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How the NBA Is Quietly Becoming the Most Progressive Pro-Sports League in America

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Some players nearly missed national anthem singer Denasia Lawrence, a part-time operations staff worker for the Miami Heat, taking a knee while singing the National Anthem before Friday’s preseason game in Miami. Her protest was unannounced, subtle, and extremely powerful.

“At first I didn't notice it,” Shooting Guard Wayne Ellington told the Sun Sentinel after the game. “I have my eyes closed during the National Anthem a lot, doing my own thing.” 

The Miami Heat, in keeping with other NBA teams — like the Celtics , Rockets, and Knicks — stood for the National Anthem with their arms locked together in solidarity. 

While the organization did not have prior knowledge of Lawrence’s protest, members of the team offered up words of support after the game. 

“Throughout all of this I think the most important thing that has come out is very poignant, thoughtful dialogue,” Coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters. “We've had dialogue within our walls here. And hopefully this will lead to action.”

Read more: Obama: Colin Kaepernick Joins ‘Long History’ Athletic Protests

Power forward Derrick Williams took to Instagram, posting a picture of Lawrence with the text: “Very brave. Very courageous. Amazing voice.” 

Very brave. Very courageous. Amazing voice.

A photo posted by Derrick Williams (@dwxxiii) on

Lawrence, who also holds a job as a social worker, explained her protest on Facebook the next morning: “I took the opportunity to sing AND kneel; to show that we belong in this country AND that we have the right to respectfully protest injustices against us. I took the opportunity to sing AND kneel to show that, I too, am America.”

Lawrence is not the first person to drop to one knee during the National Anthem this NBA preseason. Earlier this month, Leah Tysse — a white singer, unlike Lawrence, who is black — did the same thing at the Sacramento Kings’ first preseason game. 

While quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests in the NFL have largely fallen on deaf ears, the NBA’s biggest stars have embraced this sort of public activism, especially in the past few years. 

In December 2014, several months after the killing of Eric Garner, NBA stars LeBron James, Derrick Rose, and Kevin Garnett (among others) wore black ‘I Can’t Breathe’ warm-up shirts. 

One year later, on Christmas Day, NBA players — including MVP Steph Curry — spoke out about gun violence in an ad brokered by acclaimed director Spike Lee and paid for by the lobbying group Everytown For Gun Safety.

This July, at the ESPY awards, James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwayne Wade addressed police brutality in a passionate speech. 

Read more: NBA Stars Call for a Revolution in Athlete Activism at ESPY Awards 

“The system is broken. The problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new,” said Anthony, who has been one of the most outspoken NBA athletes on matters of race and gun violence. “But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.” 

In August, less than two months after the ESPY Awards, Wade’s cousin Nykea Aldridge was killed by a stray bullet in Chicago while pushing her child in a stroller

As an institution, the NBA has been cautious to outright embrace political activism. The league’s commissioner Adam Silver has said that he wants NBA players to continue to stand during National Anthems, though there is no explicit rule enforcing players to do so. 

Silver has been known as a progressive commissioner since assuming the position in February 2014. He took a hard stand on Clippers owner Donald Sterling, banning him from the league for life after a leaked recording revealed Sterling making lewdly racist comments. In July of this year, the league revoked its decision to host the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte after North Carolina passed a bill (House Bill 2) that discriminates against transgender people. 

Read more: All-Star Decision by NBA for LGBT Equality

But in basketball, political activism has for the most part come from the players, and not from the league’s top executives. The league in 2013 was made up of 75% black players and 43% black coaches, but just 2% of majority owners were black. 

NBA players like James (who, in another political move, recently endorsed Hillary Clinton for president), Anthony, and Rose have been joined in protest by their counterparts in the Women’s National Basketball Association. 

Political activism in the WNBA is even more far-reaching than it is in the NBA. In July, several WNBA teams wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts to warm up in, and when the league handed down fines for wearing black shirts, they changed tactics — simply tweeting pictures of themselves wearing black t-shirts before the game.  

Such protests can have a major effect on young people across the country. The NBA has the youngest audience of any major professional sport in the US, with almost half of its viewers under the age of 35. Its viewers are also some of the most diverse — and 45% are black. 

This year, the beginning of the NBA season coincides with the final weeks of a presidential election that has addressed issues of police brutality, gun violence, and mass incarceration head-on. 

NBA players, like musicians and other pop culture icons, can play a large role in influencing voter habits and public opinion. How they choose to treat national anthem protests like Denasia Lawrence’s will have reverberations on and off the court.