Anyone hoping to see political protest on Tuesday night at the start of the NBA season turned off their televisions in a state of disappointment. Some teams did link arms during the anthem, a gesture whose significance was explained by Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra in the following way: “We felt as a basketball team that we would do something united, so that was our focus.” If that sounds like depoliticized mush that mentions nothing about black lives or police accountability, well, that’s the point.
The NBA has long branded itself as the NFL and MLB’s more politically conscious cousin: the “woke” sports league. Yet, as the Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg said a century ago, “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”
The one person on opening night who did “move” was not a player but the singer of the national anthem in Philadelphia. Her name is Sevyn Streeter and she was going to take the court wearing a jersey that simply said, “We Matter.” Somehow that was too controversial for the 76ers organization. They prevented her from taking the court, quickly giving the singing duties to one of the team dancers. Speaking to the Associated Press, Streeter said, [T]wo minutes before we were about to walk out…the organization told me that I could not wear my shirt…. I was never given any kind of dress code. I was never asked beforehand to show my wardrobe…. I was angry, extremely, extremely angry, and disappointed and honestly brought to tears by all of it. It broke my heart. Honestly, I was very excited about being able to perform the national anthem. I was really looking forward to that…I also felt it was important to express the ongoing challenges and ongoing injustice we face as a black community within the United States of America—that’s very important to me. Yes, we live in the greatest country in the world, but there are issues that we cannot ignore.
In response, the 76ers wrote the following in a press release:
The Philadelphia 76ers organization encourages meaningful actions to drive social change. We use our games to bring people together, to build trust and to strengthen our communities. As we move from symbolic gestures to action, we will continue to leverage our platform to positively impact our community.
This statement was similar to the corporate boilerplate language that we have also heard from league Commissioner Adam Silver about facilitating any kind of community action that players might want to do, as long as they keep it off the court. In a letter co-signed by Michelle Roberts of the NBA Players Association, they wrote, “Working together, [the league and the union] have begun developing substantive ways for us to come together and take meaningful action.”