The Celtics, the Anthem and the NBA's Progressiveness


On October 4, the Boston Celtics bowed their heads and held hands during the national anthem prior to their preseason opener against the 76ers in Amherst, Massachusetts. This was an homage of sorts to the 1960-61 Celtics who, amidst the African-American civil rights movement, held hands in the same cross-armed fashion in a team photo featuring Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and coach Red Auerbach among others. Auerbach’s legacy in the NBA extends beyond his nine championship victories, as he: 1) Drafted the first black player, Chuck Cooper, in 1950, 2) Became the first coach to have an all-black starting lineup in 1964 and 3) Hired the first black coach, Bill Russell, in 1966.

Colin Kaepernick's stance on remaining seated for the national anthem is one of the most divisive topics in sports I've ever witnessed, not solely because of what he did and people's reactions, but the way he did it. Kaepernick was the only 49er who remained seated during the anthem of their first preseason game. Since then, we’ve had groups of players kneeling during the anthem, raising a fist after it, or both, while Kaepernick did his thing alone. Not to mention he caught the country off guard by doing it first. I support Kaepernick and every athlete to follow suit, but it’s important to point out why people reacted the way they did — Kaepernick alienated himself. It’s easy to point fingers and deem someone as “the problem with this country” — if you can narrow it down to one person. He put an entire movement on his shoulders, and I respect the hell out of him for it.

What I love about the NBA is that not only does it allow for protest, but it fosters the opportunity for social change. Sure, the NFL hasn’t punished players for protesting the anthem, but they also haven’t sufficiently punished players for a lot of things. And I mean a lot of things. The NFL is, however, fining players for honoring lost loved ones by writing their name on their eye black. How can football players be inspired to make a change with so many restrictions? With your career being one tackle away from ending, it's hard to put your brand on the line. 

Let me be clear — you can’t blame the commissioner for the state of the NFL. That would be giving him way too much credit. Ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw football players holding hands? When have you ever seen two opposing teams with their arms around each other before the game? Players like Kaepernick will take a stand, but what will it take for the entire team to stand with him? Historically, every athlete across every major sport has stood for the national anthem without question, yet we’re having a hard time finding players who will stand up for their own teammates. Like Ricky Jerret from Ballers, I find myself asking, 'Where’s the love, NFL?' Shaq kissed about a dozen players on the court, so why won’t football players hold hands on the sidelines?

Back to the Celtics, Kevin Garnett talked about how Boston is a brotherhood.

It’s basically a three-minute Adidas ad, so maybe Garnett was following a script. I don’t know, but when Kevin Garnett talks, people listen. And when a star joins or emerges on a Boston team, it’s not just their teammates who rally around them — the entire city. In the 15 years of watching Tom Brady, there has been no such cultural impact. Every year,  it's Tom and Bill vs. the world while the Red Sox become Boston Strong and the Celtics embody the spirit of Ubuntu. More than anything, the players are the ones who dictate the culture of a sport. The NBA’s players and the league promote togetherness. That’s what makes it possible for Adam Silver to move the All-Star game out of North Carolina because the players have set the precedent. 

In week 4 of the NFL season, the Seahawks linked arms during the national anthem on the sideline for the fourth straight week. Around the league, 26 other players protested the anthem according to ESPN. The Seahawks will get their due credit, but how is it that the Knicks and Rockets had more players standing together during the anthem than every non-Seattle NFL team put together? We have no reason to expect Roger Goodell to create a healthier reputation for the NFL if the players won’t reflect that reputation. On the flip side, if the players took it upon themselves to improve football’s image, we wouldn’t even care what Goodell’s thoughts are, just like we don’t have to worry about Adam Silver making controversial decisions.

Boston is by no means the Polaris star of racial equality and acceptance — but as a basketball fan and human being — it's worth your while to appreciate the Celtics franchise’s impact on the sport for what it is. David Stern wasn’t the most likable commissioner we could ask for, but he led the NBA through some dark times and saved the sport from becoming completely irrelevant. Think about it: If you were the NBA commissioner in the 80s and the worst thing you did was rig one of the draft picks, I’d call it a job well done. Now we get to enjoy a time where basketball is booming in popularity and our favorite players, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, have a platform where they can advocate for social change knowing their teammates and millions of adoring fans will have their back no matter what. Be grateful that your favorite players are able to do this, because a guy that played in the Superbowl (arguably a greater accomplishment than anything Carmelo has done) as a rookie wasn’t offered the same level of support.

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