Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr joined “Pod Save America” co-host Dan Pfeiffer for the final half-hour of the podcast, and as any sports-meets-politics discussion tends to do these days, the wide-ranging conversation briefly turned to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“He’s being blackballed,” said Kerr. “That’s a no-brainer. All you have to do is read the transactions every day. When you see the quarterbacks who are getting hired, he’s way better than any of them. The NFL has a different fan base than the NBA does. The NBA is more urban. The NFL is more conservative. I think a lot of the NFL fans are truly angry at Kaepernick, and I think owners are worried about what it’s going to do to business.”
Kerr recognized the distraction that signing Kaepernick might create in a locker room, likening it to how a “lightning rod” like Tim Tebow ensures “that was going to be the story every single day,” but the Warriors coach was careful not to imply that such a distraction should justify teams not signing him.
“That’s now Kaepernick,” added Kerr, “and if you’re a general manager — and, again, take social concern out of it, take your beliefs out of it, if you’re just saying we’re trying to be a football team and win football games — you do have to worry about the circus that would erupt if you signed Kaepernick. It’s not justifying not signing him, but it’s understanding what you’re getting into, so I think that’s a factor, and I think that speaks to … the social climate with social media, with the anger, with the fake stuff. That would tie in directly with him signing with any team, so he’s in a tough spot.”
Kerr was asked specifically about the contrast between the NBA and the NFL, how they’ve addressed to social issues over the past year, and (my words) the divergence of how football players have seemingly doubled down on their protests in response to their league office’s concern about kneeling during the national anthem against how basketball players have largely adhered to NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s suggestion that they follow league guidelines and stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Where Houston Texans owner Bob McNair told the league’s brass earlier this month, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” Silver immediately established trust with players upon taking over as commissioner in 2014 and banning Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his racist remarks.
“The players understand he is a partner,” Kerr said of Silver. “He’s socially aware. He’s concerned about people, players or families, social issues, and the players feel that, so I think they trust him. I don’t think there’s a feeling like, Adam Silver’s telling us we’ve got to stand, that’s ridiculous. I think they respect him, and I can only speak for our team, but our players feel like Kaepernick made the stance, for lack of a better phrase, by kneeling. He made it an issue, he talked about why he was doing it, so the issues are out there, and our players are trying to do things in the community to help. They’re doing a lot of great stuff, and they don’t feel like they need to kneel. They need to help. The issue is already being discussed, so they don’t need to further somebody else’s protest, but they need to help, and that’s their position. We’ve talked about it as a team, and I’m very proud of them.”
From this perspective, it seems like the NBA has made a conscious effort to understand why protests began — in opposition of racial inequality, to be clear — while the NFL would just prefer they end.
From the top down — from Silver to coaches Kerr, Gregg Popovich and Stan Van Gundy, among others, all of whom have spoken out against social injustice over the past year — NBA leadership has built up a cache of goodwill with players, like superstar LeBron James, who recently voiced his concern that President Donald Trump “doesn’t even care” about social issues that are dividing the country.
Trump, of course, reacted to the NFL’s protests and the NBA’s social awareness with his usual tact, urging NFL owners from an Alabama rally on the subject of Kaepernick, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now,” and tweeting his withdrawal of a White House invitation to Stephen Curry and the NBA champion Warriors — an invitation, we should note now, Kerr said never officially came.
“It didn’t surprise me,” Kerr told “Pod Save America.” “We had been debating for a couple of months what we would do in terms of: Would we visit the White House or not? If we did, how would we want it to unfold? There had been some backchannel communication between the White House and our organization, and so we were sorting through it all, but before we could get to anything, the president beat us to the punch, so to speak. Not really that surprising that he would say that or lash out, because that’s kind of his way.
“I don’t think we would’ve gone, and I think he knew that. Several of us had been very critical of the president in the past year, so it would’ve been awkward, for sure. I don’t think we would’ve gone, but we were very interested in possibly going and not making it a photo op, like these things usually are, but maybe going and actually having a discussion behind the scenes and talking about the issues that we felt strongly about, but that’s kind of far-fetched.”
Kerr reiterated the team’s stance that the Warriors instead hope to engage Congress and/or host a charitable event, perhaps in Kevin Durant’s hometown, during their February trip to Washington.
While Trump seems intent on inciting a section of his base that incorrectly equates player protests with disrespect for the flag, the military or the country, both Popovich and Kerr said Monday that the public response to their comments has been largely positive, save for the usual knuckleheads.
Asked if he felt like he was on safe ground in Massachusetts, where the majority of voters would tend to align with Popovich, the Spurs coach said before Monday’s game against the Celtics in Boston, “I don’t worry about where I am. I’m on safe ground in my heart. I know what I feel, and I feel that the more it’s expressed, the more people might become aware or at least talk to other people and realize that there’s something there that’s beyond party, beyond tribe and all that sort of thing. It’s about people and who we live with, and in a way it’s like we’re all in the same boat, we just don’t know it.
“There has been some knucklehead backlash, for sure, some of it kind of disturbing,” added Popovich, who made clear no NBA owners or front-office executives are among the nitwits, “but most places I’ve gone and been people have been quite positive about things at least being said and made public.”
Same goes for Kerr. “I’m sure I’ve gotten blowback,” he said, “but I don’t pay too much attention to it. … I don’t worry too much about what people are saying about me or to me. I think circumstances dictate whether people need to be outspoken or not, and I think the times call for people to talk and to say things — people in positions of prominence, people who are going to be heard — and it’s important that they speak out if they feel strongly about something.”
It is for these reasons and more that what first began as a tongue-in-cheek charitable endeavor — the selling of Popovich/Kerr 2020 T-shirts — isn’t entirely seen as a joke. Popovich attended the United States Air Force Academy, graduating with a degree in Soviet Studies, and served a tour of duty in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, leading to widespread rumors that he was a spy in the Central Intelligence Agency. Meanwhile, Kerr born in Beirut and spent significant time in the Middle East, where his father taught Middle East history and was assassinated by a terrorist group in 1984.
“My background has everything to do with my perspective on the world,” said Kerr, who also suggested “our foreign relations have never been worse.” He added, “I think our foreign policy over the last 50-60 years has kind of led to this point, and it’s really scary and disconcerting. Trump’s rhetoric is exacerbating everything, but for me, I’m 52, this is the scariest that the world has ever felt to me.”
Asked directly if he would ever consider running for office, Kerr told “Pod Save America,” “I can’t imagine. It’s not my passion. Basketball is my passion. Coaching is my passion, but you never know where life is going to take you, but I would vote for Pop. I would.” Wait a second. Really? Really.
“He’s one of the finest people I know, because he’s incredibly principled,” said Kerr. “He’s competitive, he’s compassionate, he’s smart, he’s worldly, he’s fair, and you felt all that as a coach, and now you see his comments about the world and about politics, and it’s real, it’s genuine. He’s an amazing guy. He’s got this incredible combination of discipline and humor and principle, and yet he sees the B.S., the hypocrisy in the world, he’s able to laugh at himself, and he’s just one of my favorite people.”
So, what does Kerr think. Would Popovich actually consider a life of politics? “I doubt it,” said Kerr. “He loves coaching. I think he’s coming up on 70. I think his military background has really shaped him, in terms of his view of the world and coaching and his style, but at his core he’s a basketball coach and a lifer. He’s been doing it 20 years, he loves it, he’s great at it. I don’t know why he would stop.”
And what does Pop think? “I”m not running for office now,” the Spurs coach said from Boston.
Now? So, you’re saying there’s a chance? In the meantime, just let this from Kerr sink in:
“I am hopeful that we can get past this moment, because I think this has been the perfect storm in a very negative way in terms of Trump being the guy to exacerbate what already existed, which was this divide between conservatives and liberals, different ways of thinking or whatever,” said Kerr. “What it’s going to take is the next person in office, regardless of party, to be dignified and presidential and respectful and setting a good example. I don’t know if that’s quite going to solve everything, but it certainly would go a long way.
“What bothers me more than anything is a lack of dignity in politics, whether it’s Trump or many others with a voice, and I think that’s where we’re going to go off the rails. We have to get back on the rails. We need people who are respectful, dignified, able to communicate and show empathy and compassion. Those are all huge things, and in fact these days it’s probably the president’s main job, because it’s really hard to get anything done in Congress, as you can tell. Even with a Republican Congress and Republican president, we still can’t get anything done, so it’s not about party lines.
“To me, it’s about the president doing his job and being empathetic and being articulate and expressing himself and trying to unite and trying to bring people together, and the next person in that chair needs to be that way, regardless of which party he or she’s in.”
I can think of at least two NBA coaches who fit that mold. Just saying.
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