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Gregg Popovich discusses “the elephant in the room”

The Spurs coach gave a number of measured thoughts on the issue during Spurs Media Day.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs-Media Day Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The worlds of politics and sports continue to overlap as the NBA season draws near, and leave it to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to articulate one of the more nuanced viewpoints on the divisive topic of the moment: athletes protesting the national anthem.

A few days after swatting the question away at a charity event, Pop came to Spurs Media Day prepared to address the “elephant in the room.” Here are his words, when asked whether or not he supports players like Colin Kaepernick who have recently protested the national anthem (you can find the entire transcript here):

“I absolutely understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I respect their courage for what they’ve done. The question is whether it will do any good or not because it seems that change really seems to happen through political pressure, no matter how you look at it. Whether it’s Dr. [Martin Luther] King getting large groups together and boycotting buses, or what’s happened in Carolina with the NBA and other organizations pulling events to make it known what’s going on. But I think the important thing that Kaepernick and others have done is to keep it in the conversation. When’s the last time you heard the name Michael Brown? With our 24/7 news, things seem to drift. We’re all trying to just exist and survive.

The Spurs may not work to get their players in the headlines, but Pop certainly wants his guys reading them, understanding the issues behind them and developing their own informed opinions. The San Antonio Express-News’ Buck Harvey inferred as much when he wrote about Pop’s likely position a few days ago. Harvey noted that the San Antonio coach made sure his team was familiar with the story of Eddie Mabo, a figure of particular significance to Patty Mills, as well as inviting Olympian and activist John Carlos to meet with the team last summer.

When asked whether he’d support his own players protesting, Pop affirmed the importance of educated activism and said he wouldn’t stand in anyone’s way:

“My players are engaged citizens who are fully capable of understanding what their values are, and what they think is appropriate and inappropriate, and what they feel strongly about. Whatever actions may or may not be taken are their decisions, and I’m not going to tell anyone ahead of time that if they don’t do A, B and C, they’re going to be gone or traded. I think that’s ignorant.”

The NBA and its owners are in a knotty position heading into next season, trying to find the right stance on these issues, and the Spurs’ situation is not without its own unique idiosyncrasies: Pop and GM R.C. Buford both have military backgrounds, and San Antonio is itself a military city — an identity the Spurs have perennially embraced. But while “a pretty good group of people” have interpreted the recent national anthem protests as tacitly (or explicitly) anti-troops, Pop made note of the distinction:

(The military) had nothing to do with (Colin Kaepernick’s) protest. In fact, he was able to do what he did because of what the military does for us. Most thinking people understand that, but there’s always going to be an element that wants to jump on a bandwagon, and that’s what’s unfortunate about our country. It’s gotten to a point where the civility and the level of discourse is basically in the gutter.

Discourse is an important thing to Pop and the Spurs. Usually, it’s something that’s kept within the organization — to promote conversation and greater understanding — but this time he gave the media and fans a glimpse of the consideration he brings to these kinds of big ideas. That’s something that most people, regardless of what stance they take, should be able to appreciate.