By Ken Reed
As a pro sports franchise, the San Antonio Spurs have been one of the most progressive across all sports. For example, they were the first team to put a heavy emphasis on targeting international basketball talent. They’ve also been a leader in player development, putting top-level coaches and trainers in place to holistically develop players — as athletes and people — once they land on the Spurs’ roster. The Spurs also made a commitment a couple decades ago to look for character first and talent second. The result has been cohesive teams and fewer on-and-off-court problems.
Those progressive basketball strategies have helped them win multiple NBA championships in one of pro sports’ smallest markets.
The Spurs have also been a progressive franchise when it comes to socio-cultural issues. They are led by Gregg Popovich, one of the most progressive coaches in sports when it comes to social and political issues. In a way, this fact is surprising given that Popovich is an Air Force Academy graduate and served five years of active duty in the United States Air Force. He’s also been in athletics as a coach for most of his adult life. Military and coaching careers generally produce a lot more conservative thinking than progressive.
But “Pop” is most definitely a progressive. Consider just a few of the issues he’s taken a stance on.
Popovich hired the first paid female assistant coach in NBA history in Becky Hammon. Later, he assigned her to be the head coach of the Spurs’ summer league team.
“I hired her because she was in my coaches meetings for an entire year because she was injured,” Popovich said.
“She’s got opinions and solid notions about basketball. Obviously, she was a great player. As a point guard, she’s a leader, she’s fiery, she’s got intelligence, and our guys just respected the heck out of her, so she’s coaching with us, she’s running drills. That’s why we made her a full-time coach and gave her the opportunity to coach at summer league. I don’t even look at it as, well, she’s the first female this and that and the other. She’s a coach, and she’s good at it.”
She’s a coach and she’s good at it. What an enlightening way to look at coaches, versus getting stuck on a person’s gender.
Popovich, who has been named the next USA men’s national basketball team coach, also demonstrated his progressive thinking on the topic of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest.
“With Kaepernick, a pretty good group of people immediately thought he was disrespecting the military. It had nothing to do with his 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.
“When somebody like Kaepernick brings attention to this (the growing tension between African Americans and police), and others who have, it makes people have to face the issue because it’s too easy to let it go because it’s not their daily experience. If it’s not your daily experience, you don’t understand it. I didn’t talk to my kids about how to act in front of a policeman when you get stopped. I didn’t have to do that. All of my black friends have done that. There’s something that’s wrong about that, and we all know that. What’s the solution? Nobody has figured it out. But for sure, the conversation has to stay fresh, it has to stay continuous, it has to be persistent, and we all have a responsibility to make sure that happens in our communities.”
On the subject of openly gay players on NBA rosters, Popovich once again weighed in with a progressive viewpoint.
“It’s going to happen, and when it does it’s going to be like a two-way street. One, the education will have to continue. You’ll have to educate your other players because some of them might not be as societal-wise mature and maybe haven’t grown enough. So you’ve got to continue to educate.
“The other half of it is, on leadership’s part you gotta say ‘figure it out, Jack.’ I mean, you guys, figure it out. You are going to have to handle it. This is the way it is. It’s a dual approach I think. Some of it’s got to be — not forced, but matter-of-factly stated that this is the world. Grow up, mature, widen your horizons. And secondly, be loving enough to continue to educate some of those that maybe never had an opportunity to change their mindset.”
Popovich might have been at his most passionate and progressive best when discussing the ramifications of the country electing Donald Trump president.
“I’ve spoken on this before and I probably will again. Right now I’m just trying to formulate thoughts. It’s still early and I’m still sick to my stomach. Not basically because the Republicans won or anything, but the disgusting tenor and tone and all the comments that have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic. And I live in that country where half the country ignored all that to elect someone. That’s the scariest part of the whole thing to me.
“It’s got nothing to do with the environment and Obamacare and all that other stuff. We live in a country that ignored all those values that we would hold our kids accountable for. They’d be grounded for years if they acted and said the things that have been said in that campaign by Donald Trump. I look at the evangelicals and I wonder, ‘Those values don’t mean anything to them?’
“All those values to me are more important than anybody’s skill in business or anything else because it tells who we are and how we want to live and what kind of people we are.
“I get it, of course we want him to be successful. We’re all gonna say that. Everybody wants him to be successful. It’s our country. We don’t want it to go down the drain. Any reasonable person would come to that conclusion, but that does not take away the fact that he used that fear-mongering and all the comments from day one. The race baiting with trying to make Barack Obama, our first black president, illegitimate. It leaves me wondering where I’ve been living and with whom I’m living.
“What gets lost in the process are African-Americans and Hispanics and women and the gay population, not to mention the eighth grade developmental stage exhibited by him when he made fun of the handicapped person. I mean, come on. That’s what a seventh-grade, eighth-grade bully does, and he was elected president of the United States! We would’ve scolded our kids, we would’ve have discussions and talked until we were blue in the face trying to get them to understand these things, and he is in charge of our country? That’s disgusting.”
“I’m a rich white guy, and I’m sick to my stomach thinking about it. I can’t imagine being a Muslim right now, or a woman, or an African-American, a Hispanic, a handicapped person, how disenfranchised they might feel.”
Here’s hoping Popovich keeps contributing to the marketplace of ideas — on both basketball topics and socio-cultural topics.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of FansPrint
- League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.