Les Carpenter – The Guardian/November 11, 2016
The NBA engenders an climate of open dialogue that’s made basketball players more willing to speak on social issues – and it’s more important now than ever
The NFL and NBA have roughly the same racial profile with African Americans comprising 68 to 74% of their rosters. They have long been leagues dominated by athletes of color and should be places where essential social issues involving race are discussed. And yet when it comes to the actual expression of their players’ voices the two sports are worlds apart.
While NFL players like Colin Kaepernick have spoken out about racial inequalities and police shootings in recent years, their voices are lonelier on those issues than in basketball, where stars feel emboldened to address the problems they see in their communities. The conversation Kaepernick said he wanted to start when he began kneeling for the national anthem this summer has been a dialogue in the NBA for some time. That is a condition of the two leagues: football has always been a controlled world, while basketball has felt far more free.
The difference has become vivid in the days before and after Tuesday’s presidential election. Many basketball coaches, including Golden State’s Steve Kerr, Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, expressed grave concerns about the divisive rhetoric spewed through the campaign by president-elect Donald Trump while NFL coaches like New England’s Bill Belichick and Buffalo’s Rex Ryan, along with Belichick’s quarterback Tom Brady, appeared to actively support him. Others have remained silent.
“I don’t think anybody can deny this guy is openly and brazenly racist and misogynistic,” Van Gundy said about Trump this week. “We have just thrown a good part of our population under the bus and I have problems with thinking this is where we are as a country.”
“The man who’s going to lead you has routinely used racist, minsogynst, insulting words, that’s a tough one,” Kerr told reporters before Wednesday’s game.
Contrast that with Belichick who wrote an election-eve letter to Trump declaring: “You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media and have come out beautifully – beautifully.” After the vote Belichick stonewalled when asked how his locker room made up of mostly non-white players would react, eventually answering only with the name of this weekend’s opponent “Seattle.”
Then there is Ryan who introduced Trump at a rally in upstate New York this past spring, and in typical Ryan fashion, blustered on about Trump being a man who spoke his mind, never really backing away when some of his players were said to be unhappy with his support for someone who spoke dismissively of America’s poorer cities. “Right now, I’m just a football coach,” he said last month.
But this is still the way of football, where open-minded coaches like Seattle’s Pete Carroll and Los Angeles’s Jeff Fisher are still rare. Football coaches have always demanded complete control over their subjects, running their teams like military operations. Football coaches despise distractions and work to create a culture where their players are discouraged from speaking out. This was apparent in the way each league reacted to the introduction of an openly gay player.
When basketball player Jason Collins announced he was gay in April 2013, he was accepted with little trouble and had two productive seasons in the league before ending his 13-year career the following summer. Before the 2014 NFL draft, Michael Sam, the top defensive player in the top college football conference said he was gay and tumbled to the bottom of the draft. The attention surrounding him was so extreme, few teams appeared to want to deal with him and he soon drifted away.
Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe – an outspoken advocate for gay rights and other social issues, did not seem stunned by the difference in reactions by NFL and NBA coaches to Trump’s election when contacted by the Guardian this week. Kluwe’s battles against football’s approach have been long and public. It was only natural to him the NFL’s coaches would not see the Trump election and the new president’s raging campaign language as a reason to have a conversation with their players. This week, was as he expected. Business as usual.
“It’s because NFL coaches are fucking cowards who think a children’s game is more important than the health of the country that allows that game to exist,” Kluwe said. “They preach ‘leadership’ all the time in the locker room but clearly their idea of ‘leadership’ is bending a neck to the fascist boot, which come to think of it is how they run their teams.”
Two days after the election, The Undefeated’s Marc Spears profiled Popovich’s understanding of race and the issues that affect his players. Despite the fact Popovich is white man, close to 70, with more of a military background than almost all of the football coaches who pride themselves on running their teams like generals with headsets, he has spoken eloquently about working to understand his players’ life experiences.
“There might not be a head coach more “woke” than this 67-year-old, opinionated, sarcasm-loving, world adoring and socially aware white man named Gregg Popovich,” Spears wrote.
If only the NFL’s coaches were listening to men like Popovich too.