Kravitz: Players should leave t-shirt activism at home

(photo courtesy LA Lakers' Twitter feed)
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Bob Kravitz

Adam Silver is a smart man. The newly-minted NBA commissioner knows who runs this league, and his name isn't Adam Silver. It's LeBron James. It's Chris Paul. It's Kobe Bryant. It's Carmelo Anthony. It's a lot of people who aren't named Adam Silver, who couldn't dunk on a Nerf basket.

So his response to the “I Can't Breathe'' t-shirts currently being worn by some NBA players during pre-game warmups can best be described as conflicted approval.

“I respect Derrick Rose and all of our players for voicing their personal views on important issues but my preference would be for player to abide by our on-court attire rules,'' Silver said.

Fines? There will be no fines. Not even a peep of approbation. Silver remembers better than anybody how the players supported him during the Donald Sterling fiasco.

Well, I think this is dangerous and the NBA is headed down a slippery slope.

While I applaud the players for taking a stand, I wonder: What will happen when a player dons a t-shirt whose message doesn't fall inside the accepted narrative? What happens if a player decides to support law enforcement and wear a St. Louis Police Department shirt, or a Staten Island PD shirt? What happens when a deeply religious player wears a “pro-life'' shirt, or a more liberal one calls for “pro-choice.'' Where will Silver be when a player wears a shirt taking issue with the CIA after recent reports?

You see where I'm going here?

Free speech is a double-edged sword. It allows for the expression of speech most find palatable. It also allows for skin-heads to march, for unpopular speech to proliferate.

If players want to tweet about it, put it on Instagram, stand on a street-corner soapbox and scream to the heavens about social injustice, that's just fine. It's a whole lot better than standing up for nothing other than commerce, much like Michael Jordan, who famously said that Republicans buy sneakers, too.

But Silver is opening a Pandora's Box.

This would never happen in the NFL, where players get fined if their socks are too low or too high. Remember when Peyton Manning wanted to wear high-top cleats to honor the late Johnny Unitas? He backed down when he learned how much of a fine he would have to pay. In the NFL, if your shoes aren't properly tied, you get a FedEx envelope from the league on a Wednesday.

Don't misunderstand: I applaud athletes who take strong stances on social issues. I remember 1968 (I'm old) and thought the black power salute at the Olympics was the coolest thing I'd ever seen, especially since it seemed to annoy my father. I was always a huge Ali fan. I got to know Jim Brown a little bit during my time in Cleveland, and was always struck by his conviction and intellect.

Sports and politics have been forever enmeshed. Only a fool thinks they exist in parallel universes. These men and women aren't just here to entertain us, just like social activists like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie are not just here to make us forget our troubles for two hours at a movie theater. Sports have long been at the forefront of social and political movements. Baseball was integrated long before Brown v. Board of Education struck down the notion of separate-but-equal.

I can fully understand why NBA players - whose league is roughly 80 percent black - have taken on the issue of police brutality. Michael Brown could have been one of their brothers. Eric Garner could have been one of their brothers. I'm guessing a percentage of them have had frightening experiences with law enforcement at some point in their lives. This hits home. This is personal, an issue that speaks to the black experience in a country that is a marathon route away from being a post-racial society.

I had absolutely no problem with the Miami Heat taking a picture wearing hoodies in remembrance of Trayvon Martin. I had absolutely no problem with the St. Louis Rams emerging from the tunnel with five players using the "hands-up, don't-shoot" gesture. I just worry where this T-shirt activism could be heading.

Don't talk to me about First Amendment rights. I have the First Amendment right to write whatever expletive-laden nonsense I want on Twitter - and WTHR has the right to fire my sorry behind. A private company can, and will, and does limit free speech. Pro sports leagues routinely fine players for misguided quotes or tweets. Wasn't Sterling, the curmudgeonly Clippers former owner, merely exercising his First Amendment rights, however repellent and hateful?

The NBA, and Silver, has every right to demand that players leave the T-shirt social activism at home.

But he won't.

Because he's smart.

And a little bit spineless.