If NFL wants anthem issue to go away, then take a page from NBA

The most liberal, socially active professional sports league in the country is the NBA, a league that has a rule that players must stand for the national anthem. So those criticizing NFL owners for relatively caving to a knucklehead in the White House and his lemmings by passing a rule that mandates players also must stand for the anthem – or stay in the locker room -- are missing the point.

It’s not about a two-minute song. It’s about the league’s culture.

The NBA has two of the brightest, most articulate, widely respected, socially conscious and outspoken coaches in sports history: San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Golden State’s Steve Kerr. They are just as comfortable discussing gun laws and the political landscape as they are offense and defense, and because of that, they’ve become faces of the league.

The NBA is diverse. The league embraces social activism, and progress, and change. Not only do league officials and team executives and coaches not discourage players from speaking out on issues, they welcome it.

Not everybody feels comfortable on that stage. I remember once asking former Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer about an issue, and he just smiled and said, “Ask Pop.” But Budenholzer didn’t beg off the subject because he feared a backlash from owner Tony Ressler or NBA commissioner Adam Silver. It’s just not his thing to talk about anything but basketball.

The NFL’s problem isn’t so much that it has fumbled this entire anthem issue for 21 months, even if that’s undeniable. It’s that the league always has been solely focused on revenue streams and new stadiums and appeasing corporate partners, while showing little-to-no interest in using its incredibly large and powerful platform of an NFL season to affect change.

Nobody talks about the NBA’s anthem rule.

Everybody is talking about the NFL’s anthem rule.

Why is that?

Why does the knucklehead in the White House feel compelled to cause divisiveness in a speech in Alabama, and at every turn on Twitter, and to go on his bought-and-paid-for house organ of a “media” outlet, Fox and (Stepford) Friends, and state after the NFL’s decision: “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be playing. You shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”

That’s it. Deport Colin Kaepernick. Back to … Milwaukee?

I don’t care what the NFL’s motivations were this week. (Obviously: money.) It’s far more important to me what the NFL does to show it understands WHY players are protesting … and to allow them the space to breathe and act and speak their minds … and for owners to not just pay lip-service to caring about issues by crafting empty and antiseptic statements and holding way-too-short news conferences (see: Wednesday). Action is what matters most.

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross started RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality), which already is doing great work to use sports as a vehicle to “improve race relations and drive social progress.” Scott Pioli, the Falcons’ assistant general manager, is on the board of directors and sat on a panel for a symposium during Super Bowl week in Minneapolis.

NFL players and teams have opened a dialogue and plan to work together on some initiatives, which Falcons owner Arthur Blank told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution eliminates much of the reason for an anthem protest. "The issues haven't been resolved, but the goal has been achieved and that's to work together to find solutions," he said.

On some level, that’s true. But the NFL didn’t look great Wednesday when it initiated a new policy without any input or agreement from the NFL Players Association. Even if this wasn’t a collective-bargaining issue, should this not have been treated with that level of importance?

Once again, the league responded to an issue with arrogance and seemingly just wanted to get past things, end the spring meetings and leave town, with as little exposure or mud-splatter.

Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who hasn't kneeled during the anthem but has shown support for teammates that have, took to Twitter immediately after the NFL rule was announced:

“This is a fear of a diminished bottom line. It’s also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation. This is not patriotism. Don’t get it confused. These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it. It also lets you, the fans, know where our league stands. I will continue to be committed to affecting change with my platform. I’m someone who always looked at the anthem as a declaration of ideals, including the right to peaceful protest. Our league continues to fall short of the issue.”

I have a proposal: Chris Long for NFL commissioner. He beats the cardboard cutout currently in office. The NFL needs leadership with a soul, not just in the league office but in ownership and management.

If the NFL really wants this anthem issue to go away, it will give players a reason to stop protesting. It will show it cares.

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