma City, Howard Beck in Brooklyn, Tyler Dunne in Foxborough, Mirin Fader in Los Angeles, Vincent Goodwill in Chicago, Matt Miller in Joplin, Missouri, and Yaron Weitzman in New York.