Why the NFL is light-years behind the NBA on social justice front

Is the NFL's anthem controversy over with new policy? (2:38)

The SportsNation crew believe that the NFL's changes to its national anthem policy have created other issues for the league. (2:38)

ATLANTA -- Why is this so hard for the NFL, this national anthem stuff? The owners spend months hand-wringing and days discussing only to come up with a complicated new rule that wrinkles the noses of some in their own membership. Commissioner Roger Goodell announces the decision as “unanimous,” but within hours, 49ers owner Jed York says he abstained, and Jets owner Christopher Johnson tells Newsday that he’ll never fine a player who violates it. The Trump administration claims victory, the players’ union says it has been betrayed, and the whole thing feels like a mess at the end of the league’s effort to simplify it.

Meanwhile, the NBA chugs along with a more restrictive rule requiring players, coaches and trainers to “stand and line up in a dignified posture” during the playing of the national anthem. The NBA takes no grief for this. Its players find ways to work on behalf of their causes and stand up for themselves against the kind of “shut up and dribble” criticism that rattled the NFL’s owners into changing their anthem policy.

What’s the difference? Why is the NBA hailed as a bastion of social responsibility while the NFL comes under criticism for trying to push its players around?

The answer has to do with sincerity, trust and authenticity of motivation.

The sincerity gap

On Wednesday, police in Milwaukee released video of the arrest and tasing of Milwaukee Bucks rookie Sterling Brown and apologized for the incident. The Bucks released a statement that read, in part, “It shouldn’t require an incident involving a professional athlete to draw attention to the fact that vulnerable people in our communities have experienced similar, and even worse, treatment.”

There were no pregame protests of police brutality and racial bias at Wednesday night’s Cavaliers-Celtics playoff game. And while, yes, there’s a rule against it, that isn't the only reason. A big part of the reason NBA players don’t feel the need to protest is that they know, via statements such as the one the Bucks released, that their teams and their league hear and understand their concerns. Players don’t need to kneel in protest if the teams are out there making the same points they want to make about the same problems.

Contrast the language of the Bucks’ statement with that of the NFL’s new anthem policy, which twice mentions the notion of “appropriate respect for the flag and the anthem.” This language indicates that the league as an institution still isn’t getting the point its protesting players were trying to make.

NFL players were never protesting the flag or the anthem. Colin Kaepernick, who initiated all of this in 2016, actually amended his initial protest from a sitting one to a kneeling one after conversations with members of the military so it would not be interpreted as disrespectful toward them. The protests were nevertheless interpreted by some people on the outside (and in the White House) as disrespectful to the flag and anthem, and those angry reactions got back to the league in the form of boycott threats that rattled owners and sponsors. That’s why the language of the new rule will ring in players’ ears as one that misses the mark. It doesn’t meaningfully address the issues that are at the root of the protests as much as it does the external backlash against them.

While some owners, such as the Eagles’ Jeffrey Lurie, were careful to use language that dealt with this debate’s root issues, much of Wednesday’s language rang hollow. Jerry Jones said more than once this week that the goal was to “zero in on football,” which is a platitude. If you really want to “zero in on football,” why play the anthem in the first place? It’s not a song about football, is it?

Building trust takes time

But wait, you say. Isn’t the NFL doing some walk-the-walk work on some of the causes the players want to call attention to with their protests? The answer is yes. League officials and team owners met with players last fall to discuss the social issues at the root of the protests. The league pledged $89 million to support player-supported causes. Goodell said Wednesday that owners voted to extend the local matching funds program, in which individual teams match funds put up by players in support of community causes, through 2022. York said the 49ers would halt concession sales during the anthem -- a gesture that effectively tells his players, “If you guys are forced to behave a certain way during the anthem, we’ll do it too.”

The problem is that NFL players, in general, don’t trust the NFL and the team owners. The NFL’s labor system, built on non-guaranteed contracts, massive rosters and short career spans, makes players feel disposable. NFL players don’t feel as empowered to speak up on social issues as NBA players do, and the continued unemployment of original protesters such as Kaepernick and now Eric Reid supports a fear of consequences for doing so.

While York and some of the other owners might be well-intentioned as they talk of progress, the building of trust takes time. The shedding of suspicion does not happen easily. The NFL didn't even consult its players' union on Wednesday's rule change, and the union is raging hot about it. The way the NBA and its teams conduct themselves with regard to the labor force lends itself to trust, and that trust has roots.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in an interview earlier this year with CNN, said social activism among NBA players has been “part of the culture of this league for generations” and referenced Hall of Famer Bill Russell’s activism in the 1960s. In January, the NBA launched an initiative called “NBA Voices,” designed to publicly highlight the work players do in their communities and on social issues. NBA superstars such as LeBron James and Steph Curry have openly criticized President Trump without fear of repercussion from their employers. Silver told CNN that he wants his players to “be multidimensional people and fully participate as citizens.”

To the players, it’s not just lip service, so they don’t care about a rule that requires them to stand for the anthem. “My voice and what I do in my community is more powerful than getting on a knee,” James said back in September. That sentiment comes from a place of sincerity and authenticity. Sure, the NBA has locked its players out in recent labor disputes, but it’s also a league that expelled one of its owners -- the Clippers’ Donald Sterling -- when players expressed their concerns about racist remarks he made. That’s a pretty heavy step, and it’s hard to imagine a clearer way to deliver a “We Hear You” message from management to labor.

The authenticity gap

Those are some of the explanations for why the NFL’s actions this week might be perceived as dictatorial, while the NBA’s more restrictive anthem policy escapes similar criticism. The NBA’s actions, and the length of the history behind them, offer a foundation of relative sincerity that matters more than pregame gestures. To bog down in a debate about protests during the anthem would be beneath the NBA at this point. The league is past it.

The NFL, quite clearly, is not. Wednesday’s actions, ostensibly aimed at clearing up confusion, will continue to come under attack. There will be players who view the change as a capitulation by owners to pressure from a president who called the players “sons of b----es” for engaging in the gesture the new rule seeks to eliminate.

No, it seems clear that the NFL’s motivation for its new rule was symbolic -- “We believe that moment is an important moment,” Goodell said of the pregame anthem ceremony -- and that owners differed on the need to legislate anthem behavior.

“I wanted to make sure we focused on the progress aspect of this, not focus on the protest,” York said, explaining his decision to abstain. “There’s so much more to it than a player standing or a team employee standing. We want to take a broader approach. We want to make sure we have an all-encompassing solution to how we look at this and figure out how we do the right thing for social justice reform.”

That is the point the protesters were trying to make in the first place. That is why, if York gets his stated wish, the players might no longer feel the need to protest. That is what the NFL owners wanted to come out of this. That is what the NBA has, and that league’s bottom line doesn’t appear to be under any immediate threats.

The problem is that the process of doing what York is talking about takes time. And it takes trust, which in itself takes time to build. The reason the NFL takes grief where the NBA doesn’t on this never had anything to do with a national anthem policy or lack thereof. It has to do with off-the-field issues that run a lot deeper and will take a lot more time to fix. This whole mess might have put the NFL on that road, but it’ll be a long time before we find that out.