by M. Anthony Davis
If you would have told me in March that the NBA season would be cancelled due to COVID, I might have believed you. That would seem plausible. But to lose the season to racism? I can’t say I saw this coming.
Four years ago, in a preseason game versus the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was photographed sitting on the sidelines during the national anthem. He had opted not to stand for the anthem prior to this particular event, but that fact had gone mostly unnoticed. After the image went viral, it ultimately led to him famously kneeling during the anthem, an act that eventually got him blackballed from the NFL. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic that we thought had the potential to end the season for health reasons, NBA players have decided to boycott playoff games as an act of protest against police brutality — and they made their stand on the anniversary of Kaepernick’s first recorded protest.
The NBA Bubble was designed to protect players from the deadly virus and allow some semblance of the 2019–20 season to play out despite the pandemic, after the season was halted completely on March 11 amid the outbreak. The bubble literally separated players from the outside world. Yet, even with “Black Lives Matter” written on the courts, social justice phrases displayed on the backs of jerseys, and all the kneeling and gesturing before games — the bubble proved to be unable to protect players from the harsh realities of the outside world. Unarmed Black people are still being killed by police.
On August 23, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old father of six, was shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake was shot from behind while attempting to enter his vehicle, where three of his six children sat and watched. The shooting of Blake led to protests in Kenosha, in which two more people were shot by a self-deputized white teenager, Kyle Rittenhouse, who was part of a militia claiming to protect the city from protesters. Videos circulating social media show Rittenhouse talking to police, who gave him bottled water and thanked him for his assistance. In the wake of these shootings, and with lack of action by local authorities, the players decided they had seen enough. In a statement released by the Milwaukee Bucks, players said, “… Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”
Before the NBA entered the bubble on July 30, a few outspoken players objected to the idea of returning to play. The emerging leader of those voices was Kyrie Irving, who had been panned by the media previously for, among other things, claiming that the earth is flat. While Irving may not have been the best messenger, his concerns regarding resuming the NBA season were clear. He claimed that playing NBA games would take attention away from protests around the country demanding justice after the viral 8-minute video of George Floyd being murdered by a nonchalant officer kneeling on his neck. Many pundits criticized Irving, claiming that the idea that people would be forced to choose between watching basketball games and protesting police brutality was ridiculous. A few members of the media went so far as to say that the idea that basketball could distract from protests was an insult to the intelligence of Black people. Because, of course, claims that the NBA fan base, which is assumed to be primarily Black, would be unable to multitask, was a direct indictment of us as Black people. I think the point those arguments failed to realize was that the players, who also have families and friends affected by these events, have platforms and connections big enough to enact change. By continuing to play basketball, these players are allowing the continuation of the status quo. Looking back, it seems that Irving wasn’t so wrong after all.
I don’t agree with Irving’s assumption that we as fans couldn’t watch basketball and participate in protests. I would argue that basketball is not important enough to make me oblivious to the injustice around me. I also live in Seattle — the former home of CHOP — where protests are still happening every day. I do agree with Irving’s idea that the players have an ability to enact change. I believe the players are actually more powerful now.
Returning to play the bubble games allowed both dedicated and casual NBA fans to return to a false sense of normalcy. By playing those bubble games and deciding to boycott now, during the playoffs, the players are making a much bigger statement and delivering a much more substantial financial blow to the institution than they would have done if they’d never played in the bubble at all. This moment will live in history forever. The players have the unique opportunity to leverage the remainder of the season to get wealthy owners to lean on their political connections to achieve some form of tangible justice for Jacob Blake.
When the Milwaukee Bucks players decided not to leave their locker room before game five of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, ESPN’s Adrien Wojnarowski reported that the Bucks players were on a conference call with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that Bucks players asked Kaul and Barnes about tangible things they could do in the short and long term. As it turns out, boycotting the game was step one. It immediately garnered national attention and was followed by announcements that all three scheduled NBA games would be cancelled and later that three WNBA games and three MLB games (including the Seattle Mariners, whose players voted unanimously to not play) were also cancelled.
The era of “shut up and dribble” is officially over. It has always been evident that players had sway with the general public. But it is the wealthy, elite class of white owners who have actual political power — and it will take a combination of both to create the change we desperately need. The Bucks players reaching out to politicians from the locker room is the ultimate symbol of hope. They are taking steps toward bridging the gap between statements and gestures and crossing into the realm of tangible systemic change. This change must be made with policy and law. If this change costs us the rest of the NBA season, it will be well worth it.
M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.
Featured Image is attributed to Craig Hatfield under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.