While the overwhelming concern for the NBA in its return to action is the health and safety of its players and staff during the coronavirus pandemic, the murder of George Floyd has added a strong social justice element to the NBA’s plan.
Players recently expressed strong concerns that the return of basketball would be too distracting to the very serious social justice issues at hand. Protests following Floyd’s death included several NBA and WNBA players, including the Boston Celtics own Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Enes Kanter and Vincent Poirier. One of the players’ concerns before approving the return was finding a way to continue their fight for justice while restarting the season. The NBA and the Players Association agreed to a plan that would allow players to continue voicing their concerns.
“We’ve been working with (NBPA Executive Director) Michele [Roberts], Chris [Paul] and Andre [Iguodala] and several other players on a shared goal that the season restart leads to collective action towards combating systematic racism and promoting social justice,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last Friday in a conference call with reporters. “This includes strategies to increase Black representation in all positions across the NBA and its teams, ensure greater inclusion of Black-operated businesses across NBA business activities, and the formation of an NBA foundation to expand educational and economic development opportunities across the Black community.”
The league may allow players to display social justice messages or slogans in place of their names on their jerseys. The league will also paint “Black Lives Matter” on all of the courts during the remainder of this season.
However, those are two small steps, and players may have other forms of protest in mind. One is expected to be kneeling during the national anthem which will reportedly be played before all games. Today, Silver was asked if players would be allowed to kneel, considering the NBA has a rule requiring them to stand.
“I am not comfortable with the word ‘allow,’” Silver said. “I think we have had a rule on our books that goes back to the early ’80s that precedes even David Stern’s tenure as commissioner that calls for players to stand in a line and attention during the national anthem. I also understand the role of protest and I think that we’ll deal with that situation when it presents itself.”
That league rule was famously violated in 1996 by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets, who sat during the anthem until he was suspended without pay until he reached a compromise with the league.
While Silver’s vague answer left the door open for any league reaction, any sort of league discipline for a form of protest will almost certainly be met with resistance from the Players Association.