I do not claim to be an expert on race in America. But in addition to working to be an informed citizen and learning about the issues that derive from race, I have been coaching for about 20 years in the NBA, a league that is 75 percent black. I have been in a unique position to hear from players and staff members about the issues they and their families have had to encounter.
In a time where bigotry seems on the rise and commitment to racial equality on the decline, I have an obligation as a citizen to speak out and to support, in any way possible, those brave and patriotic athletes who are working to bring change to our country. I believe all of us do.
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 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.
Honoring America has to mean much, much more than standing at attention for a song (one which, by the way, contains racist language in later verses). One of the most important freedoms that our military has fought for over two-plus centuries is the freedom of speech. When these professional athletes protest during the anthem, they are exercising one of the very freedoms for which our military men and women fought so valiantly, thus honoring our highest values and, in turn, those who have fought for them.
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 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.
In the great tradition of the civil rights movement, these athletes are using non-violent, peaceful protest to work toward specific changes they want to see in their communities and their country. Because of this “controversy,” people are forgetting what these protesters are trying to change. It’s important for us to talk about it every day until it resonates, until change happens. Their demands are important, and today, I am adding my voice in support.
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 Dyson said to our staff, “We just want you to be true to your words.”
The Players Coalition, a group of about 40 NFL players led by Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin, the latter of whom recently gave up his football career to work full time on criminal justice reform, are now doing the hard work behind the scenes to try to influence political leaders to make legislative and policy changes focused on criminal justice reform. They have done so because they have seen it as the greatest civil rights problem of their time, a problem that has harmed their loved ones, friends, communities and families. You cannot escape it if you are a person of color in the United States. These players are in the process of bringing athletes and coaches from other leagues to join with them, forming powerful alliances to lead to meaningful change. On virtually every Tuesday during the NFL season (the NFL’s traditional off-day), these committed athletes are using their platform as professional athletes in town halls, statehouses and even Washington, D.C., to listen, learn, meet with leaders, advocate for change and put the issues of criminal justice reform in the spotlight.
They are advocating for several specific changes:
■Ameliorating harsh sentencing guidelines and ending mandatory minimum sentences. Increasingly long sentences and harsh mandatory minimums — a minimum term of years people must serve before release — are major drivers of mass incarceration. According to the National Research Council, half of the 222 percent growth in the state prison population between 1980 and 2010 was because of an increase in time served. And these harsh policies do not treat people equally. While people of color make up less than 40 percent of the U.S. population, they currently make up 67 percent of the prison population. Many mandatory minimum sentences specifically targeted people of color, such as the lengthy sentences imposed for crack possession in the 1980s and ’90s. We should dial back these policies.
■Enacting clean slate laws. Exacerbating the problem of mass incarceration is that, even after someone is released from prison, the stigma of a misdemeanor or felony conviction makes finding gainful employment difficult, if not impossible. This affects not only the individual but their family and community. The Players Coalition is working in support of legislation that would expunge convictions after a certain period of time of good behavior.
■Eliminating cash bail. Holding people presumed to be innocent in jail pre-trial simply because they cannot afford to pay their bail extracts huge human and financial costs. It costs taxpayers $38 million a day and $14 billion a year. Being in jail often also costs the accused employment and the ability to support family — all without being convicted of a crime. It isn’t necessary; in Washington, D.C., they have eliminated cash bail. People are held if they are a flight risk or a danger to the community. Otherwise, they are released, can work and go to school, and come to court. In addition, bail hasn’t even been the most effective method of getting people to appear in court. Text message reminders have proven to be more effective.
■Reforming juvenile justice.As of 2015, states are five times more likely to lock up black kids in a juvenile facility than white kids. About 2,300 people have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. In Wayne County — which includes Detroit — we have the second-largest concentration of people sentenced to die in jail as kids, and 92% of them are black. With studies showing that the human brain doesn’t reach full maturity until about age 25, essentially ending all hope of productive lives for these kids when they are still teenagers is not only harsh but wrong. It is also costly in terms of both taxpayer dollars and human capital.
■Ending police brutality and racial bias in police departments. This was the issue that started the current player protests. The athletes have been urging police departments to change and modernize their hiring practices and training in order to reduce racial bias among officers. In 2017 already, there have been about 200 police killings of black people, who are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. This disparate effect extends beyond police shootings, permeating all aspects of police-community contact. According to a Stanford University study, for example, officers stop black people for speeding at higher rates than white people, and they are 20 percent more likely to get a ticket. In Chicago, black and Hispanic drivers who were pulled over were four times more likely to be searched as whites, even though city police department data shows that contraband is found on whites twice as often.
I stand with these athletes — in support of both these causes and their patriotism. I hope others will join me in supporting them.
Stan Van Gundy is head coach of the Detroit Pistons. This piece originally appeared Nov. 14 on TIME.com.