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What it means when Gregg Popovich speaks

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The Spurs coach has become one of the most prominent voices in sports on social justice and the state of the country. There are a variety of unique dynamics at play whenever he speaks out.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Utah Jazz Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

A lasting memory from working the Spurs beat these last three years is the mood before a Gregg Popovich scrum, that palpable mix of reverence and angst that fills a room of grownups as they gather around a man who’s about to speak about basketball, for the most part. It sounds absurd to anyone whose mind hasn’t been poisoned by sports or fandom, but in the moment it’s hard not to feed into it yourself, either carefully choosing your words for a potential question or gathering the proper level of decorum for the moment. I’m rarely successfully at either.

In comparison to other markets, the contingent of local media in San Antonio isn’t large, and roughly five minutes before the scheduled time — always 75 minutes before tip — the handful of us will make our way from the media room to the space outside the Spurs locker room, a group of traveling media for the visiting team filing in shortly after. For anyone who knows better, expectations for tactical insight or juicy sound bytes are usually tempered. This is Pop, after all. But one thing that’s changed the last few years — conspicuously beginning around Fall 2016 — is the increasing possibility of him not only speaking but being effusive around a specific subset of issues.

Sometimes this happens unprompted, but usually it requires one reporter taking the gamble and asking about this appalling event that just happened or that crass thing the president said. The rest of us are usually waiting for it; we hear the question, watch how the coach feels it out, and lean in, recording devices in lock step, as a story of national interest develops in front of us in a nondescript corner of a nondescript room.

With the league at a standstill and the country caught between a pandemic and social unrest, Pop has been more outspoken than ever. Last Monday The Nation’s Dave Zirin published a conversation with the Spurs coach. The next day, USA Today published an op ed he co-penned alongside Steve Kerr, retired NFL player Anquan Boldin, the Saints’ Demario Davis, and the Phillies’ Andrew McCutcheon. This weekend, he elaborated further with The New York Times on issues like Colin Kaepernick and the ongoing removal of Confederate statues and names.

I won’t unpack the substance of his recent criticisms here if only to say that I agree with the core of what he’s been trying to express. Rather, I wanted to focus this post on the various dynamics at play when he speaks out, which are of their own unique, and less partisan, interest.

Beyond being an act of pure and incensed self-expression, Pop’s gravelly voice pours out within a number of unique, and sometimes opposing, contexts. He’s a former member of the Armed Forces, face of a global league, coach of much younger generation of athletes, and employee of an organization that’s largely aligned with conservative values, and all of these things carry their own weight when he strays from basketball.

In the Times piece, we get a view into one layer of this — Pop as a voice for his players:

But in recent calls with the Spurs’ players and staff he has been amazed at the level of hurt.

“It would bring you to tears,” he says, his voice cracking. “It’s even deeper than you thought, and that’s what really made me start to think: You’re a privileged son of a bitch and you still don’t get it as much as you think you do. You gotta work harder. You gotta be more aware. You gotta be pushed and embarrassed. You’ve gotta call it out.”

He tells of a recent Zoom town hall with Spurs employees. “A black mother said, ‘My son is angry with me.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘Well, because he’s 16 and I’m basically lying to him and dragging my feet and giving him excuses because I don’t want to take him down to the D.M.V. to get his driver’s license because I don’t want him in a car.’ So her own son is angry with her for that but doesn’t realize that she’s scared to death for him.”

A detail not lost on Pop is that he is a white man working in a business that, while increasingly diverse, remains predominantly young and black. He’s spoken regularly about white privilege and touched on racial issues both current and historical in an attempt to further important and uncomfortable conversations. And because of his longevity, success, and widespread respect throughout the league, people listen.

While many athletes have been outspoken in matters such as George Floyd’s killing on May 25, not all may want to. There’s risk and exposure to doing so, in finding the right words and platform, and dealing with whatever comes from it. In their coach, they can see an avatar for their views, a sounding board for what they’re thinking at the time. His comments, such as when he routinely and uninhibitedly goes after Trump, come as a contrast with his employer, a financial backer for the president. When he voices support for Kaepernick’s right to kneel during football games, he is at odds with a large part of the team’s base and affiliations. Yes, San Antonio generally skews left in presidential elections, but it’s also called Military City, home of USAA, a major corporate sponsor of the Spurs, and the reason behind the camo alternates the team has sported for years. By expressing these views — which, to be fair, may or may not be shared by his players — he becomes the lightning rod for any blowback rather than them.

Pop, of course, shouldn’t be viewed as some outsider among these conservative circles. He quite famously served in the Air Force and considered a career in the CIA before jumping fully into coaching. Until the 2016 election (which certainly seems to have been an inflection point for him and the use of his platform), his political profile wasn’t a matter of public knowledge or interest, and his Spurs Youth Basketball League proudly touted recognition from George H. W. Bush as a feather in its cap. On that note, it’s worth pointing out that Pop’s political critiques today aren’t especially radical in substance. His calls to action don’t espouse far-left policies or leaders, and his pleas are typically more centered on decency, empathy and national introspection.

Few things are apolitical anymore — if they ever truly were — and modern sports culture reflects that. Inaction and silence, once lauded in this country for their agreeable neutrality, are positions a person willfully chooses. Attempting to silence a figure by crying Stick to Sports or Shut up and Dribble is proving all the more outdated and futile every time Pop, or any other sports figure, goes near a mic.