When LeBron James voiced his opinion on the topic of anthem kneeling last month, saying “My voice and what I do in my community is more powerful than getting on a knee,” he was speaking for the NBA masses.
In a league nearly three-fourths African American, where even NBA legend Bill Russell posted a picture recently of himself kneeling in support of the NFL players, this has been a popular stance. And while some players might kneel when the regular season starts Tuesday – either to raise continued awareness for racial injustice or to oppose the actions of President Trump – it’s unlikely we’ll see a widespread movement that’s anywhere near the level of the NFL. A significant part of the reason, as James hinted, has everything to do with the fact that players are maximizing the power of their platforms off the court during this divisive time.
“Everybody has the liberty of (kneeling), and they should (have that freedom),” Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday in Oakland Calif., where he launched a newly refurbished gym and courts for kids and reiterated that he has no plans to kneel. “I think a lot has been said about how the NBA guys – and definitely the case in the NFL, too – are actually doing stuff on the back end and using their platforms and their connections and their networks and money to actually (make a difference).
“It feels good to have that kind of impact, to help actually create change in the ways that you can. … The attention needs to be on that, and how that’s impacting the community as opposed to 130 guys kneeling in the NFL. That’s great, but this is the stuff that matters and this is the stuff that can actually move the needle when it comes to impacting the next generation.”
The NBA, long seen as the most progressive sports league, has been navigating tricky waters of late.
When Commissioner Adam Silver chose during a press conference on Sept. 28 to highlight a league rule that says players must stand for the anthem, and when deputy commissioner Mark Tatum followed the next day with a memo to teams reminding them of the rule, it sent a surprising message that seemed to run counter to the league’s longstanding ethos. This is the league that ousted Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his racist rant and moved the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte because of anti-LGBT laws.
But while there was some grumbling from players behind the scenes about the curious way in which the anthem rule reminders came from the league office, there was no public backlash.
It served as the latest reminder that, from Silver to National Basketball Players Association head Michele Roberts on down, the year-round partnering on projects that are meaningful to players goes a long way toward securing the league’s integrity on this front. And as the country has grown more divided, the players’ efforts to fight back in the community have soared to a new level.
According to the NBA, which often publicizes individual community events but doesn’t typically share comprehensive data, there have been approximately 175 events, programs and/or initiatives involving players since July of 2016. During that same time, as part of the “In Real Life” campaign with MENTOR, a nation-wide mentoring program, and President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program, they surged past the five-year goal to recruit 25,000 volunteers as mentors, and it's headed to 50,000.
The timeline coincides with the 2016 ESPYs, when James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul stood on stage wearing black suits and discussed the need for social action. Their shared message was high-profile athletes could no longer afford to stay quiet on these important issues.
Then came the Anthony-driven community conversation in Los Angeles later that month, when Team USA’s men and women interacted with 50 local kids and 20 LAPD officers who took part in the “Building Bridges through Basketball.” The scene was repeated in New Orleans, Chicago and Detroit, with more cities to come. Locals take part in two-and-a-half hour sessions for 10 weeks. The curriculum includes on-court activities and a civic playbook that focuses on real-life lessons.
Participants polled following the New Orleans seminar after All-Star weekend – in which 89% of students said they felt trusted and appreciated by police after the event, 86% expressed concern for racial equality and 100% said they wanted to attend the program again – raised hopes among those involved that the technique can be effective in the long term. Along the way, with people like Kathy Behrens (the NBA’s President of social responsibility and player programs) and Sherrie Deans (Executive Director of the NBPA Foundation) helping players determine where they might make the most meaningful impact, the desire to give back in ways that go beyond an anthem kneeling grew even more than before.
“I think the message is getting lost in the kneeling, for a lot of us, with all the narratives that are being brought out of it,” Memphis point guard Mike Conley told USA TODAY Sports. “People (in the public) can kind of say what they want about everybody’s kneeling, but I think I’m more about the action, more about voicing it.
“I feel like the guys in the NBA have done a really good job, since the players have spoken out on it, of just being vocal. (They’ve been) showing you what their stance is, and what they’re trying to do about it, and hopefully the mindsets and the gears change towards just being productive on that front.”
“I hope that we continue to talk about police brutality, systematic oppression, racism, that we continue to have these conversations,” Dallas Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes told USA TODAY Sports. “When you look at why (Colin) Kaepernick took the knee (last year), it was to bring attention to a topic, to have that conversation. Now whether or not we’ve truly had that conversation, or if it’s been more about the anthem or the protests or now Trump jumping on that bandwagon, it’s still up in the air.
“But … regardless of whether people take a knee in the NBA or not, more players will continue to use their voice to continue to do projects and continue to give back to communities, continue to help bring reconciliation and healing to this problem that we have. I think that’s the most important thing that can happen.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick.