The Houston Rockets star sparked controversy on Thursday when the team shared a picture of him wearing a large facial covering with an American flag stylized with what has become known as the “Thin Blue Line,” a strip of blue replacing one of the flag’s bars to show support for law enforcement officials. After the picture generated a big pushback online, Harden spoke out on Friday, telling ESPN’s Tim McMahon that he did not realize the association.
“It was just something that covered my whole beard. I thought it looked cool. That was it,” Harden told McMahon, who shared the exchange on Twitter.
He added that he was planning to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement during the re-started NBA season and playoffs. The league has allowed players to wear messages on jerseys supporting racial and social justice, which a number of players have already done by taking part in the nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) July 17, 2020
The symbol seen on Harden’s face mask left many with the impression that the NBA All-Star may be in support of a “Blue Lives Matter” movement that is seen by many critics as a counter to the Black Lives Matter movement.
As Politico noted, the version of the American flag with the blue line has been connected to white supremacy movements and is often shown with a skull associated with the Marvel comic book character the Punisher, who commits extra-judicial killings. Harden’s mask had an image of a skull as well, though it did not appear to be the exact one used in the Punisher logo.
While the flag and images of it have generated controversy, supporters say it is simply meant to show support for police. It gained popularity following a series of high-profile attacks that left officers dead.
Though Harden had faced criticism after the Rockets shared the picture of his “Thin Blue Line” face mask, many commenters also predicted he was not making a political statement and quite possibly did not know the association with the flag.
Harden’s arrival at the NBA bubble in Orlando had already drawn plenty of attention, as he showed up after many of his teammates, causing speculation that he may have contracted coronavirus.