By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said on Thursday he expects players to stand during the U.S. national anthem, which has long been a league rule, rather than follow the lead of NFL players who have been kneeling in protest.
The controversial issue of kneeling during the anthem has become more prevalent in the NFL in a gesture intended to call attention to what protesting players see as a pattern of racism in the treatment of African-Americans by U.S. police.
But Silver does not anticipate such gestures on the NBA's hardwood courts when the 2017-18 season begins next month.
"On the anthem specifically, we have a rule that requires our players to stand for the anthem. It’s been a rule as long as I’ve been involved with the league, and my expectation is that our players will continue to stand for the anthem," Silver told a news conference after the NBA's Board of Governors meetings.
"Last year many of our teams locked arms during the anthem, which I felt was a respectful show of unity. Many of our players have spoken out already about their plan to stand for the anthem. And I think they understand how divisive an issue it is in our society right now."
The gesture was initiated last season by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and has since caught the attention of U.S. President Donald Trump, who last week called for NFL owners to fire those who refuse to stand.
Two days after Trump's comments, NFL teams staged a show of solidarity on Sunday by kneeling, linking arms or staying off the field during the U.S. national anthem.
"It’s disheartening to me to see so much disunity in our society. I think that sports historically, and in the NBA in particular, has been a unifying force," said Silver.
"While there’s always been disagreements in society, sports arenas have been places where people from all walks of life have come together and for a common experience."
While Silver acknowledged that freedom of expression is a core principle of the United States he said that given the platform NBA players have, whether through engagement with the media or social media, that they have those opportunities for their voices to be heard.
Silver did not say what would happen if any NBA players refused to stand during the "Star-Spangled Banner," simply adding: "All I can say is if that were to happen, we’ll deal with it when it happens."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)