James Dolan screwed up. In a pair of internal emails this week, both reviewed by Sports Illustrated, Dolan, the Knicks and Rangers owner, told employees the teams would not be issuing public statements in response to the death of George Floyd. In one email, Dolan declared his Madison Square Garden company was “not more qualified than anyone else to offer our opinion on social matters.” In a clean-up-the-mess follow up, Dolan added that “we vehemently condemn and reject racism against anyone, period.”
For the last few days, Dolan has been savaged, and deservedly so. As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst noted, Dolan has legendary bad judgement. He feuds with fans. He feuds with former players. He feuds with Spike Lee. He hires sycophants in key operations positions. He oversees one of the NBA’s flagship franchises that has been one of the league’s most inept. It would have been easy for Dolan to fall in line with other NBA owners. To issue a strongly worded statement condemning racism and mourning the loss of Floyd. Saying nothing was wrong. Explaining to employees why you are saying nothing was worse.
Still: I can’t help but feel like the piling on Dolan is a distraction. That it’s failing to see the forest through the trees. Statements are good. Statements are needed. When atrocities like what happened to Floyd happen, everyone needs to stand up and call them out. When racism of any kind happens, it needs to be pointed out.
But statements are easy. Action is not.
Consider the NFL. In the last week, the NFL has put out statements. Teams posted black squares on social media. They tweeted out positive messages. They offered public support. But when Colin Kaepernick took a knee, the NFL effectively shut him out. Faced with potential backlash from season ticket holders, many who had twisted Kaepernick’s attempt to raise awareness of social injustice as some kind of bizarre disrespect of the American flag, teams declined to sign him. They justified it by pointing to declining statistics or system issues, all while quarterbacks vastly inferior to Kaepernick found new jobs.
Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.
On my podcast this week I had a conversation with John Thomas, a former NBA forward now working in the Timberwolves front office. Thomas is a native Minnesotan. He played his college ball at the University of Minnesota. The last week has hit him hard. I asked Thomas about the significance of statements in a time like this.
“Statements are just the beginning,” Thomas said. “It’s no different than me sending out a tweet or hashtagging Blackout Tuesday to show solidarity. That’s great—but what’s going to happen six months from now? We have a tendency in our society to forget what is going on. Intentional or not, we’re always looking at the next hottest thing that is taking our attention.”
Indeed. There is outrage in America, outrage and outcry that comes from the streets of Minneapolis to the millions of 280-character reactions. But there is always outrage. There is rarely change. Rodney King was beaten within an inch of his life on camera in 1991, and we’re still here. Eric Garner was choked to death in broad daylight, and we’re still here. Walter Scott was shot while running away from a police officer in 2015, and we’re still here.
We want to believe that the death of George Floyd was a tipping point, but days after he was killed Saints quarterback Drew Brees, when asked how he would respond to an NFL player kneeling during the anthem next season, responded that he would “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” still parroting the twisted talking point that Kaepernick, Eric Reid and others kneeling was some kind of disgusting display of disrespect. The next day, Brees walked the entire statement back.
Actions matter. In two months, the NBA season will resume. Players may choose to kneel. In 2017, they almost did. Donald Trump, pandering to the simpletons who couldn’t understand Kaepernick’s message, began an assault on NFL players taking a knee. Before the start of the ’17-18 season, NBA players were asked about it. Some thought about it. Kobe Bryant, a year into retirement, said he would have. Silver reacted by saying he expected players to stand for the anthem, noting the NBA had a rule on the books saying as much. The rank-and-file didn’t appreciate the position. John Wall told me back then he wished Silver had not made his position so public.
So what happens now? What if a player wants to kneel for the anthem or tweak his uniform? Will teams support players efforts to draw attention to literal life and death issues? Will the league? Or will the support stop at statements?
There are so many ways we can change. We can be better. We can teach better. On the Flying Coach podcast, Steve Kerr recalled Andre Iguodala once asking him if he had heard of the Tulsa race riot, a two day massacre that left more than 100 black men and women dead. Kerr, flabbergasted, said no. "It's actually embarrassing, Kerr said, “But a lot of American history has just been omitted from our textbooks.”
The NBA should be proud of the position it has taken on social issues and the encouragement the league gives players to speak out. The statements teams put out in the aftermath of Floyd’s death were strong and supportive. But in the days to come, if a player—any player—wants to take it a step further, the NBA, the teams, they should be just as supportive, too. There’s a deep meaning behind every player protest, from Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the ’68 Olympics to Kaepernick today. It’s easy to be supportive when most are on the same side of an issue. It’s more difficult when they are not.