In the “nice while it lasted” category, per the team’s owner, Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks were not playing the national anthem before home games.
And bravo to him for doing so, even if the league has now clamped down with the vise-like grip of corporate reality in a move that makes the notion of player power clear.
In a statement, Cuban said in part, “The hope is that those who feel passionate about the anthem being played will be just as passionate in listening to those who do not feel it represents them.”
In 2017, after the latest NFL-anthem kerfuffle, my view was that the anthem has no place in a workplace. Your business doesn’t play it before the start of a workday. Mine doesn’t either. The NBA, NFL and NHL are workplaces to the athletes and other personnel who comprise the structure of those leagues. Yet the anthem is something else entirely, an overt expression of national pride and fidelity. My view on its appropriateness hasn’t changed in the years since.
The NFL and other professional sports are in the middle of a firestorm of patriotism because of player actions during the playing of the national anthem. Players are using the occasion to protest. Teams are considering forcing players to stand. The president has turned it into a flash point. Everybody is fighting over a few minutes of music but nobody is asking whether, in the context of the business of a corporate moneymaking enterprise, its use is appropriate.
In other words if we didn’t put the anthem where it doesn’t belong, maybe people wouldn’t use it in the wrong way.
But in 2017, the anthem dispute had its foundation in players kneeling. Since then, a very different kind of kneeling has roiled America, when a police officer knelt on the neck of a Black man until he died, kneeling in a way that many believed mimicked the gesture made famous by social justice activist (and former NFL quarterback) Colin Kaepernick.
In the wake of a nation erupting in a cry for social justice, everything changed, including sport. “Stick to sports” no longer was possible as so many Black athletes realized that they were a traffic stop and some aggression away from being George Floyd. And players across all sports reacted. The WNBA took a stand, one so significant that it helped propel a Black candidate to the U.S. Senate from Georgia, displacing the white incumbent who is also the team’s owner. Black athletes spoke out, marched and took a stand against what they believed to be a codified system of oppression, one that doesn’t feel much different in 2021 than it did in 1960.
But the idea of patriotism also has changed, not only in the wake of a January insurrection that many claimed was protecting the Constitution. Proponents of Blue Lives Matter, a diametric opposite of Black Lives Matter, adapted the U.S. flag in creating its banner, so often seen at events in opposition to social justice, including the storming of the Capitol. What is patriotism and what does it mean now? Is it protest? Is it lockstep adherence to a social system that most benefits a certain part of America? These questions are rightly being asked as a nation wrestles with a legacy of injustice and the reactions of the oppressed.
Every last damn bit of this puts the anthem in a very, very different context. As one of the more progressive NBA owners, Cuban connects with his players in a way that makes him unique even as he can’t as a wealthy, white man understand what his Black employees must live with in America every day. But maybe, just maybe, he can take an action to make their workplace a little less hostile — yes, hostile — by reconsidering the rote action of playing music that represents, for many, not national pride but the sound of oppression.
An NBA spokesperson told The Athletic on Tuesday that “under the unique circumstances of this season, teams are permitted to run their pregame operations as they see fit.”
But on Wednesday, NBA communications chief Mike Bass issued what can only be described as a deeply wrongheaded proclamation, that “With NBA teams now welcoming fans back into their arenas, all teams will play the national anthem in keeping with longstanding league policy.”
No, “We understand the view of our players and their stance on social justice, and will work with teams to find an appropriate solution.” Just essentially, do it and shut up about it.
It’s worth noting that America is the only country that features the anthem as part of pregame professional sports activities. Other leagues all over the world just start the games, with anthems being heard only at national team contests. Why is that so different in America, aside from the misapplied in the anthem context “national”? National Basketball Association. National Football League. The word denotes inclusion rather than patriotism.
When Mavericks players knelt during the 2020 season, Cuban voiced his support of them. In a since-deleted Tweet from July, Cuban said “The National Anthem Police in this country are out of control. If you want to complain, complain to your boss and ask why they don’t play the National Anthem every day before you start work.”
He ain’t wrong.
From a business perspective, as an owner and manager, Cuban has an obligation to make his employees comfortable. But he would be a fool if he didn’t also recognize that America is a very different country in the wake of the Floyd protests, the storming of the Capitol and other events in which patriotism and the very idea of it has become subverted, even perverted. Is the playing of the anthem now, “Well, we’re playing it for the good part of what it means, not the bad parts it might represent”? What might people in the stands be thinking as the anthem blares over a venue’s sound system? They can’t all be in lockstep with traditional notions of patriotism. Are they attuned to shifts in those ideas and what it might all mean for them? What might foreign players on the roster think of the playing of the anthem? It isn’t theirs.
The NFL let players choose to remain in the locker room for the anthem rather than forcing them to stand, a move that was, for the NFL, progressive. Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League had their own rules and social justice protests as players chose to take a knee. In a recent tournament in Orlando, Fla., without fans, the MLS didn’t even play the anthem. And the idea of social justice and related actions is spreading. The top-tier pro soccer league in England has players and officials take a knee before every match in support of the struggle against racism, an outgrowth of having Black Lives Matter on the backs of player shirts last season.
Social justice isn’t just a thing now. It’s life. And it’s perfectly fair to ask about the place of one of the most overt American symbols, the anthem, in a place of business where people who might be oppressed work.
Cuban chose an interesting, progressive and very brave path.
It’s also the right path.