Colin Kaepernick may no longer be in the NFL, but the national anthem wars appear to be sticking around in US sports all the same.
Mark Cuban, the billionaire businessman who owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, is insisting that he didn’t “cancel” playing the national anthem at Mavs home games, after its conspicuous absence during early season matches caused an uproar.
"We didn't cancel the national anthem," he told ESPN on Wednesday, after fans noticed there was no anthem during a game on Monday against the Minnesota Timberwolves. "We still had our flag flying proud up on the wall at the American Airlines Center and everybody had the opportunity to address it and pray to it or salute to it or whatever their feelings are.”
At the beginning of the week, sports site The Athletic reported that the team would be bucking NBA policy after Cuban decided to stop playing the anthem to open its games, which it said the Mavericks had confirmed. The news caused an outcry from some fans and politicians in conservative Texas and beyond.
Since Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players knelt for the national anthem in 2016, declining to stand for the "Star Spangled Banner" has become a common way for professional athletes, many of them in leagues whose players are majority people of colour, to protest systematic racism and police brutality.
On Wednesday, the Mavericks said it would actually be playing the anthem, but released a statement from Cuban emphasizing the value of these protests.
“We respect and always have respected the passion people have for the anthem and our country,'' Cuban said in the statement. "But we also loudly hear the voices of those who feel that the anthem does not represent them. We feel that their voices need to be respected and heard, because they have not been.”
He told ESPN that the decision not to play the anthem originally came amid conversations with the team about social injustice and after consultation with NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
"We've had a lot of conversations about whether or not we should play the anthem," Cuban said. "And so during the first preseason game, we decided to not play it and just see what the response was, knowing that we were going to have ongoing conversations about it. We didn't make any decision to never play the national anthem then, that wasn't the case at all."
The NBA has a rule that players should stand respectfully during the national anthem, but commissioner Silver has declined to enforce it. Numerous players and coaches knelt during the anthem during the NBA’s previous season played on lockdown inside Disney World over the summer, where teams had social justice messages on jerseys and courts with big letters saying ”Black Lies Matter.”
Still, despite its more activist posture compared to other leagues, and players like Lebron James who frequently speak out on national issues around politics and racial injustice, the decision from the Mavericks still provoked a strong reaction in Texas—and even reached the White House.
"It is hard to believe this could happen in Texas, but Mark Cuban's actions of yesterday made it clear that we must specify that in Texas we play the national anthem before all major events,'' Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, a Republican, said. He also intends to introduce a bill mandating the anthem at Texas events which receive public funding. "In this time when so many things divide us, sports are one thing that bring us together—right, left, Black, white and brown.''
Asked about the issue at a White House press briefing on Wednesday, press secretary Jen Psaki said she hadn’t talked to the president about it, but knew he respected both the ideals of the flag and anthem as well as players’ right to protest.
"I know he's incredibly proud to be an American and has great respect for the anthem and all that it represents,'' Psaki said. "He'd also say, of course, that part of pride in our country means recognizing where we as a country haven't lived up to our highest ideals.''
Others, like Dallas player Willie Cauley-Stein, said they appreciated the team owner’s support.
“One thing I'll say about Mark is he's not scared of what's being talked about,” Cauley-Stein said before Wednesday’s game versus the Atlanta Hawks. “It's not just a business to him.” When you get to this level, it's such a business. And when you've got a guy that shows his full character and he's not being a businessman and he's like human, that's big-time for a player to go through.”
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