A national anthem law may have finally silenced the NBA’s most outspoken owner

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Photograph: Tony Gutierrez/AP

As a Texas law that amounts to a near-total ban on abortion continues to make shockwaves around the world, another measure in the state goes largely unnoticed. Effective as of last Wednesday, it requires any Texas professional sports team that receives state funding to play the national anthem during games. That measure, which began life in February with bipartisan support, has been dubbed the Star Spangled Banner Protection Act. But basketball fans may soon come to know it by another name – the Mark Cuban Rule.

In November 2020 the Dallas Mavericks owner quietly made the decision to stop playing the anthem before his team’s home games in solidarity with the player-led social justice movement. And for the better part of four months, no one noticed until the Athletic’s Tim Cato brought it up. Right-wingers were incredulous.

“This is what a gutless coward looks like,” tweeted Curt Schilling, the bloody sock pitcher turned right-wing heel. “I’m a true, heartfelt fan of the Dallas Mavericks,” Fox News’ Will Cain blathered on Tucker Carlson Tonight. “But if you make me choose between the United States of America and the Mavericks, it will not be a hard choice.”

In particular, these pundits seized on the opportunity to cast this perceived hypocrisy against the context of the NBA’s bottom line-driven support of China during the 2019 political protests in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars hastened to point out that they’d keep performing the anthem before their NHL games. The kicker: No one asked.

Around the NBA, though, Cuban’s social experiment was applauded. “If you think the anthem needs to be played before sporting events,” said then-Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy, “then play it before every movie, concert, church service and start of every weekday at every business.” As for the NBA itself, commissioner Adam Silver made an exception for the end of the 2019-20 season and relaxed the league’s long-established policy requiring players to stand for the anthem. When teams returned to their home arenas the following season and slowly welcomed small crowds back, the league let the Mavs’ policy slide initially. But when the NBA was finally pressured into putting its foot down, and reiterated that “all teams will play the national anthem,” the Mavericks complied.

“We respect and always have respected the passion people have for the anthem,” Cuban said in a statement. “But we also loudly hear the voices of those who feel the anthem doesn’t represent them.”

Since the news of the Cuban Rule broke, the man himself has been largely silent on the issue – tweeting instead, about NFTs, cryptocurrencies and his dazzling star guard Luka Doncic. (The Mavericks PR kindly referred me to Cuban’s earlier comments on the anthem.) It raises the question: What happened to the old Mark Cuban?

Well, the old Mark Cuban was a rabble-rouser, an arriviste tech billionaire determined to get his money’s worth after buying a $285m majority stake in the Mavericks in 2000. He didn’t just appear courtside to urge his team on like a man possessed, à la Steve Balmer, the owner of the LA Clippers. He sat behind the Mavs bench in a team jersey (for home and away games), cursed the competition and gave out his personal email address to journalists so he could explain himself. He has also stepped well over the line into racial dog whistling. After a 2009 loss to the Nuggets in the Western conference semifinals, he admitted he had agreed with a fan calling Denver players “thugs”. Kenyon Martin said Cuban also told the player’s mother her son was a “punk”.

Cuban was the owner who openly criticized the league’s referees, drawing the ire of late commissioner David Stern and more than $1m in fines. “It’s a bit much,” Mavs icon Dirk Nowitzki said of his boss back in 2006. “The game starts, and he’s already yelling at [the refs]. He needs to control himself a little.” Cuban famously said Ed T Rush, the league’s ex-manager of officials, “wouldn’t be able to manage a Dairy Queen.” The old Cuban stoked the conspiracy that the 2006 finals were rigged, to the point of fanning rumors that he had retained a former FBI agent to investigate. In 2016, he was still calling the series, which saw the Heat storm back to win in six games after the Mavs took a 2-0 lead, “the worst officiated finals in the history of the game.”

But even as he rankled old-guard owners and hoops fans with his open talk of tanking for higher draft picks and trying to sign LeBron James away from the Cleveland Cavaliers (a tampering offense that earned him a $100,000 fine), few could say Cuban’s heart and passion wasn’t in the right place. For every one of his fines, it seemed, there was a matching contribution for some charity or another. When his Dairy Queen crack ruffled execs there, he worked in a restaurant for a day as penance. He issued a full apology to Martin and his mother. As Cuban worked himself up, the Mavericks whipsawed from dead-in-the-water to a coveted playing destination – with an NBA title in 2011 to show for it.

It’s tough to say what has turned Cuban so mellow. It could be that he’s older and part of the NBA establishment now. It could be that the ongoing effort to clean up the Mavericks’ corrosive workplace culture has taken some of the wind out of his sails, or cost him some moral high ground. Or it could be that the cool dad co-host of ABC’s Shark Tank has much more to lose, not least the ability to credibly fantasize about running for president out in the open.

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Still. In this revolutionary team owner’s defense, the revolution has been corporatized too. Black Lives Matter proliferates on t-shirts and playing fields across sports. The NFL damn near made it the theme of this year’s Super Bowl. In a world where, as the Atlantic’s Amanda Mull deftly reminds us, all professional sports teams are just greedy ol’ multinationals (not civic pillars) at the end of the day, it was only a matter of time before the banner protest itself whipsawed from social justice movement to merchandizing movement.

The old Mark Cuban wouldn’t have let that stand. He would have made the anthem his hill to die on. He would have threatened to fight the Cuban Rule all the way to the supreme court. As for this newer, quieter Cuban, well, 20 years of shouting into the spotlight is enough to make a man hoarse. But then again this whole controversy started with Cuban making the decision not to play the national anthem and sitting back and waiting for the True Patriots™ to catch on. It could be that he’s not kicking up a fuss because he’s too busy playing the long game. With maturity comes a certain wisdom, after all. If anything, Cuban’s star-spangled ban is a deafening reminder of the resounding power of silence. It could be a while yet before we catch up to his next move.