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ESSAY: Will Olympics be the next site of political protests?

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Basketball - Olympics: Day 16 Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The 16 teams who’ll vie for the gold, silver and bronze at the Tokyo Olympics are set. Team USA is gathering in Las Vegas for the opening of training camp Tuesday and we are now a month and a day away from the men’s basketball medal ceremony.

The general belief is that the US will win the gold. Perennial powerhouses like Spain, Australia and France — plus Luka Doncic’s upstart Slovenia — seen as the most viable challengers.

Assuming Team USA is on the stand, their necks draped with freshly minted medals and their arms filled with flowers, a new question arises: will The Games become the latest venue for protests as the national anthem is played? A number of the team members have been part of protests around the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

On Friday, in a move reflecting the rise of activism among athletes around the globe, the International Olympic Committee released new guidelines offering Olympians a chance to “express their views” on the field of play but only before the start of a competition, not during the medal ceremonies. They remain sacrosanct in the eyes of the IOC.

For the Nets and their fans, there is an additional question: Will Kevin Durant participate in those protests. As reported by Matt Sullivan, author of “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” KD, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan and others didn’t stand — weren’t even on the court — for the national anthem at Nets games after January 6, the date of the Capitol Insurrection.

Writing in GQ last week on the growing political protests among NBA players, Sullivan described what would happen as games were about to begin with the anthem.

After he returned to the court in January, Kyrie Irving began slipping out of pre-game warmups ten minutes before tipoff, disappearing into the shadowy tunnel of an arena — and skipping the national anthem. Kevin Durant would silently follow about a minute after Irving, as the cameras cut to commercial and the lights went down. Their teammate DeAndre Jordan joined, too, before the Brooklyn Nets stars hustled back to the huddle in time for starting lineups...

[F]ive sources close to the stars acknowledge that their disappearing act continued until Brooklyn was eliminated from the postseason last week. “There’s a number of them doing it,” a Nets staffer tells me. “Ky, Kev, DJ, more.”

As Sullivan points out, the Nets were not alone. There were varied protests around the league.

Indeed, multiple NBA players and employees point out that athletes and coaches all over the league have taken to putting hands in pockets, turning sideways or clenching a fist during the anthem this season. Some of the rosters lined up to stare at the American flag began to shrink in early January, after the Wisconsin police officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back last August wasn’t charged and, less than 24 hours later, white supremacists headed to the U.S. Capitol to strike an officer with a flagpole and carry a Confederate flag inside.

Nets officials say the organization did nothing to hide the protests and note at least one reporter, Kristian Winfield, tweeted about them in February. There was no publicity, no sanctions. These were individual American citizens protesting what took place in Washington —- as well as the disparity between how white and black protesters are treated by police.

It was all an extension of the protests from last year’s “bubble” when the Bucks threatened to boycott a playoff game after police in Kenosha shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times, paralyzing him. Earlier, as Sullivan points out, Irving and the former Lakers point guard Avery Bradley attempted to form their own coalition of players to boycott the 2020 season restart, “questioning the efficacy of entertainment during a summer of reckoning over racial injustice.” (Irving also put his money down this fall, contributing to the campaigns of progressive district attorney candidates in New York and Philadelphia, Sullivan notes.)

The Star-Spangled Banner, sung so often this July 4 weekend, has a history that Black players like KD, Kyrie and others are well aware of, even if the general public is not. Francis Scott Key, its author, was a slave owner who believed Africans in America were a “distinct an inferior race.” The third stanza, in fact, contains these words: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” In other words, a runaway slave deserved death.

Mark Cuban is certainly aware. Last November, in another unpublicized protest, he quietly instructed his arena to stop turning on “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Mavericks games. Cuban said he was trying to “loudly hear the voices of those who feel that the anthem does not represent them.” The league, always trying to figure out where the line is drawn between money and protest, told the Mavericks to reinstate the anthem.

In fact, the tradition of playing the national anthem before games is unique among western nations. As Sullivan noted in an opinion piece for NBC News Sunday...

You’ll never catch “God Save the Queen” ahead of a match in the English Premier League, and U.S. Soccer repealed its policy requiring players to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” amid last year’s global reckoning on race.

All that said, the Olympics are different. Athletes proudly wear “USA” across their chests; their play is a patriotic gesture. And, of course, national anthems are played at every medal ceremony. There have been protests before, like the raised fist Black Power salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City back in 1968. Just last week, Gwen Berry, a black hammer thrower, demonstrated against the anthem while on the medal stand at the U.S. Olympic trials. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the Olympic team, banned from the Olympic Village. Berry received a predictable amount of overheated criticism from conservative commentators, but President Biden, through his spokesperson, said that he respects “the right of people granted to them in the Constitution to peacefully protest.”

Don’t expect to hear much, if anything, from the athletes about plans for protests starting July 23 when The Games begin. Athletes are not in the habit of talking about games or medals or ceremonies before they take place. But know this: whatever beliefs Durant and other NBA players share they will not be put on hold in an international setting. They didn’t come this far to step back now.