Calling race relations “the elephant in the room in our country” Monday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich lauded the courage displayed by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in taking a principled stand against police killings of African-Americans.

Popovich said Spurs players will be allowed to determine any similar actions they may wish to take without prior interference from him or the Spurs organization.

One of the more socially conscious coaches in all of pro sports, Popovich praised Kaepernick for helping maintain an important national conversation about race relations during his remarks to reporters at media day, which preceded the Tuesday opening of training camp for the 2016-17 Spurs season. The Spurs coach said other athletes who have joined in recent pre-game protests, including players from the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, have helped to further the conversation.

“I absolutely understand why (Kaepernick and other athletes) are doing what they’re doing, and I respect their courage for what they’ve done,” Popovich said. “The question is whether it will do any good, or not, because it seems that change really seems to happen through political pressure, whether it’s Dr. (Martin Luther) King getting large groups together and boycotting buses, or what’s happened in (North) Carolina with the NBA and other organizations pulling events to make known what’s going on.

“But I think the important thing that Kaepernick and others have done is to keep it in the conversation. When’s the last time you heard the name Michael Brown?” Popovich said. “With our 24/7 news, things seem to drift. We’re all trying to just exist and survive.”

When asked about his general thoughts about the civil unrest that has followed police shootings in America, Popovich dismissed his qualifications as a commentator on such critical issues. But in doing so, he displayed some of the common sense that has spawned a whimsical “Popovich for President” movement, complete with bumper stickers, in San Antonio.

“I think it’s really dangerous to answer such important questions that have confounded so many people for hundreds of years. To ask me to give you my solutions – as if I had any – in 30 seconds…” he said. “So if you want to be specific about a question, I’ll be more than happy to answer it because I think race is the elephant in the room in our country. The social situation that we’ve all experienced is absolutely disgusting in a lot of ways. What’s really interesting is the people that jump right away to say one is attacking the police, or the people that jump on the other side. It’s a question where understanding and empathy has to trump – no pun intended – any quick reactions of an ideological or demagogical nature. It’s a topic that can’t just be swung at. People have to be very accurate and direct in what they say and do.

“It’s easier for white people because we haven’t lived that experience. It’s not just a rogue policeman, or a policeman exerting too much force or power, when we know that most of the police are just trying to do their job, which is very difficult. I’d be scared to death if I was a policeman and I stopped a car. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. And part of that in our country is exacerbated by the preponderance of guns that other countries don’t have to deal with. It gets very complicated.”

Popovich said Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the national anthem before 49ers games has forced an important examination of America’s problems with race.

San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich responds to a reporter during a press conference. Photo by Scott Ball.
San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich responds to a reporter during a press conference. Photo by Scott Ball.

“At this point, when somebody like Kaepernick brings attention to this, 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,” the Spurs coach said. “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?” Popovich asked. “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.”

Popovich said each of his players will be allowed to determine, on their own, if they wish to join in any sort of protest at Spurs games.

“My players are engaged citizens who are fully capable of understanding what their values are, and what they think is appropriate and inappropriate, and what they feel strongly about,” he said. “Whatever actions may or may not be taken are their decisions, and I’m not going to tell anyone ahead of time that if they don’t do A, B and C, they’re going to be gone or traded. I think that’s ignorant.”

Whatever form of protest Spurs players may want to take will be up to each individual player, Popovich said.

“I think to each his own,” he said. “I think it depends on a person’s life experience, and what they value, and how strongly they feel about it. I don’t think a condemnation of any sort of act should happen until it’s thought out. For instance, 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.”

Popovich acknowledged seeing a few “Popovich for President” bumper stickers during the off-season.

“I have,” he said. “Very flattering, but misplaced. I’m not smart enough.”

With that, the man who would not be president said he intended to watch every moment of Monday night’s first presidential debate.

Top image: Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich smiles as he responds to a reporter.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Mike Monroe

Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning NBA and Spurs reporter who recently retired from the Express-News and is now contributing to the Rivard Report.