Opinion: NBA dropped the ball on national anthem conversation

The NBA used to pride itself on being the place "Where Amazing Happens." Now the league is just playing scared.

That goes for Commissioner Adam Silver, who stumbled clumsily into the rage inferno on the national anthem issue Wednesday by publicly tsk-tsking the Dallas Mavericks the moment word got out that they hadn’t been playing it before games this season. 

It also goes for Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who made the decision as a political statement and didn't even own up to it publicly until people figured out what was going on, then released a statement calling for "courageous conversations" well after the fact. 

The Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks listen to the national anthem being played at Capital One Arena in January. (Photo: Brad Mills, USA TODAY Sports)

Now, whether we like it or not, we’re all going to have to have yet another round of debate about what the national anthem means, whether it should be played at domestic sporting events in the first place and whether the NBA is too woke for the average American.

And the reward for all that? By passively standing on the safest ground possible, retreating into a talking point about gameday operations instead of having a real conversation about what is right for the league and its players, the NBA is going to make people on both sides of the issue mad. Good job, everyone!

Personally? I’m tired of worrying about who’s doing what during the anthem. Play it, don’t play it; kneel, don’t kneel. What difference does it make? More than 4 1/2 years on from Colin Kaepernick controversy, the power of the moment has been lost.

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Now, every time there’s a national anthem played during a sporting event, we have basically been reduced to hall monitors checking to see who is and isn’t participating in rote acts of superficial patriotism. At this point, we’re just checking boxes. It’s no longer interesting.

Of course, that’s almost certainly what the NBA wants. Apparently, teams received memos prior to the season that they were supposed to play the anthem. Cuban did not comply. 

Now that’s a conversation worth having. Why did Cuban, who has rarely been shy about criticizing the league or jumping into sensitive politics, decide to do this but not advertise it? What kind of statement was he really making here? Why did the NBA let it slide when there were no fans in the building until a reporter noticed it? And why did the league think it was going to stamp out this fire with a statement citing the return of fans to the stadium, when it does not seem like that had anything to do with Cuban’s intent.

With Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (center) saying his team would skip the national anthem during home games, the NBA could have led the way in an important conversation about the issue. Instead, Commissioner David Stern (left) and the league stumbled. (Photo: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports)

From a 30,000-foot view, it is not difficult to see the NBA’s strategy here. This is a league that gets pummeled consistently from the political right in this country for everything from trying to make a buck in China to players spending free time trying to register voters. It’s also bleeding revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic and badly needs to build goodwill with its fans once they're allowed to come to stadiums again.

So what’s the point of stoking even more criticism over something as small as the anthem? You play the song, you stand there with your hand over your heart, you move on.  

But if the NBA should have learned anything after the last few years, it’s that you cannot win fans by pandering. You can only lose them.

People can make up their own mind about what the anthem means and whether there’s a benefit to playing it before every single game, but why be afraid to have that conversation? The NBA is never again going to be a league where it’s all about the on-court product and all issues of politics, race and social justice are left at the door. That’s not the NBA brand, and everyone who consumes the product understands that. 

To the extent that the anthem is an issue for the league, it’s one that is now cloaked in utter confusion. Does the NBA really think the anthem is important, or do they just not want to risk whatever consequences might come from being the first sports league to get rid of it? We know the answer to that. 

At the same time, if the Mavericks were going to make a point about the anthem, they did a pretty terrible job of it. And the NBA, in attempting to shut down any controversy, covered itself in kerosene and lit a match. 

For a league whose players display a lot of courage on a lot of fronts, they deserve better than pure cowardice from the top. 

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