Jonathan Isaac was the only NBA player who chose to stand during leaguewide demonstrations against racial injustice. His why only needs to satisfy him.
It is hard to blend in when you are 6-foot-11 in a crowd. There is no disappearing into the ether or getting lost among a sea of people. Someone is always noticing. Someone will inevitably have their eyes drawn to you.
It is hard to blend in and not get noticed when you are 6-foot-11 standing while everyone else is kneeling. You stand out among the crowd.
It was then hard not to notice Jonathan Isaac, the only person standing and not wearing a black “Black Lives Matter” shirt during the national anthem, a song that has become the platform for protest on the treatment of Black people in America.
Jonathan Isaac was the only player across the league in its first two nights back from the pandemic-related hiatus not to kneel during the anthem and make this statement both of solidarity with a league that is predominately Black and of the necessary changes society has to make.
Isaac was not alone. San Antonio Spurs coaches Gregg Popovich, an outspoken supporter of Black Lives Matter and other social justice causes, and Becky Hammon also chose to stand. Popovich would not elaborate on his decision to stand, but his history likely absolved him of criticism.
Isaac did not have that history. And so he stood out even more. Everyone had to ask him, as a public figure standing out in such a public way: Why?
“Absolutely, I believe that Black Lives Matter. A lot went into my decision and part of it is my thought that kneeling or wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt do not go hand in hand with supporting Black lives. I felt like just me personally and what it is that I believe and standing on the stance that I do believe that Black Lives Matter but I just felt like it was a decision that I had to make. I didn’t feel like putting that shirt on and kneeling went hand in hand with Black lives.
“My life has been supported through the Gospel. Everyone is made in God’s image and we all fall short of God’s glory. Each and every one of us do things every day that we shouldn’t do. We say things we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t hate or dislike. Sometimes it gets to a point where we point fingers whose evil is worse. Sometimes it comes down to whose evil is most visible. I felt like I wanted to take a stand on we all make mistakes but the Gospel says there is Grace for us.
“If we all come to an understanding of that and God wants to have a relationship with us, we can get past all the things that are messed up and jacked up. When you look around, racism isn’t the only thing that plagues our society, that plagues our nation and plagues our world. I feel like coming together that we want to get past not only racism but everything that plagues our society is the Gospel.”
Bleacher/Report’s Taylor Rooks, who asked the opening question asking for Isaac’s reasoning for not wearing the Black Lives Matter t-shirt that elicited the above response, asked what the relationship was between religion and the movement to fight against racial injustice and against police brutality, and he repeated that Black people are supported through the Gospel and that no one should point fingers at one another for their sins or problems.
Isaac’s answer appears to be both preachings to turn the other cheek and urge everyone to seek empathy in their own sins before casting aspersions on others and perhaps hiding a message on a topic a young man is not entirely confident in.
Breaking from the crowd
Considering how bold and confident NBA players have been on these issues — leaders as some of the most visible and successful Black men in American society — it is easy to forget they are all still so incredibly young. Not all of them may have found their voice or their perspective even on experiences that many of their peers have lived.
Part of the players association agreement with the NBA in resuming the season amidst a coronavirus pandemic and social unrest after several recent murders of black men and women, some by police officers, was that social justice issues would be at the forefront.
The issue is not whether or not Isaac should have knelt or stood the anthem. Just like when Colin Kaepernick originally knelt during the anthem to protest police brutality and demand the United States live up to its promise, the meaning of each gesture and how anyone chooses to protest or not protest is truly their own.
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No one can dictate those terms to him. Nor should they be able to. And his teammates — and even Brooklyn Nets players there for the protest — respected that decision. Even those who disagreed with Isaac’s message within the NBA still respect his decision not to kneel.
“That’s his choice, but we all support him,” Evan Fournier said after Friday’s game. “No [he did not explain his choice], and to be honest, he doesn’t need to. That’s his choice. We all decided that we were going to kneel. But his choice was not to kneel. That’s his choice. There was no pressure from any of us to do anything.”
“People protest in their own way,” Nets guard Garrett Temple said (via Nick Friedell of ESPN). “If somebody believes that isn’t the way they want to protest, then they don’t do it. At the end of the day, I don’t have a problem with what Jonathan did. I only have a problem with it if he says, ‘Black lives don’t matter,’ or he disagrees with what we’re fighting for. But I think, knowing him the little that I do, I think that he agrees with what we are trying to accomplish here in America, in terms of trying to confront and get in front of racial injustice and help our people that have been marginalized for so long. So I have no problem with how he protests, what he thinks about other people’s protests. There’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat. If that’s his reason, good for him.”
Other people can debate whether Isaac hit that mark or not.
Those who feel he did not should hope that Isaac can either learn more about how his words landed for them through open and honest conversations. He is still 22 years old, after all, still a young man with a lot of life to experience.
This at least can be an opportunity to further grow and deepen important conversations for all of us — no matter our age, honestly.
Sending a clear message
The unfortunate part about leading a public life is you are forced to answer for personal decisions and then your words can be used in ways you did not intend.
Especially with disingenuous politicized voices trying to undermine social justice and civil rights movement like Black Lives Matter, it could become easy for Isaac to lose his own message.
As a white-passing male (I am Jewish, and so do not consider myself white, although I acknowledge the privilege my skin tone and gender affords), I do not have any authority to speak on how Black-American should go about this fight. I can only be an ally and a willing listener in these necessary conversations we need to have as a society.
Longtime NBA writer Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo! Sports, who is Black, raised his biggest concern that Jonathan Isaac took a potentially powerful moment to push for more concrete change or a clear goal for his decision to stand out but instead gave fuel to those looking for the OK to push views that undermine necessary social change.
Indeed, already insincere voices have celebrated and adopted Isaac for their own political gains.
And that is what nobody wants.
Isaac said he does not want that either. This had nothing to do with any political movements — on either side of the spectrum — in his mind. This was his personal decision about how to represent himself and say how he would go about fixing the world.
To him, kneeling or wearing a t-shirt will not do the job. To him, on a very basic level, the only path to solving the world’s problems is through the Bible and giving yourself to God.
That may work as satisfactory for some people. It may not work for others.
Controlling the message
But Jonathan Isaac deserves to control his message, whatever that message is and whether the majority of people agree with that message or not.
Coach Steve Clifford said the team had a conversation about what they would do before Friday’s game. The team would support each other and each individual’s decision with what to do. That is part of living in this country.
Everyone should do what they are comfortable with.
“I told them they know who I am as a man and they know who I am as a person and what it is I believe,” Isaac said after Friday’s game. “They respected me for the decision that I made. And it was all love. they understood For me personally, it’s not coming from a position of wanting to be popular or wanting to be seen or wanting to be anything other than a humble follower of Jesus. That’s where I stake my flag.”
Everyone knows what kind of man Isaac is and is still becoming. These protests are gestures to raise awareness. But what ultimately matters — and the players understand this too with several of the steps they have taken — is action.
It is action like the Magic’s involvement with Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, working to return the right to vote to felons who have completed their sentence and expand voting rights in the state. It is action like LeBron James donating $100,000 to that organization to ensure those same people can satisfy Florida’s requirements so they can vote in the upcoming election and his organization seeking to expand voting rights.
It is action like Isaac serving food to students in need when schools closed down, cutting off a vital food source for children in our community.
He has indeed walked the walk of a man who is trying to make his community better. In those words of religion, he has given Grace to those in need. He has lent himself to them and served them.
Isaac is not disingenuous in his beliefs. There is not a bone in his body that wants to harm anyone — at least not in any real way, he wants to compete and win on a basketball court, after all.
His answers may not satisfy everyone. They may want more explanation — personally, I do because the issues on the table are far too important to obfuscate or hide behind the language of the Bible.
But he does not owe that to anyone.
His actions and his words belong to himself. And that is ultimately what matters to each individual as they seek their place in these important conversations.