The former NBA Commissioner claimed in an upcoming podcast that Kaepernick would still have a job if the NFL had been more progressive.
Former NBA Commissioner David Stern is full of crap.
Stern’s attempt to imply that the NBA is somehow more enlightened – dare I say “woke” as a middle-aged white man – by claiming that Colin Kaepernick would still have a job if the NFL had suspended him is not just revisionist history.
It’s pure fiction.
Stern’s comments about Kaepernick on Thursday are intellectually disingenuous. They come from a man whose league squelched free speech long before the NFL dealt with the issue. It’s almost insulting.
Now, don’t misread this as a defense of the NFL’s handling of Kaepernick. That was ham-fisted as well. Fact is, no professional league (or entertainment enterprise of pretty much any kind) has ever been great at dealing with protest.
And while I will grant that the NBA of today features athletes who are far more socially active and outspoken than their NFL counterparts and the league does a fine job of embracing them, let’s not pretend that the lines over what an NBA player can do weren’t established long ago.
Stern, however, is turning his league’s history into a fairytale.
“As we were digging out of a terrible hole for us — in the late ’70s and ’80s, when there was a fair amount of racism exhibited about players — we felt as a matter of policy we had to promote our players and show that they were real people,” Stern said during an appearance on the Bloomberg Business of Sports podcast, which will air on Feb. 18.
“And it worked.”
Really, David? Can we ask Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf about that?
In 1992, Hodges had been a member of the NBA champion Chicago Bulls. When the Bulls visited the White House after that season, Hodges dressed in a dashiki and presented a letter to President George Bush that expressed his anger over how minorities and the poor were treated under the Bush administration. Hodges also had the temerity to criticize teammate Michael Jordan for not speaking out politically.
The 31-year-old Hodges never played in the NBA again. He never even got a tryout. While he was a backup who was clearly on the downside of his career, he was also a useful role player who had lead the league in 3-point percentage twice. And the league made him go away. Even Phil Jackson, his coach with the Bulls, wondered aloud why no team gave him a chance.
It’s also worth noting that one of Hodges’ teammates at the time was Golden State coach Steve Kerr, an intelligent man who also likes to sometimes ignore the history of his league. On Thursday, Kerr piggybacked on Stern’s shot at the NFL via Twitter.
Kerr didn’t just forget about Hodges, he also forgot what happened with Abdul-Rauf, another playing contemporary.
In March 1996, Abdul-Rauf beat Kaepernick to the anthem protest by two decades. In the aftermath, Abdul-Rauf was immediately suspended and fined by the NBA. He was also threatened with further suspension if he didn’t stand. The NBA PR machine likes to claim that the league “negotiated” a settlement on the Abdul-Rauf case with the players’ union.
It was more like do this or else. Stern should know. He was the NBA commissioner at the time, just as he was when Hodges made his protest.
As for Abdul-Rauf’s career, he went from an effective scorer and outside shooter (19.2 points per game and one of the league’s top 3-point shooters) to out of the league by halfway through the 1997-98 season. He was 28 years old and had been the No. 3 overall pick in 1990. Abdul-Rauf was a far better player than Kerr from an offensive standpoint. He came back for half a season in 2000-01, but that was it. He spent the rest of his career playing overseas.
Meanwhile, Kerr played until the end of the 2002-03 season, when he was 37.
In short, Stern was in charge when a pair of black men who dared to stand up to authority were quietly dispatched from the league. For him to now claim he and his league were or are champions of free speech is an obscene lie. Faced with the same circumstances, Stern and the NBA did the same thing that people claim the NFL has done to Kaepernick.
Sadly, it’s hard to blame them. As Stern noted, he became the NBA’s top attorney in 1978, when the league was in the midst of its darkest days in terms of popularity. Player behavior (namely drug abuse and fighting) and fan apathy were at their height. The league eventually came out of it thanks to engaging stars such as Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
When Hodges and Abdul-Rauf threatened to upset that progress, Stern lived up to his name and put down the insurrection.
What that highlights is that freedom of speech is a complicated nexus in the sports world. Fans don’t want to hear about politics. They want to escape. Whether that’s good or bad is certainly worth debate, but it’s simply true.
As a result, free speech for athletes is, unfortunately, based on a sliding scale. The better you are, the more you can talk. That has been the case since the late 1960s and early 1970s when Muhammad Ali was a conscientious objector to the draft and other stars such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown expressed their opinions.
Those guys were so good and/or so engaging that fans often put aside their personal feelings.
To put it another way, some people would complain about what Ali had to say in one breath and then ask how much the tickets cost in the next.
The simple fact is Kaepernick, Hodges, Abdul-Rauf and even before them Curt Flood were not at Ali’s level. That’s just reality. It’s a sad reality, but it’s reality nonetheless. No league has been immune from that, not even the NBA.
For Stern to sit on some holier-than-thou perch and wag a finger at the NFL to pretend otherwise is intellectually bankrupt.