NBA Players Are Striking Over Jacob Blake. Will America Listen?
NBA players have lent their voices to Black Lives Matter in historic fashion. It feels like the start of a movement.
Last month, NBA players were invited into a bubble in Orlando, Florida. They were meant to knock out their playoff matches in COVID-safe exclusivity, with access to rapid testing and a fan-free court. But when players expressed agitation at being brought out of the fray of nationwide protests and political discourse and into a nearly hermetically sealed sports entertainment arena, the league responded with the exact definition of virtue signaling: “Black Lives Matter” painted onto the court, a short list of league-approved messages in lieu of jersey names, and rote PR-friendly statements about social injustice.
On Wednesday, days after the police shooting of 29-year-old Black man Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and on the four-year anniversary of former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s first kneeling protest during the national anthem, the Milwaukee Bucks’ players responded to the NBA’s illusions of normalcy with a combination of strike and protest. They didn’t show up on court for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic and, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, who broke the story, have since attempted to reach out to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul. This is the first time an entire NBA team has gone on strike, though there are several historical examples of individual NBA players protesting social injustice via strike or, in the case of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1996, refusing to stand for the national anthem. And the issue of police brutality is very personal to the Bucks—in May 2018, body camera footage was released of Bucks’ guard Sterling Brown being tased and wrongfully arrested by Milwaukee police in a parking lot; Brown filed a civil lawsuit against the department last year.
Blake—who had broken up a fight before heading to his car and being apprehended by police officer Rusten Sheskey, who shot him in the back seven times—is still in the hospital, conscious but paralyzed from the waist down. In this way, the violence he has suffered echoes Rodney King, whose severe beating by the LAPD in 1991 left him with lifelong injuries and helped spark the 1992 LA Riots. If Blake manages to survive his injuries, his name, like King’s, will loom larger than himself as his life continues—but this time, Black people with a measure of power in the corporate system that deeply influences our politics will have begun a collective movement in his honor.
NBA players have continually expressed outrage at police violence toward Black men for the last several years, from Michael Brown to Trayvon Martin to Eric Garner to George Floyd. Milwaukee Bucks’ players also named Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death in her own home by police while she was asleep, and whose tragic and infuriating death was largely ignored by the national media until protests over George Floyd began to crescendo. But it’s one thing to talk about the injustice you see and even experience as an incredibly influential athlete and entertainer, and another thing to risk your livelihood to do something about it. When former Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling was exposed as a by-the-book racist, the Clippers’ team decided not to strike or “boycott”—as most outlets put it at the time—but rather, to turn their warm-up jerseys inside-out, refusing to display the Clippers’ logo. The Bucks’ strike is monumental because it is not merely lip service (or silence) that the NBA can eventually co-opt, but a definitive action that the league will have to pay for. Now, the rest of the day’s playoff games will be rescheduled, as the LA Lakers’ LeBron James, the de facto voice of the NBA, tweeted on Wednesday evening, “FUCK THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT.”
In the wake of the Bucks’ action, Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers have also decided to strike, and their competition for the night, the Cincinnati Reds, have joined them. (On Wednesday, WNBA team the Washington Mystics wore warm-up shirts with letters spelling out Blake’s name and seven bullet holes drawn on the back, leveling up the Clippers’ response to Donald Sterling as well as the Eric-Garner-commemorating “I Can’t Breathe” warm-up shirts worn throughout the NBA in 2014.) This scale of protest may ripple into all of major professional sports that are soldiering on despite the pandemic, yet the question remains if players will sustain their strike, specifically, until demands—whatever they may be and from whichever group or organization they may come—are met.
It’s generally known amongst NBA fans that players are entertainers first. They have big-money contracts that tie them to years of obligation toward the billionaires and millionaires who own the franchises they play for. Nearly everything's meant to come second to that responsibility and the decision to not play, no matter how righteous the reason, exposes players to career peril.
Michael Jordan, the basketball player known and loved the world over, made his fame not only through athletic brilliance, but also by refusing to get involved in politics or social justice while in the league. Like globally beloved actor Will Smith, his Blackness was best served by the corporate entities that funded his career as a kind of window dressing—it was not to impede in the pure spectacle. Today, star players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and even white players like JJ Redick, defy this part of Jordan’s legacy by speaking up about racism within and beyond the league. Despite the invectives of conservative mouthpieces like Laura Ingraham, they refuse to just “shut up and dribble.”
That the Milwaukee Bucks are standing as a team in strike speaks to the unique level of unity within the NBA amongst players (and often their coaches as well)—whereas in the NFL, where athletes are much more hemmed-in by the powers that be, merely kneeling during the national anthem cost a player his career and led to flagrant performances of outrage by conservative politicians and media personalities, including Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
Hopefully, more sports teams will look to the Bucks’ action as a sign of what’s to come and make the most of their incredible national and worldwide influence to pressure politicians and civil servants to move beyond police reform and into long-overdue transformation. By postponing the rest of the playoff games for the day, NBA leadership have shown that they’re perhaps ready to negotiate, but are they ready to listen?
Update 11:35 PM ET: The Athletic reporter Shams Charania has reported on Twitter that while both the Lakers and Clippers voted to continue to strike for the rest of the season, "[m]ost other teams voted to continue." Tennis player Naomi Osaka has also announced via Twitter that she will be sitting out of her Western & Southern Open semifinal match tomorrow in protest of police brutality.