This is no time for political grandstanding, hypocritical amnesia and radical policy shifts. Now more than ever, sports must walk its straightest lines and think clearly while remaining true to established practices. Whoever thought the silencing of the national anthem was a good idea — why, of course, it was Mark Cuban! — isn’t someone who should be involved this year in the delicate resumption of full-bore sports, if and when that happens.
So let’s thank commissioner Adam Silver for reminding Cuban that he’s only one of 30 franchise owners and, thus, doesn’t represent the NBA’s ideologies. The anthem will — and should — continue to play inside all arenas, including Cuban’s in Dallas, “in keeping with longstanding league policy,” Silver said in a statement. This league has enough problems amid waning relevance to risk another shakeup in popularity and viewership, all because Cuban can’t decide in his flip-floppy, social-media-addled brainstream whether “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be played before games. Evidently, he now thinks the anthem should be tossed onto the same one-way train to oblivion as Donald Trump, forgetting a truth that all leagues and owners must embrace.
You don’t screw around with tradition when sports fans — the lifeblood of your very business existence — want normalcy in an abnormal world.
I could live without the anthem before a sports event, but that’s an intense debate for a post-pandemic day. At the moment, the sports industry is a piece of china — in the NBA’s case, in part because of controversial relationships in China — and engaging America in a showdown over the anthem is an ill-timed poison pill. After the lowest-rated Super Bowl in 15 years — which followed staggering viewer declines in major events including the NBA Finals, World Series, college football title game, Stanley Cup Final and Masters — the sole aim should be bringing back lost fans and retaining those still watching. But there was Cuban, stirring the pot as only he can, to the point he distracted a new presidential administration that should be solely focused on COVID-19.
“Well, I haven’t spoken with the president about the decision by Mark Cuban or the Dallas Mavericks,” said Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for President Biden. “But I know he’s incredibly proud to be an American, and has great respect for the anthem, and all that represents, especially for our men and women serving in uniform around the world.”
That’s Biden’s way of tweaking Trump — again — when Trump should be treated as a fast-food bag blowing away in the rear-view mirror. It’s not a fray the sports world should enter. What kills me about Cuban is that he’s swerving all over the court about the anthem, like a point guard losing his handle. When Trump first admonished the Colin Kaepernick movement and warned NFL players not to kneel during the anthem, Cuban agreed that athletes shouldn’t kneel for the anthem. “This is America, and I’m proud of people who speak out civilly. That’s who we are as a country,” he said in 2017. “I’ll be standing there with my hand over my heart. I think the players will be (standing). I expect them to be.”
Then last June, as the NBA prepared for a Black Lives Matter-themed postseason in the Disney World Bubble, Cuban no longer thought players had to stand during the anthem. “If they were taking a knee and they were being respectful, I’d be proud of them. Hopefully, I’d join them,” he told ESPN.
Days later, Cuban shifted his position again, tweeting, “The National Anthem Police in this country are out of control. If you want to complain, complain to your boss and ask why they don’t play the National Anthem every day before you start work.”
Flip, flop. How, in one breath, could he encourage an athlete to kneel during the anthem — then, in the next, question why the anthem is played? Cuban finally addressed the disconnect this week by doubling down — the anthem would not be played before Mavericks games at American Airlines Center, a decree that began in the preseason and has continued in the regular season. At first, the NBA agreed. Wisely, Silver changed course hours later. Naturally, so did Cuban, and if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a Dramamine for motion sickness. “We respect and always have respected the passion people have for the anthem and our country,” Cuban said in a Wednesday 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. Going forward, our hope is that people will take the same passion they have for this issue and apply the same amount of energy to listen to those who feel differently from them. Only then we can move forward and have courageous conversations that move this country forward and find what unites us.”
Wait, he wasn’t finished. Like a moth noticing light, Cuban attached himself to another TV camera pointing in his direction, telling ESPN’s “The Jump” that he never officially canceled the anthem, which contradicts what he confirmed to at least two news outlets earlier. “We’re always talking to our community,” he said. “In listening to the community, there were quite a few people who voiced their concerns, really their fears that the national anthem did not fully represent them, that their voices were not being heard. … We didn’t make any decision to never play the national anthem — that wasn’t the case at all. We didn’t cancel the national anthem. 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.”
And to think Cuban was considering a presidential bid at one point. For talking him out of it, his wife should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thankfully, the league shut down this firestorm before it gathered any more social-media flames. “Get woke, go broke,” tweeted Anthony Wright, vice president of the Fort Worth Police Officers’ Association union. “I won’t spend another cent on @dallasmavs.”
Countered the ever-opinionated Stan Van Gundy, coach of the New Orleans Pelicans: “This should happen everywhere. If you think the anthem needs to be played before sporting events, then play it before every movie, concert, church service and the start of every work day at every business. What good reason is there to play the anthem before a game?”
Oh, because fans generally appreciate it and are used to it. And because Black athletes who have kneeled always will remember it as a sacred form of protest. Maybe the anthem sparks an important conversation between a parent and child about America. Or, maybe because it alerts people in the beer line that the game is about to start.
Anyway, why are we talking about this again?
And why now?
Sports used to teach life lessons. Now, it spins out of control when its leadership is needed most, unable to remember what it stood for an hour ago. The NFL spent Super Bowl Week patting itself on the back for completing a coronavirus season with zero game cancellations — then allowed Buccaneers fans to roam maskless as they celebrated throughout the game, even moving to different sections inside Raymond James Stadium. Commissioner Roger Goodell promised better social awareness concerning the league’s putrid record of hiring minority coaches and executives — then watched as the Kansas City Chiefs were introduced to the audio of their Tomahawk Chop war chant, which reeks of tone-deaf racism at a time when teams are purging offensive nicknames and customs.
If the NFL truly wanted to make a statement about social distancing, masks and human responsibility in the COVID era, the stadium stands would have been empty. Why did 25,000 people have to be there? Why did so many plastic cutouts have to create a perception of a boisterous sellout when it was just a deception? How many of those fans will test positive for the virus? And will we ever hear about it in a state, Florida, where the governor lies about infection numbers and was photographed without a mask at the game?
When Goodell allows thousands inside stadiums, he invites wild maskless celebrations in the Tampa streets. Just the same, when Tom Brady doesn’t wear a mask during the Bucs’ water parade while downing tequila in his new $2 million boat, he plants seeds in the impressionable heads of millions: “If Brady doesn’t need a mask while he’s partying, I don’t either.” Same goes for North Carolina basketball players who partied without masks last weekend after beating Duke, not to mention the Alabama students raging maskless in Tuscaloosa after the latest national football championship.
As the pandemic rambles on, no end in sight.
It’s not as if Cuban is bored. This week alone, he announced he’s building an $11 million drug manufacturing plant — for his Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Co. — and is launching a live-conversation app called Fireside. He’s front and center at every Mavericks game. He’s still the star of “Shark Tank.” But I think the man wanted to run for President.
And when he couldn’t, he decided to ditch the national anthem.
Until he didn’t.