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Why it’s time for NBA players to get off their knees

A call to take protest to the next level, as WNBA players have forcefully done

Last year at this time, I criticized Jay-Z for prostituting himself to the NFL by declaring that “we’re past kneeling.”

Jay-Z made his comments during a news conference with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

At the time, a number of performers were keeping their distance from the NFL because of how the league had blackballed former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling in 2016. Jay-Z was trying to get a seat at the NFL table, he said, to have a greater impact. And the NFL was using Jay-Z as a lure. The news conference was a signal that the coast was clear: It was cool for Black performers to come back to the NFL.

A year later I’m saying the same thing as Jay-Z — we’re past kneeling – but for a dramatically different reason.

We are beyond kneeling because the resistance that kneeling represents has been totally hijacked by the very system it aspires to reform.

Before the NBA restart, I encouraged players to make a statement. And they have. Statements on the court, statements on their jerseys. But a week into the season, it all seems like a cliché, especially when you see what the WNBA is doing.

Everyone in the NBA is kneeling: team executives, coaches, players. Corporate-branded kneepads are probably next.

From the league’s perspective, allowing players to kneel during the national anthem was a gesture that symbolized unity and reinforced the idea that “we’re all in this together.” Except, we are not all in this together.

Everyone is not in lockstep, probably many more are not. Some players may simply be along for the ride. That’s why we’re beyond kneeling.

A crack in the NBA’s unity shield emerged on Sunday when Jonathan Isaac, the young Orlando Magic forward, stood while the national anthem was being played, becoming the first NBA player to stand during the restart.

Isaac did not wear the Black Lives Matter T-shirt that has become the adopted uniform of NBA players during the league’s restart. Without knowing Isaac’s politics or his rationale for standing, I applauded his courage for breaking away from the pack. We say that we want athletes to speak up and speak out, but that cuts both ways.

“Jonathan has always been an independent-thinking individual,” Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton told me Wednesday during a phone conversation. Hamilton coached Isaac for a year at Florida State.

“He’s extremely religious, a devout Christian and a deep thinker. I’m sure decisions he makes about how he responds is something he’d given a lot of thought about.”

On Sunday, Isaac tore the ACL in his left knee as he drove to the basket during a game against the Sacramento Kings.

Much of the response to Isaac’s injury on social media was cruel, with some suggesting that the universe was paying Isaac back for not kneeling. The universe was reminding all players that careers are fleeting, that one should stand up for one’s real beliefs, because that may be the last thing people remember you for.

Where was all this kneeling five months ago before the league was unplugged? No NBA players were kneeling then, nor were they kneeling in 2016 when Kaepernick started it. Now that the league and National Basketball Players Association have created a safe space, everyone is taking a knee. Some players are raising their fists as they kneel.

Yet when Miami Heat guard Jimmy Butler decided to make a more profound statement last week, the league stepped in and said no.

Before the Heat’s game against the Denver Nuggets, Butler came out with a jersey with no name on the back. A nameless jersey. Of all the slogans NBA players have put on the backs of their jerseys, this was the most insightful and provocative.

Butler’s point was that he is every Black man. On the court, he is a celebrity, but off the court, driving his car and being confronted by racist police officers or white vigilantes, he’s just another Black man whose life could be snuffed out.

That clearly was too heavy — or abstract – for the NBA. Officials made Butler change into a jersey with his proper name on the back. Butler could have threatened not to play, he could have refused to remove the jersey, but he told reporters after the game that his team needed him, so he let it go.

But the encounter sent a simple yet profound message about the tolerance corporations have even for sanctioned protests: you can help yourself — but don’t take too much.

It is indeed time for NBA players to get off their knees and take protest to the next level, as WNBA players have forcefully done. Those players are in the midst of a real battle. On Tuesday, players for the Atlanta Dream and other WNBA teams began a campaign of defiance directed at the Dream’s co-owner, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. The players wore T-shirts endorsing Loeffler’s Democratic opponent, Rev. Raphael Warnock. Their T-shirts read, “Vote Warnock.”

Loeffler has publicly disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement and wrote to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert to put a stop to the league’s Black Lives Matter initiative, which, Loeffler said, was divisive. She also opposes the #SayHerName movement and advocated for players to add the American flag to their jerseys.

“We can’t really do anything about her ownership,” Atlanta’s Elizabeth Williams told ESPN. “That’s not something we can control. We can control who we vote for.”

The T-shirt campaign was reportedly the idea of Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird, one of the WNBA’s most high-profile players. On her Twitter account, Bird wrote: “We are @wnba players, but like the late great John Lewis said, we are also ordinary people with extraordinary vision.”

Whether it’s Maya Moore leaving basketball to free a man who was wrongly convicted or players demonstrating against police brutality or kneeling in support of Kaepernick, the WNBA has often been more aggressive about activism than their richer, more glamorous NBA colleagues.

WNBA players have vowed to continue to wear the T-shirts throughout the season.

This is activism.

The NBA, meanwhile, is stuck in the empty pageantry of kneeling as the national anthem is being played.

If the NBA really wants to get ahead of the curve, it should become the United States’ first major sports league to stop playing the national anthem before games. Beyond satisfying an age-old ritual, what contemporary point does the anthem serve except to deepen divisions — as it did for Isaac – as we contemplate the true meaning of patriotism?

We are in an era of deeds, not words. And we are way past kneeling.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.