It’s been nearly 18 months since Kobe Bryant last lined up on the court during the singing of the national anthem before an NBA game. If he was going to do it this season, though, the Los Angeles Lakers legend and future Hall of Famer says he wouldn’t stay standing for very long.
During an interview for the Hollywood Reporter’s “Awards Chatter” podcast pegged to the animated adaptation of his farewell poem, “Dear Basketball,” which has begun to generate some Oscar buzz, the shooting guard-turned-storyteller fielded a question about what he’d do during the performance of the national anthem if he were still in the league and had a game that night. His one-word reply: “Kneel.”
You’re a person reading about sports on the Internet in 2017, so you know that Bryant’s chosen form of conduct draws on the protest launched last year by Colin Kaepernick. The then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback chose to sit, and then kneel, during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before NFL games in protest of the oppression of black people and other people of color. That choice drew loud criticism and support alike, both inside and outside the NFL, with some athletes in other sports following in Kaepernick’s footsteps and taking a knee during the national anthem in solidarity with his protest of police brutality and systemic inequality.
Kaepernick’s ongoing protest sparked response from many NBA players and multiple NBA coaches. With more than three-quarters of NBA players identifying as people of color and the league standing as America’s most progressive major pro sports outfit, that support seemed like a prelude to similar protests prior to NBA games last season.
Those protests didn’t really come to pass, though, as players and teams elected to stand and lock arms in fairly vague displays of “unity.” Such collective gestures — which have continued during the NBA preseason, and in the NFL regular season — have come in for criticism as unchallenging, and too vague and sedate to constitute a real statement of solidarity with those opposing racial inequality. The stand-and-lock-arms gesture also stops short of violating the NBA’s rule requiring players, coaches and trainers “to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.”
The emotion surrounding the issues at play reached a fever pitch last month. President Donald Trump decried ongoing protests by NFL players, asking attendees at a rally in Alabama if they’d “love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired,'” which sparked a new round of demonstrations from NFL players and teams.
The president also took aim at the NBA, responding to Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry’s disinterest in visiting the Trump White House — a customary in-season trip for the defending NBA champs when they’re scheduled to play the Washington Wizards in Washington, D.C. — by saying the Warriors’ invitation had been “withdrawn.” The NBA world closed ranks around Curry and the Warriors. LeBron James took to Twitter, proclaiming the president a “bum,” and many other players, coaches, executives, owners and legends expressed both their support for standing against social injustice and their opposition to the president’s divisive policies and rhetoric.
Given the ratcheted-up antipathy between the players and the president, and the renewed focus many players seemed to have in highlighting the initial aim of Kaepernick’s action — not protesting the national anthem itself or disrespecting the military or the flag, but calling for an end to the oppression of black people and people of color in America, and for an end to violence against non-white people by police officers — it would not be surprising if some players felt a bit more like kneeling this time around. Before the start of the 2017 preseason, though, the NBA sent a memo to all 30 teams reminding players of the league’s rule about standing respectfully for the anthem, and saying “the league office will determine how to deal with any possible instance in which a player, coach or trainer does not stand.” (I’m with our Michael Lee in thinking that punishing players for using their voices and platforms in this manner at this time would be a very, very bad look for the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver.)
If a player refuses to stand for national anthem, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said league will "deal with it when it happens."
— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) September 28, 2017
While Bryant says he’d kneel, his former team opted to stay standing before their preseason opener.
“I think [our players] chose to show that we are united in this and that obviously, they have a ton of respect… well, I will let them speak for themselves, but I have a ton of respect for the country, the flag, the military,” Lakers coach Luke Walton told reporters. “But by locking arms, I feel like we are showing that there are issues in this country and it is a chance for us to raise awareness and still make it a talking point. If you do nothing then it kind of goes away, and if it goes away, then nothing changes.”
Of course, it’s a bit easier for Bryant — who has levied criticism of Trump on Twitter, and who said during the podcast interview that he’d advise the president to “focus on serving, not leading” — to claim that he’d take a knee when he’s comfortably on the other side of retirement and not subject to any blowback for the choice. Several players, including LeBron, have said that they plan to stand for the anthem even though they support the principles of Kaepernick’s protest and oppose the comments and stance of Trump.
Despite the league’s memo, New York Knicks center Enes Kanter, who has been very outspoken on matters of political unrest and social injustice in his homeland of Turkey, said that he wanted to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem prior to the Knicks’ preseason opener against the Brooklyn Nets. The team as a whole, though, decided instead to remain standing and lock arms.
Whether other players will go all the way to “actually kneeling,” as Bryant said he would, very much remains to be seen. The threat of punitive action from the league office could have a chilling effect on those who feel like Kanter; then again, it could embolden them.
“[Silver] didn’t say nothing wrong to us. But he said, ‘You have no choice,’” Washington Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall told The Vertical’s Chris Mannix. “Well, now people say, ‘I have a choice.’ It’s like if you are injured, you have a choice to play through it or not play through it. You just have to deal with the consequences. At the end of the day, you know what the consequences are. You have to be willing to accept it.”
Earlier this summer, Bryant made a bit of a social media splash with a marketing effort in which he issued a variety of challenges to Wall and other players. Now, we’ll find out if anyone’s willing to accept the challenge of making the statement Kobe says he would if he was still suiting up.
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