KERRY HUBARTT: Strengthing partnership between players/owners is answer

Kerry Hubartt

After the NFL approved a new policy Wednesday to prevent players from kneeling during the national anthem, Golden State Warriors basketball Coach Steve Kerr called it “idiotic” and proceeded to praise the way the NBA handles such matters.

“I’m proud to be in a league that understands patriotism in America is about free speech,” he said after a shoot-around Thursday in advance of Game 5 of the conference finals in Houston. “It’s about peacefully protesting. I think our leaders in the NBA understand that when an NFL player is kneeling, they were kneeling to protest police brutality, to protest racial inequality. They’re weren’t disrespecting the flag or the military, but our president decided to make it about that, and the NFL followed suit and pandered to their fan base by creating this hysteria.”

The NFL policy was instituted as an attempt to end a tumultuous controversy that began when Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and racial inequities in the justice system.

Kneeling caught on with other players throughout the league through the 2017 season even after Kaepernick left the 49ers and is heading into his second year without a job. And the issue created divisions across the country about freedom of speech versus the rights of NFL business owners and the whole issue of patriotism.

Under the NFL’s new guideline, players will be allowed to remain in the locker room while the anthem is being played. Any violation of the rule would result in fines levied against the teams, not the individual players.

Commissioner Roger Goodell called it a compromise.

So were Kerr’s comments a bit disingenuous? Not only does the NBA have its own policy about the national anthem, it had its own poster child for the issue long before Kaepernick came along in the NFL.

The NBA rule, which mandates that players and coaches “stand in a dignified posture” during the anthem, has been around for decades. Last September, the league sent a memo to general managers and team presidents in which NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum wrote, “The league office will determine how to deal with any possible instance in which a player, coach or trainer does not stand for the anthem. (Teams do not have the discretion to waive this rule).”

On March 12, 1996, citing that rule, the NBA suspended Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Raul for one game for refusing to participate in the national anthem pre-game ceremony.

Writer Jesse Washington recounted Abdul-Raul’s story in a Sept. 1, 2016, report for The Undefeated when the Kaepernick protest story was making the news. “The players union supported Abdul-Rauf,” Washington wrote, “and he quickly reached a compromise with the league that allowed him to stand and pray with his head down during the anthem.”

But the Nuggets traded their leading scorer to Sacramento at the end of that season, and at age 29, when his contract ran out two years later, Washington wrote that he couldn’t get so much as a tryout with any NBA team.

So when Kerr told USA Today, “They’re (the NFL) just playing off their fan base, and they’re just basically trying to use the anthem as fake patriotism, nationalism, scaring people,” was he being fair to the NFL?

“… when it comes to the dynamic between a league and its players,” Sam Amick wrote in the USA Today story, “the parallels between the NFL and NBA begin and end with the existence of an anthem rule. (NBA Commissioner Adam) Silver has fostered an immense level of trust from stars and role players alike, with both sides consistently working together to spark positive change when it comes to social issues.”

“Adam and his leadership, I do feel like we’re partners,” Kerr said. “Players, coaches, management, the league’s management — I do feel like we’re all partners.”

The NFL players’ union said it wasn’t consulted in the talks that led to this week’s policy statement.

That’s not partnership. Perhaps working to build that partnership would be a better approach than dictating policy.

Kerry Hubartt is the former editor of The News-Sentinel.