On August 26, the Milwaukee Bucks ignited a national movement in the sports world after electing not to play their first-round postseason game against the Orlando Magic. The strike was in response to the shooting of unarmed Black man Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. three days earlier. This boycott by athletes across the nation is unprecedented in professional sports and will surely be placed next to some of the most iconic moments in the history of American athletics. For the most part, athletes have lingered in the shadows of political affairs, suppressing their opinions in public to ensure their employment security and business opportunities.
Before their game against the Magic, the Bucks arrived at the arena, warmed up and prepared for their game as usual. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. However, at 4 p.m., the team did not emerge from their locker room.
Instead, Milwaukee players and coaches gathered in front of the media to explain their reasons for the boycott. “Our focus cannot be on basketball,” forward Sterling Brown told reporters.
“When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable,” added guard George Hill.
Under the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), player strikes are prohibited. If the NBA had chosen to follow the CBA, all players who had protested would not have been able to play the rest of the season. Instead, NBA commissioner Adam Silver chose to postpone the day’s other two playoff games between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder and the Portland Trail Blazers and the Los Angeles Lakers. The break from games provided the opportunity for the athletes to voice their frustrations about the state of their country and consider a plan to move forward.
Inside the NBA’s bubble in Florida, the 13 remaining teams met to discuss their thoughts on how to best advocate for social justice. One idea that gained some favor was a cancellation of the remainder of the season; many players believed leaving the NBA bubble would allow them to make more significant contributions to their communities. Players consulted prominent figures like former President Barack Obama and Charlotte Hornets owner and head of NBA’s Labor Relations Committee Michael Jordan to make their decision. Both men, who hold a substantial level of respect among NBA players, advised the players to consider that their voices would be better heard if they remained in the public spotlight while competing for an NBA championship. Players like LeBron James and Chris Paul, head of the NBA Players Association(NBPA), reached a consensus that if they were to return home, they would not be as impactful in their advocacy for reform. Obama also advised the players to establish a social justice coalition, made up of players, coaches and team governors.
Before they agreed to return, the NBA and NBPA announced a three-point plan to promote racial equality with a focus on increasing voting accessibility in marginalized communities. First, a newly formed social justice coalition will immediately begin working to promote civil engagement and advocate for meaningful police reform. Second, in each franchise’s arena, team governors will work with local officials in order to convert facilities into polling locations for the 2020 election. Finally, the NBA has committed to working with the players and their network partners to create advertising spots in each NBA playoff game dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity.
In a press conference on Friday, Paul said he was proud of the solidarity among the players at their meeting on Wednesday.
“Fifteen years in this league and I’ve never seen a thing like it … the voices that were heard, I’ll never forget it,” Paul said. “I think for the young guys in our league, they get a chance to see how guys are really coming together and speaking and see real change, real action.”
After witnessing the actions of NBA players, the Women’s Basketball Association (WNBA), Major League Baseball (MLB), Major League Soccer (MLS) and National Football League (NFL) were quick to follow suit.
Six WNBA teams who were scheduled to play on Wednesday gathered together on the court of their arena to announce their decision. The athletes, coaches and owners linked arms in the center of the court and took a knee. Each player wore a white shirt bearing a letter of Jacob Blake’s name. On the back of the shirts, there were seven holes, representing the seven times Blake was shot by a Kenosha police officer. Atlanta Dream player Elizabeth Williams spoke following the demonstration, saying the WNBA would stand in solidarity with “our brothers in the NBA” and would join them in the temporary player strike.
In MLB, the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds were the first two teams to postpone their games. The Brewers, being the only MLB team from Wisconsin, felt strongly about making a statement following the shooting that occurred in their community. “This is personal to us,” Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich said in a press conference.
The game between the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres was postponed next. The Mariners, who have the most Black players of any team in the league, voted unanimously against playing. “There are serious issues in this country,” Mariners infielder Dee Gordon wrote on Twitter. “For me, and for many of my teammates, the injustices, violence, death and systemic racism is deeply personal. This is impacting not only my community, but very directly my family and friends.”
In a powerful demonstration on Thursday night, the New York Mets and Miami Marlins took the field for a 42-second period of silence in honor of Jackie Robinson. Following the moment of silence, both teams returned to their dugouts and left the stadium. All that remained on the field was a singular Black Lives Matter T-shirt placed over the home plate. The game was postponed.
On Friday night in Houston, the Oakland Athletics and Houston Astros protested similarly. Both teams took the field for 42 seconds in silence, and, following that, exited the field. It was Jackie Robinson Day in MLB, so all the players wore his number 42. A Black Lives matter shirt, as well as both A’s and an Astros jerseys with no. 42 on the back was left at home plate. Robinson was the first Black player in the major leagues.
Although the NFL did not have scheduled games to boycott, several teams cancelled their practices during the week to focus on social justice issues. The Detroit Lions were the first team to cancel practice on Tuesday. In their press conference, Milwaukee Bucks players noted that the actions of the Lions served as inspiration for their game boycott. Numerous other NFL teams followed suit later in the week. The teams’ actions were especially notable, considering the heavy scrutiny the NFL has received for their lack of player empowerment regarding racial protests. Bleacher Report has reported that many players are considering sitting out their first game when the season begins on September 14.
The NHL was the only major professional sports league in-season that chose not immediately postpone games. The Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA), a player organization that looks “to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey,” was highly critical of the league’s inaction.
“The NHL is always late to the party, especially on these topics, so it’s sort of sad and disheartening for me and other members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, and, I’m sure, other guys across the league,” said Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild defenseman and one of the founders of the HDA, to Vancouver radio station Sportsnet 650.
The only sporting events in the U.S. that continued on August 26 were the two scheduled NHL Stanley Cup Playoff games. Amid pressure from the public and the league’s players, the NHL did elect to postpone Thursday and Friday’s scheduled games.
All in all, it seems that the days of athletes succumbing to this pressure to “shut up and dribble” are over; a new generation of athletes have clearly decided to use their robust platforms for more meaningful work. They refuse to remain silent, to be mere distractions from the realities of American failures. They refuse to serve as a place to escape or hide when we need to look away from the harsh truth of racial inequality. These athletes are willing to make the sacrifices, and together they are joining the millions of activists and protestors who will continue to fight to end systemic racism.