Leadership from every N.B.A. team — in some way, shape or form — has weighed in on the death of George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. Every team, that is, except the Knicks.
And the franchise’s owner, James L. Dolan, made clear on Monday that no such statement was coming.
“We at Madison Square Garden stand by our values of a respectful and peaceful workplace. We always will,” Dolan wrote in an email to employees, which was obtained by ESPN. “As companies in the business of sports and entertainment, we are not any more qualified than anyone else to offer our opinion on social matters.”
Dolan’s response was in stark contrast to that of other teams in the league and that of several players who have joined the protests roiling the nation on a nightly basis. The N.B.A. is the rare sports league that has outwardly encouraged players for years to be socially conscious on certain issues: Police brutality is one of them. One of the Knicks’ own players, point guard Dennis Smith Jr., participated in protests in Fayetteville, N.C., over the weekend.
Dolan’s email came a day after Commissioner Adam Silver wrote a letter to league employees on the matter. “I am heartened,” he wrote, “by the many members of the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. family — players, coaches, legends, team owners and executives at all levels — speaking out to demand justice, urging peaceful protest and working for meaningful change.”
To that end, several team social media accounts have been full of messages from players referring to Floyd or otherwise referring to the protests. Some teams in the N.B.A. have been direct. The Washington Wizards issued a statement from its players on Sunday that said — in capital letters — “WE WILL NO LONGER TOLERATE THE ASSASSINATION OF PEOPLE OF COLOR IN THIS COUNTRY,” adding, “WE WILL NO LONGER ACCEPT THE ABUSE OF POWER FROM LAW ENFORCEMENT,” and “WE WILL NO LONGER SHUT UP AND DRIBBLE.” One franchise, the Minnesota Timberwolves, shared a video showing multiple players going to demonstrations. Representatives for the Knicks did not respond to a request for comment.
The Knicks’ crosstown rival, the Nets, released a statement the same day that said, “We mourn the senseless loss of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others who lost their lives because of racial bias.” Taylor, an emergency room technician who was black, was shot in her own apartment by the police in Louisville, Ky., after the execution of a “no knock warrant” in March, and Arbery was a 25-year-old black man who was pursued by armed white residents while on a jog in February and was killed.
Some teams spoke through some of their most visible figures or the owners themselves. The Toronto Raptors shared an op-ed on social media written by team president Masai Ujiri for The Globe and Mail.
“A death like this happens,” Ujiri wrote, “and we rage about it, and the headlines recede, and the world moves on, and then a few weeks later something else happens and we’re outraged again and then we move on, again. We have to stop that cycle.” Ujiri had his own altercation with a police officer last year after the Raptors won the championship at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif.
Michael Jordan, the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, said in a statement, “I stand with those who are calling out the ingrained racism and violence toward people of color in our country. We have had enough.”
The reaction to Floyd’s death hasn’t been limited to team statements. Multiple N.B.A. coaches banded together to form a committee to combat racism, and all of the league’s coaches issued a statement on Monday condemning Floyd’s death, saying that “the reality is that African-Americans are targeted and victimized on a daily basis.” One of those coaches, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, called a reporter for The Nation to express criticism of President Trump on Sunday. The Spurs did not release an official statement and have not addressed Floyds death on their social media platforms, but Popovich is also the team’s president.
“If Trump had a brain, even if it was 99 percent cynical, he would come out and say something to unify people,” Popovich told The Nation. “But he doesn’t care about bringing people together. Even now. That’s how deranged he is. It’s all about him. It’s all about what benefits him personally. It’s never about the greater good. And that’s all he’s ever been.”
Dolan’s two-decade-long tenure as the Knicks’ owner has been tumultuous and mostly filled with losing. He has often clashed with fans, among whom he is reviled. And his statement also stands in contrast to his own willingness to be publicly political. During the 2016 presidential election cycle, Dolan spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect Trump as president. He has also previously weighed in after the shooting of a black man. He once sang a song about Trayvon Martin with his band, JD & the Straight Shot. Some of the lyrics: “Who is that walking?/A shadow in the street/Looks like trouble from a judgment seat/There’s no good under that hood.”
The Knicks were on pace to miss the playoffs for the seventh straight season — until the campaign was postponed because of the coronavirus in March. Shortly after the suspension, Dolan announced that he had tested positive for the virus. He has since recovered.
In February, fans at Madison Square Garden chanted “Sell the team!” at Dolan. Dolan even got into a dispute with the Knicks’ most famous and dedicated fan, the film director Spike Lee, after a conflict over, of all things, which entrance Lee should use at the arena. Lee vowed not to attend another Knicks game this season.
In response to Dolan’s email, Lee said in a text message, “Not Surprised.”