OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) — Players for the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team knelt during the national anthem Saturday, ignoring threats by a state representative to strip the team of its tax breaks for the next four years if they took part in the league-wide social justice protest.
Thunder and Utah Jazz players knelt and locked arms while wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts before tipoff of their game inside the NBA’s “bubble” isolation zone at Walt Disney World in Orlando. They were joined by almost all of both teams’ coaches and staff, including Thunder head coach Billy Donovan.
The protest took place one day after Oklahoma Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, threatened to reconsider the team’s tax breaks through 2024 under the Oklahoma Quality Jobs Act, calling the act of kneeling “disrespectful” to the flag.
“This anti-patriotic act makes clear the NBA’s support of the Black Lives Matter group and its goal of defunding our nation’s police, its ties to Marxism and its efforts to destroy nuclear families,” Roberts said in a statement. “If the Oklahoma City Thunder leadership and players follow the current trend of the NBA by kneeling during the national anthem prior to Saturday’s game, perhaps we need to reexamine the significant tax benefits the State of Oklahoma granted the Oklahoma City Thunder organization when they came to Oklahoma.”
Roberts added the money would be better spent on police departments.
The Quality Jobs Act was enacted in 1993 and was intended to mostly attract manufacturing jobs, but has since been used to promise millions of dollars every year to oil and gas firms and the Thunder basketball team. The tax breaks helped lure the Thunder’s predecessor — the Seattle SuperSonics — to Oklahoma City in 2008.
The Thunder did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday about Roberts’ threats.
The Thunder and Jazz were last scheduled to play each other on March 11 in Oklahoma City, days before the country began shutting down and adhering to stay-at-home orders as the virus spread. The game was abruptly canceled minutes before tipoff after Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for Covid-19.
This led to the immediate cancellation of a game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings later that night due to a referee being possibly exposed to the virus when he worked a Jazz game two days earlier. This resulted in NBA commissioner Adam Silver suspending the remainder of the season indefinitely.
The season resumed on July 30 inside the NBA bubble with no fans in attendance. Players are effectively quarantined with their teammates and opponents at three resorts within the Disney World complex and are allowed no guests. The NBA plans on the playoffs beginning on Aug. 17 with the NBA Finals ending by Oct. 13, at the latest.
Thunder point guard Chris Paul also serves as president of the players’ union, the National Basketball Players Association. He announced a deal Tuesday with the league to allow players to wear social justice or charity messaging on their jerseys during games inside the bubble. The agreement comes after months of nightly protests in American cities after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May.
Paul was careful to note that players would not be pressured to wear jerseys with social justice messaging. NBA analyst and former player Charles Barkley shared similar sentiments when he said players who choose not to kneel during the national anthem should not be vilified.
“The national anthem means different things to different people,” Barkley said on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” Thursday. “I am glad these guys are unified. But if people do not kneel, they are not a bad person. I want to make that perfectly clear.”