Before the NBA kicked off its rebooted season in Disney World, promises were made. The league and Commissioner Adam Silver swore that despite being ensconced in a semipermeable bubble in Orlando, Florida, players would in no way be hindered from participating in the nationwide uprising against police brutality and state-sanctioned violence largely inflicted upon people of color.
In fact, their voices would not only be heard, but amplified, according to Silver, as long as they continued to both literally and figuratively play ball.
At the time, some players weren’t convinced. They voiced concerns that once the vast bulk of the sports-loving world’s attention was diverted to dazzling, buzzer-beating three pointers and thrilling playoff drama, activism would necessarily take a back seat. To a degree, they have been proven right. But whether or not the public was aware, in locker rooms and on the ESPN campus, those conversations amongst athletes never stopped.
When seven shots were fired into the back of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23, the bland, snackable form of leftism the league had rubber-stamped was revealed to be a rather empty branding exercise. That was the point, after all, lest espousing basic human rights somehow peeved the wrong suburban mom and disrupted the steady flow of commerce.
Kneeling during the national anthem has been normalized and thus ignored, as have the NBA-approved messages like “equality” stitched onto the backs of players’ jerseys. And so the athletes themselves have opted in favor of direct political action, regardless of what scorn they may endure and financial losses they might accrue. On Wednesday afternoon, the Milwaukee Bucks organized a wildcat strike, refusing to take the court to face off against the Orlando Magic for game five of their first-round playoff series.
They weren’t alone. In short succession. It was reported that the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder also planned to strike, and by 5 p.m. ET, the NBA went ahead and postponed the evening’s entire slate of games, before the remaining teams scheduled to play, including LeBron James and the Lakers, could publicly follow suit—a transparent attempt to short-circuit any images of empty arenas and silence comments from the striking players. This, too, is doomed to fail.
Later in the evening, Milwaukee’s Major League Baseball team chose to strike in solidarity, as did the Cincinnati Reds, and the entire slate of WNBA games was called off. Other teams are sure to follow. TNT commentator and ex-player Kenny Smith also took off his mic in the middle of an on-air segment and walked out of the studio in solidarity.
In a group statement, the Bucks highlighted the non-response from local and national politicians since Blake was shot and, according to his family, now paralyzed. “Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball,” they said.
The team also called on the Wisconsin state legislature to reconvene and begin working to enact “meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform,” and encouraged people to vote in the upcoming presidential election. Various teams and the NBPA have backed the players, but the Bucks notably did not address the question of how long they plan to continue sitting out.
Even so, their rationale couldn’t be clearer: NBA athletes are once again insisting that systemic racism in this country cannot be ignored. They are doing so by following the dictums laid out by 1960s free speech activist Mario Savio, who called upon workers to throw “bodies on gears” to stop the machine from continuing to grind bodies into dust.
For all the talk of the NBA’s progressive bona fides, the players—the workers who actually create something of value—are demanding that their employers make good on not just their promises, but the expansive marketing campaign selling the NBA as a home for progressive thought.
Saying “Black Lives Matter” and even plastering the phrase on the court is all well and good. But now, with hundreds of millions in TV money potentially imperiled, the NBA has to put up or shut up.
Not that today’s walkout should come as much of a surprise. Following Blake’s shooting by Kenosha officers, and prior to the strike, plenty of players hinted at what was to come. Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet made it clear the players were growing increasingly angered at how their labor was used to drive profits and essentially divert attention from the ongoing cause.
“What are we willing to give up?” VanVleet asked on Tuesday. “Do we actually give a fuck about what’s going on? Or is it just quota where, you know, Black Lives Matter on the backdrop or T-shirt. What does that really mean? Is it really doing anything?”
Raptors guard Norman Powell admitted that kneeling wasn’t having an impact. “It’s starting to get washed out,” he said. “Something has to happen where you’re forcing those people who can effect and make the change to do something.”
Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill, too, had already begun to regret his decision to play. “We shouldn’t have even come to this damn place, to be honest,” he confessed. “I think coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are.”
“We tried the peaceful way, kneeling, we tried to protest, we tried to come out here and get together and play this game and tried to get our voice across, but it’s not working,” Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “So, obviously, something has to be done.”
Despite the bad-faith claims made by the NBA’s critics—largely on the political right—the league’s market-tested politics have always been the furthest thing from radical, as John Wilmes explained in The New Republic. Designed to appeal to the broadest swath of the population, it hasn’t stopped the Clay Travises of conservative media from spending the last year using the NBA as their own personal chew toy. (Premature as it may be, the usual suspects have spent the afternoon giddily celebrating the NBA’s imminent demise.) Ironically enough, by attempting to ward off becoming culture-war fodder, they’ve driven their workforce to take unprecedented, radical action.
There have been threatened work-stoppages in the NBA before, but nothing close to this magnitude or scope. Prior to the 1964 All-Star Game, a coalition of players led by Bill Russell and Jerry West refused to leave the locker room unless the commissioner agreed to certify the nascent union. The league caved. In 2014, Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers’ slumlord owner, was caught on tape making racist comments. The team and their opponents, the Golden State Warriors, similarly tossed around the idea of a wildcat strike—and make no mistake, this is not a “boycott” as some reporters erroneously described it—but Silver booted Sterling from the NBA for good. (Sterling ended up selling the team for $2 billion.) And in 1961, Russell and the Celtics refused to play an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky, after a hotel restaurant declined to serve him and his teammates.
Now NBA athletes are slowly but surely beginning to realize how much power they and their labor actually have. Whether the NBA returns at all is an open question, but asking a majority-Black group of workers to entertain a majority-white audience at the same time that a steady drumbeat of Black people are being subjected to violence at the hands of the cops was never sustainable.
And until those responsible—the wealthy, the powerful, the politicians, and the corporations—address the actual issues at hand, players shouldn’t suit up. Not when a militarized police force consistently brutalizes its most vulnerable citizens, after failing to do so despite three months’ worth of people taking to the streets, the idea that sports should continue unabated reads like a grim, unfunny joke.
Back in July, when MLB was batting around ideas for its return, Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle wondered how and why a society that had so patently failed to protect its citizens from a rampant pandemic could even ponder sallying forward with life as usual. It seemed both ludicrous and cruel in equal parts.
“Sports,” Doolittle said, “are like the reward of a functioning society.”
Well, American society still isn’t functioning. Or maybe it’s working exactly as it was designed.