It’s too bad Colin Kaepernick isn’t 6 feet 10 inches tall. Then maybe he could have played in a league that deserved him.
On Wednesday, while the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks were issuing a thoughtful, potent statement about a player’s manhandling by police, the National Football League was handcuffing its players.
After two football seasons of occasional controversy over some players’ protests during the national anthem, the league came to what it presented as a compromise: Stand for the anthem, or stay in the locker room. The protests, which Kaepernick brought to the league by kneeling silently during the anthem, will now result in fines.
From the beginning, Kaepernick and others have been quite clear about what they’re protesting: not the anthem, but racial oppression and disparities in policing. Now, as if blackballing Kaepernick from the league wasn’t bad enough, the NFL is salting the earth behind him.
Players have long been encouraged to lay waste to their bodies on the field, such that Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier’s gruesome spinal injury and slow, sad recovery has been presented as somehow inspirational. Now the league is telling players what to do with their bodies even before kickoff.
Break your knees, sure. Just don’t bend them.
Of course, the league’s owners could have done nothing at all. They could have kept cashing unfathomably giant checks while letting players peacefully demonstrate — or not — as they saw fit.
Instead, the NFL’s leaders capitulated. Whether to President Trump’s bizarre, beneath-his-office tweets, griping from fans, or their own worst impulses scarcely matters. And while some have presented these demonstrations as a protest of the national anthem and the flag (and, somehow, the troops), that claim can only come from either bad faith or alarming ignorance.
There are plenty of cases that illustrate the very real problem the protests sought to highlight, but one involves Sterling Brown, a little-known Milwaukee Bucks guard. Brown was allegedly parked illegally and returning to his car when he was confronted and then tased by police. Police initially claimed Brown had been confrontational over the parking ticket, but video released this week shows that was a lie.
The incident’s timing and its aftermath were in sharp contrast the NFL’s cartoonish crackdown on its players’ protests of exactly this sort of injustice.
“The abuse and intimidation that Sterling experienced at the hands of Milwaukee Police was shameful and inexcusable,” the Milwaukee Bucks statement read. “Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated case. It shouldn’t require an incident involving a professional athlete to draw attention to the fact that vulnerable people in our communities have experienced similar, and even worse, treatment.”
That’s how you support someone you care about — a friend, a colleague or, in this case, an employee.
It’s true that the NBA also has a rule requiring that teams stand during the anthem. But the NBA’s rule was enacted nearly 20 years ago, and though wrongheaded, it’s emblematic of a different time and a different set of circumstances. It’s not clear that the rule would be enforced now.
But what is clear, as the Milwaukee incident shows, is that NBA players are supported by their league in a way that NFL players have not been. The NBA encourages players to be active about the issues they care about, and players often are, in ways that we now know would drive the NFL up the wall. Some of the NBA’s top figures, from LeBron James to Steve Kerr, have openly taken on Trump. Gregg Popovich, one of the greatest coaches of all time, routinely offers brutally honest treatises on racism in America and the state of our politics.
The NBA provides and even encourages its players and coaches to be outspoken. The NFL? Well, the league once fined a player for writing his dead father’s nickname on the anti-glare strips under his eyes.
In that light, Kaepernick’s protests never stood a chance in the NFL. The NBC Sports website profootballtalk.com reported this week that evidence in Kaepernick’s collusion case has shown that Kaepernick, based on ability alone, was worthy of starting in the NFL.
In the NBA, that would have been enough: Kaepernick would have been welcomed, and allowed to succeed or fail on the merits of his ability. That’s an American ideal that means even more than a flag or a song. But on that issue, it’s the NFL that took a knee.Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.