How cynical opportunism threatens the movement for social justice.
On May 31st, 2020, amidst a newly reopened national conversation about race, ignited by outrage over an unspeakable tragedy caught on video, former Sacramento King, Demarcus Cousins reached out to his former coworker, Grant Napear, on Twitter to ask, “what’s your take on [Black Lives Matter]?” What happened next would be sufficient to end Napear’s career with the Kings, for whom he had been the play-by-play commentator for over 30 years. Caught in the middle of a global pandemic and a cultural reckoning, many Americans and people around the world have been cycling between anger, fear, and frustration for the past three months. So many things haven’t added up during this pandemic, and whether you’re left-leaning or right-leaning politically, you likely want heads to roll. As of right now, we have no neatly organized lists of old-guard and intelligentsia to blame for the current destruction, so in its absence, some have taken to satisfying their blood-lust in other ways. Some of this restlessness has kicked off a meaningful and overdue revivification of the conversation about police violence and the blatant inequalities in opportunities and outcomes for African Americans in our country, but as in any frenzy, the scene is ripe for opportunists and for the settling of old scores. These old scores may be relevant to the issue of the day or not, but the opportunity lies in framing more than substance. Napear has found himself caught in the middle of an old fight, a new fight, an opportunity, and an old acquaintance seeking revenge. While this may seem small and irreverent to the larger issues and conversations worth having today, the potential lasting consequences of this small event should worry everyone.
Cousins was drafted by the Kings from the University of Kentucky in 2010 and was with the team until 2017. While in Sacramento, Cousins showed enormous promise that he might return the team to its glory days of the early 2000’s. He was indisputably one of the most talented and effective big men in the league. His tenure was marked by highlight reel dunks, thrilling drives to the rim, last minute heroics, technical fouls, arguments that seemed to never end, fights on the court, zero playoffs appearances, and antics that eventually would grow tired to fans and commentators alike. As Cousins’ career progressed, distaste for actions that seemed to occur more and more frequently as his star power grew, was broadcast nightly through Napear’s microphone. Questions about the culture of the team began to arise, and with no playoffs appearances in over a decade, many began to see the superstar as a liability.
On February 20, 2017, Cousins was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans and seemed to be on his way to his first playoffs appearance. The tandem he formed with another dynamic big man, Anthony Davis, seemed unstoppable. They were two huge, talented, athletic centers overpowering their opponents and winning in fantastic fashion. Not only were they headed for the playoffs, but perhaps not stopping there. Then, at the end of a January match-up versus the Houston Rockets, Cousins went down with a torn left achilles, and his season was over. It was a tragic sight. Even Kings fans who wanted to see Cousins go rooted for him to succeed elsewhere. It was clear that his post-Kings success would have to wait.
Cousins moved on, accepting a contract worth far less than his physical talents should have demanded, and signed with the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. One could assume that after so many years in the league without playing a single postseason game, Cousins just wanted to taste success and relevance for the first time, and was willing to sacrifice millions of dollars to get it. However, there was speculation that no team would take the risk with Cousins due to his attitude and antics, described above, and he took what he could get by accepting such a contract. Cousins was not naive to the way he was portrayed on the air during games while in Sacramento. The professionals who hold the mic and call NBA games have the privilege and responsibility of building up players careers with their anecdotes and insights. It would not be unreasonable for Cousins to feel though Napear had abused this role and turned the fanbase against him. Not only would Napear disparage Cousins during the games, but he also hosted a radio show in Sacramento in which his abrasive, no-nonsense, takedown-style is relentless in “calling it like it is.” This personal flair made him loved and loathed by fans, but would demand listenership and frequent stand-in spots on the nationally syndicated Jim Rome Show, for its undeniable entertainment value. Napear is sharp, quick, and can be downright mean when he feels like it. That’s his personal brand.
After years in the same chair calling Kings games, Napear was on his way to seeing his name in the rafters of Golden 1 Arena. A New York State native, Napear had found a home in Sacramento. He had been there through bad times and good, through unbelievable seasons including one that would end short of the Finals in a series clouded with questionable calls made by a referee who would later be sent to federal prison for a gambling scandal, and also through this current 14-season long playoffs drought. Grant has become known for his trademark phrases, known across the league, like “Put it in the book and send him to the line!” and “If you don’t like that, you don’t like NBA basketball!” When the 2011 season ended, and fans were unsure whether the Kings would be staying in Sacramento or moving onto another city, Napear got choked up and cried live on the air in expressing how much the team meant to the city and how much the city meant to him. Through the bad times and the good, the one thing consistent for the Sacramento Kings was Grant Napear.
In the years since the above video, the Kings have still not made the playoffs, Napear still called the games, and that would bring us to the date of May 31st, 2020. Upon receiving Cousins’ tweet, Napear would reply, “Hey!!!! How are you? Thought you forgot about me. Haven’t heard from you in years. ALL LIVES MATTER…EVERY SINGLE ONE!!!” Is it plausible that Cousins, after years of having no contact with Napear genuinely wanted to hear his thoughts on this cultural event? Not really. Cousins set a trap for Napear and it worked as designed. He even said as much, “Lol as expected.” Fans then explained to Napear the folly of his words, and in shock and horror of how they could be misinterpreted, within an hour of the original tweet Napear corrected himself and used the correct language, “I understand your point completely… So do black lives matter? Hell yes!!!” But it was too late. A moment’s ignorance in a 33 year career, interpreting a phrase literally, Napear had failed to appreciate its cultural weight. The next day, he would be fired by the Kings.
The horrific murder of George Floyd and the response it inspired has served as a wake up call for many of the nation to the racial disparities and injustices engrained in our criminal justice system. Union power has made convicting a police officer on anything other than an egregious murder caught on film and a signed confession nearly impossible to prosecute to the full extent that any other private citizen would face in the same position. Unfair treatment by police officers so frequently falls on African Americans, while those with white skin have little to no concept of what it is to be unnecessarily harassed by the cops in such a manner. This is just one of the defining characteristics of what has come to be known as,“white privilege.” We tend to assume the world is as we see it. One can understand the history of our nation’s original sin, be informed about previous civil rights movements, and assume the struggle is largely over. A caucasian person who spends no time around African Americans can jump to this conclusion based on his or her experience alone. Then, consider the extra layer of overconfidence that comes with being a white person around African Americans on a regular basis, all of whom are doing extraordinarily well financially. A person in Napear’s position could likely believe the greatest struggles of racism to be largely over. Consider how every time an event such as the most recent tragedy occurs, and there is a public outcry, social media is flooded with white-skinned Americans acknowledging their privilege for the first time and admitting to their ignorance in a plea to be educated for having never thought of these issues before in such a light. Most are not famous, and when they tweet something demonstrating their lack of expertise, it is taken for what it is: a teachable moment and little more. In the world of our not too distant past, such conversations were held face-to-face and we could all make mistakes in private, but due to a changing trends in communication, and with social distancing on top of it, much of our discourse now happens on social media, where there is no margin for error.
The phrase itself, “all lives matter” is complicated. Literally, most would agree it to be true. Interpreted as, “every human being has value and deserves life” it is uncontroversial, but its problem lies in taking the air out of the civil rights movement of our day, which has made the phrase “black lives matter” its rallying cry. When evidence in viral videos demonstrates that perhaps those in power believe black lives don’t matter, it is important to say aloud that they do in fact matter, and then create policies that reinforce those words. Memes and cartoons have made their way across the internet to demonstrate the logical flaws in the frequently uttered knee-jerk “all lives matter” response. For example, our response to breast cancer awareness is not to say “all cancers matter.” Another effective example is that of a house on fire: When seeking water in an attempt to save the house, the fool replies “but all houses matter.” True, but the one on fire is the one that matters right now. The other house matters, and when it catches on fire we will put it out, but let’s triage the one that needs saving now.
But to defend Napear is not to defend the term “all lives matter.” One can abhor that phrase and still find what happened to him to be wrong. Because that is what we are considering at this point. Was uttering that one phrase alone sufficient to end his career? Former Kings, Chris Webber and Matt Barnes chimed into the tweet thread saying things like, “we all know who Grant is.” So who is Grant Napear? If there is sufficient evidence for Napear’s closet racism, they should share it. A hunch or a feeling should not be sufficient to end a man’s career. As the facts are now, he was fired for the crime of possibly harboring anti-black bias in his heart, when his actions say otherwise.
We all occasionally judge books by their cover. Racists do it; non-racists do it. Put frankly, if I am judging a book by its cover, I would say that Napear just looks like a racist. A pasty white 6’4” bombastic redhead with a knack for talking down to those with whom he disagrees fits the shell of a racist. Any crotchety old man can look at the youth of today and make a laundry list of things to complain about. Now consider that in the world of professional basketball, Napear works with African Americans on a regular basis, many of whom are young, with strong personalities. What happens when the crotchety old man rolling his eyes about “kids these days” is white and the “kids” are often black? A generational divide can quickly resemble a race divide. And while I defend against judging a man such as Napear for how he looks, I of course acknowledge that this is what African Americans face daily. If one is going to spend his or her time warning of the dangers of this sort of prejudgement, the most obvious and harmful to warn against is that of race bias against black people. That is true, but logical fallacies that make this sort of thinking so asinine and insane do not disappear when the subject changes.
There are two other instances of potential “closet racism,” which could paint a picture of Napear as that which he has been accused of. In one instance, he remarked that it was interesting that Donald Sterling hired a black GM and a black head coach of his NBA franchise and was such a flagrant racist, when so many of the GM’s and head coaches in the league are white. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive and Napear never defended Sterling, besides that one remark. Additionally, Napear was critical of Colin Kaepernick’s protests in the NFL. As the years have passed since Kaepernick’s original protest, there has been revisionist history on both sides, but it is important to remember that good people came down on either side of the argument, including Barack Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who were both critical of Kaepernick. Similar to today, a stance regarding a player protesting the flag (and that’s what it originally was, as Kaepernick himself said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” then later revised his protest to an act to “raise awareness” for the issue concerned, which should concern all of us) was conflated with a stance on the issue of police brutality itself. We tend to hear from people what we expect them to say, and conflations like these are just one of the many shortcuts in human psychology, against which we desperately need to guard, in order to be fair to our fellow humans.
Now consider this: At the beginning of last season, the Sacramento Kings hired a new head coach, Luke Walton. Shortly after they announced his hiring, Walton was accused of sexual assault. The Kings did not fire Walton. Months later, Walton’s accuser dropped the charges. The Kings did the right thing in assuming Walton was innocent until proven guilty. They even took a risk by keeping him employed while the cultural climate could have easily forced their hand. Now, consider what Napear is being accused of in this context. The Kings are demonstrating to the league and to their fans, that they believe formal and legally-filed rape allegations are less problematic than inference of quietly-held, never acted upon race bias. Perhaps Napear is guilty as charged, but according to the loudest voices in the woke elite, all white people secretly harbor some racist attitude unbeknownst to them. If this is true, then Adam Sterling, Phil Jackson, Steve Balmer, and Mark Cuban are all closet racists themselves. Grant Napear is just the unlucky one who fell into a trap set by a disgruntled old coworker. What Napear was fired for was not being a racist, but for failing to use the language of day chosen to say so.
Racism is rightly being called out for what it is as a destructive embedded force in our world, and the original sin for which our nation has never recovered. But whereas once, one could be fired for saying something racist, now one can be fired for saying something anti-racist, with the wrong words. The Kings are a private company and they are free to hire and fire their employees as they like. Coaches are fired all the time, even when improving on a previous coach’s record. They may fire a man who has worked there for over 30 years if and when they see fit to do so, but doing so in this manner sets a dangerous precedent. We like to believe that we will not make the same mistakes of the past, but I would ask liberals to consider where we already have. Comparisons are made of the political right in this country today to the most frightening examples of fascism in history. Is this hyperbole? Maybe. Maybe not. But comparisons of the political left in this country could just as easily be made to the most frightening example of Stalinism, and the similarities between political cults on either side get harder and harder to ignore.
Napear has not been sent to the gulag for failing to say the party slogan correctly, but he did lose his career for it. As liberals would agree when observing the cult of personality that has arisen on the right, individual exceptions and excuses quickly snowball into horrifying expressions from friends and neighbors, whom we thought were normal just weeks ago. We would be well-served to acknowledge that we are no wiser or more ethical than our neighbors, and that fact-denying vindictive political ideology is a killer regardless of whether it’s your side fighting for what it thinks is right, or the other side fighting for what it thinks is right. We all live in this world together and must find a way to do it in peace, or risk death tolls and despair known all too well throughout history and all too foreign to us today. Maybe Napear was rightly fired. Perhaps clear-cut examples of his racist heart are about to flood the Sacramento Bee and SportsCenter, which will make this article largely irrelevant and all for naught. I hope they do, because if such examples don’t arise, and Napear is not given the chance to defend himself or get his job back, we all need to worry; it is just a sign of things to come.