Discourse over national anthem looms for NBA, other leagues
Rick Carlisle isn’t sure what to expect from players during the national anthem when the NBA season resumes in empty arenas in Florida.
The Dallas Mavericks coach does know how he will react if players kneel or otherwise violate a longtime league policy that requires them to stand during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“We support our players 100% in terms of their ability to express themselves individually or as a group if they wish,” Carlisle said. “I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like in Orlando. There could be different forms of expression. But our country is a free country.”
The death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police in May sparked fresh questions across sports about kneeling during the anthem and the gesture has been seen from European soccer to North American auto racing. Former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the latest movement in 2016, saying he was protesting racial inequality and police mistreatment of minorities.
Since sports resumed following Floyd’s death, players have knelt worldwide, at professional and even youth sporting events. And NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league was wrong not to acknowledge the right of its players to peacefully protest, a move that perhaps prompted new criticism from President Donald Trump, who has long opposed kneeling during the anthem.
There’s no indication of any leagues skipping the anthem despite empty venues.
“It’s kind of a declaration we’re still here,” said Adrian Burgos Jr., a University of Illinois history professor who has studied issues of minorities in pro sports. “This is how much the anthem has become part of the pageantry of spectator sports in the United States.”
On the eve of the Fourth of July holiday, here’s a rundown of the major North American sports leagues and their approaches to the national anthem — a longtime fixture at games.
The policy calling for players to “stand and line up in a dignified posture” has been around almost 40 years. There were two instances during the 2016 preseason of singers — both female, one white, one Black — dropping to a knee as they performed the anthem. Both said they did it to call attention to systemic racism.
It is believed that the NBA not only expects, but will encourage, players to make statements about the need for social change when the season restarts. Commissioner Adam Silver, speaking at a Time 100 event this week, suggested the league isn’t sure what will happen if players choose to kneel.
“We’ve had a rule on our books that goes back to the early 1980s, that precedes even David Stern’s tenure as commissioner, that calls for players to stand in line at attention during the national anthem,” Silver said. “I also understand the role of protest and I think that we’ll deal with that situation when it presents itself.”
The WNBA has the same policy, but players have not been disciplined for kneeling.
Because Kaepernick was the first to kneel during the anthem, the NFL has always been at the epicenter of the debate. League policy at the time was murky on whether players were required to stand. But there were vocal owners, such as Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, who threatened to bench players if they didn’t stand.
Ultimately, the NFL settled on a policy that players and non-playing personnel were “expected” to stand, while giving players the option of staying in the locker room during the anthem. Through it all, there have usually been at least a few players who knelt and never faced discipline.
The tide shifted suddenly after Floyd’s death, with several NFL stars essentially daring the league to keep them from kneeling if there are games in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Goodell responded quickly.
“We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” Goodell said in a video in early June. “I personally protest with you and want to be a part of the much-needed change in this country.”
Plenty of players, including young star quarterbacks Baker Mayfield in Cleveland and Arizona’s Kyler Murray, have made it clear they will kneel. So has Houston coach Bill O’Brien and Carolina coach Matt Rhule might, too.
Baseball’s guidelines have the flexibility to allow for personal choice, and former Oakland catcher Bruce Maxwell was believed to be the first in his sport to do kneel during the anthem in 2017, not long after Trump criticized NFL players.
While the NBA has said it will have multiple outlets for expression of social causes assuming its season resumes, MLB is considering similar possibilities with the 60-game season set to start July 23.
Texas Rangers manager Chris Woodward said he and his players have had several discussions in the wake of protests around the country over Floyd’s death.
“I felt it was very important for a lot of our, especially minority players, to share their feelings with their teammates,” Woodward said. “I don’t know where we stand as far as how the anthem is going to play out. But I will support our team. I will support our players individually if they have personal beliefs that they feel like they need to share.”
The NHL rule book does not address player behavior during the national anthems at its games. Protests have been rare; Tampa Bay forward J.T. Brown raised his right fist during the anthem before the team’s first road game of the season in 2017.
The National Women’s Soccer League revised its anthem policy after most players knelt during the anthem before season-opening games last weekend at the Challenge Cup. The NWSL was the first pro sports team league to resume or start play since the shutdown. Some players were criticized for not kneeling, so the league will allow players to stay in the locker room during the anthem.
“The NWSL stands behind every player, official and staff member,” NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird said. “Kneel on the field. Stand with your hand over your heart. Honor your feelings in the privacy of the locker room or at midfield.”
The largest auto racing series in North America for years had specific guidance for its teams to stand, helmetless and hatless, with right hands over the heart during the anthem. That language was removed less than a month ago as NASCAR goes through a reckoning of its own.
North America’s biggest pro men’s soccer league has had a policy supporting freedom of expression for players, and Commissioner Dan Garber sent a note to league staff supporting that right three years ago when the Kaepernick debate was raging.
AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this report from Miami.