NBA to players and coaches: You must stand for the national anthem

For our latest edition of “professional sports organizations really don’t get it” we highlight the National Basketball League.

A Friday memo sent by the league to all players and coaches made a point of reinforcing an existing rule that everyone is required to stand for the national anthem. It then goes on to suggest other options for engaging with a protest that’s gripped the NFL and spilled into the wider world.

These details come from ESPN, which obtained a copy of the memo sent by deputy commissioner Mark Tatum. He stopped short of making any specific threats, noting only that “the league office will determine how to deal with” anyone that doesn’t comply.

Tatum notes that individual teams don’t have the authority to waive the league-wide rule. He also adds that disciplinary actions in cases where players and/or coaches do not follow the rules should be left to the league.

The memo suggests pre-game remarks or a pre-recorded video as alternatives for those wishing to engage with the politics of the moment. Of course, setting institutional guidelines for what does and doesn’t qualify as a “valid” protest diminishes the potential impact of such activities.

Tatum’s memo followed comments by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who restated the NBA rules relating to the national anthem at a league meeting on Friday.

“It’s been a rule as long as I’ve been involved with the league, and my expectation is that our players will continue to stand for the anthem,” he said. Like Tatum’s memo, Silver offered no specifics on the disciplinary actions that might be taken for those that break the rule, stating only that “we’ll deal with it when it happens.”

In essence, Silver’s defense of the rule is: That’s the way it’s always been done. It’s not the most compelling justification, especially given the wishy-washy “we’ll cross that bridge later” plan for dealing with rule-breakers.

So now we wait. In this charged political climate, it seems inevitable that the very challenge of “You must not do this, because rules” will be met by a player or players who see things differently. The rule is only a rule because it’s been written out; it remains to be seen what will happen when that rule is challenged.

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