Joakim Noah was excused from the team’s dinner at the US Military Academy mess hall with Army cadets Thursday night, and he did not attend a speech from a retired colonel. The Knicks center explained his absence to reporters on Friday as him being uncomfortable with the West Point camp, according to Marc Berman:
“It’s hard for me a little bit — I have a lot of respect for the kids here fighting — but it’s hard for me to understand why we go to war and why kids have to kill kids all around the world. I have mixed feelings about being here. I’m very proud of this country. I love America. I don’t understand kids killing kids around the world.
“It’s not my way of saying anything — I was not comfortable.”
I didn’t really connect the dots at the time, but on Thursday Noah posted a photo of the Tian’anmen “Tank Man” on his Instagram feed. The 1989 Tian’anmen Square incident just so happens to be one of the most famous instances in recent history of peaceful protesters confronting the military.
The US Military Academy responded, of course, calling Noah’s stance “inappropriate”:
Statement from West Point on Joakim Noah's decision not to attend dinner with cadets pic.twitter.com/ZeB5tcGDRO— Stefan Bondy (@SBondyNYDN) October 1, 2016
For what it’s worth, Jeff Hornacek excused him from the dinner and speech. The head coach seemed fine with Noah’s decision:
“It’s his right. We want him part of the team group. He just didn’t feel comfortable. We’re not going to pressure him into doing that. We had a speaker who I thought was fantastic. I told him maybe I can get him a copy of the speech, so he can hear some of it. It’s his right. That’s fine. With all his stuff he does against gun violence, it’s plenty fine with us.’’
The Knicks have been doing these West Point training camps for three years now. I’m sure Phil Jackson honestly believe that these retreats offer players a chance to learn about teamwork and discipline. But let’s be honest here: The organization takes full advantage of the publicity provided by putting their players alongside the cadets.
American soldiers are usually tossed into the middle of political and social discourse, whether they ask for it or not. Critics of Colin Kaepernick’s protest frequently lead cries of “respect the troops” despite the fact that the 49ers quarterback has repeatedly made it clear that he is protesting the government’s inaction on police brutality. When pro athletes and troops are brought together, it is inevitably converted into a photo op, regardless of how the soldiers or players feel. Some people aren’t comfortable with that.
As if to proves Noah’s point, the Knicks wasted no time shifting into P.R. damage control mode, posting several photos of Noah chatting with soldiers. The quote in the caption — "I appreciate all that you do for us. Respect!" — is unattributed.
"I appreciate all that you do for us. Respect!" pic.twitter.com/Nicj4TqvTr— NY_KnicksPR (@NY_KnicksPR) October 1, 2016
Maybe Noah said it; maybe he didn’t. That doesn’t seem to matter to the company that posted it.
Joakim Noah is a man who speaks for himself, on his own terms. The Knicks put him in this situation by holding the camp at West Point, and they shouldn’t be surprised by his reaction.