The NBA season may be in full swing right now, but that didn’t stop Stan Van Gundy from taking some of his free time to write an amazing piece on athletes protesting during the National Anthem.
The Detroit Pistons head coach currently has his team sporting the second best record in the Eastern Conference, and after reading what he so elegantly wrote for TIME, it’s not hard to see why his players are playing hard for him this season.
“Many have criticized NFL and WNBA players who have taken a knee, raised a fist or remained in the locker room during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. Many have said that these protests dishonor our country and our military men and women. President Donald Trump has said that those who protest should be fired. Several NBA players and two great coaches, Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, have been criticized for speaking out against the President, particularly on his statements regarding race. The patriotism of those who protest or speak out has been questioned. Many have tried to paint these athletes and coaches as villains in an effort to obscure their message.
After reading the book Tears We Cannot Stop; A Sermon to White America, I invited its author, the acclaimed scholar and expert on race Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, to come talk to our team. He discussed the difference between nationalism and patriotism, and it stuck with me. Nationalism, he said, is supporting your country no matter what, right or wrong. Patriotism, on the other hand, is caring so deeply about your country that you take it as your duty to hold it accountable to its highest values and to fight to make it the very best it can be. Under this definition, these athletes and coaches are role models of American patriotism.
We should never forget that this country was founded by protesters. Our founding fathers declared independence from Great Britain because they were dissatisfied with the laws and policies that they believed abridged their freedoms. Had they taken the stance that many want our professional athletes to take — to just shut up and honor your country no matter what — we would be living in British colonies. Furthermore, as Dr. Dyson reminded our team, protest has nearly always been the catalyst for meaningful change. And it has always made people uncomfortable. This was true of the abolitionists, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, all of which shined a bright and needed light on injustice, demanded that our country live up to its stated ideals and produced our most meaningful change. To be sure, they made people feel uncomfortable along the way, but those were the people who needed to feel uncomfortable. People should never be permitted to feel comfortable while trampling the rights of others.
Those who have been at the forefront of great advances in social justice have always been willing to make significant personal sacrifices, and that group has always included athletes. Several of our current professional athletes are merely following in their footsteps. Muhammad Ali sacrificed the prime years of his career and presumably millions of dollars in income to oppose the Vietnam War. Colin Kaepernick has been denied employment for the act of taking a knee to draw attention to the issue of police killings of men of color. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were denied employment and advancement in their post-athletic careers because they raised a fist on the victory stand at the 1968 Olympics. These athletes and many others are risking future contracts and endorsement opportunities to speak out on issues of racial injustice because they feel duty-bound to do so. These are patriots of the highest order.
What is it that they want? Simply and succinctly: equality. Equal rights. Equal justice. Equal treatment by police and others in authority. Equal opportunity. The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence starts with, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” In over two centuries, from slavery to segregation to lynchings and police brutality to the mass incarceration of people of color, we have not even come close to that ideal. It is our systemic racial inequality, not athletes kneeling during the national anthem, that dishonors our country. If we truly want to honor our country, this must change. As Dr. Dyson said to our staff, “We just want you to be true to your words.”
This is hardly the first time Van Gundy has spoken openly about controversial topics.
Last month he spoke out against police brutality and racism, and on multiple occasions he has had not-so-good things to say about President Donald Trump.