Going into the NBA bubble, there was always the possibility that societal concerns would overtake the basketball. We’re in the middle of a major national moment, stemming originally from the murder of George Floyd and continuing with other police shootings; most recently, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha,Wisconsin. The NBA’s players are a part of that national movement, leading protests around the country and speaking out on social media, and the Milwaukee Bucks have pushed that to a new level.
The Bucks’ action on Wednesday, to stay in the locker room as the Orlando Magic warmed up on the court for Game 5 of their playoff series and then eventually reveal they were boycotting the game in protest of the shooting of Blake, is one of the most significant acts of protest we’ve seen. Blake, who was unarmed, was shot seven times in the back by a police officer. The Bucks saw this happen close to home and decided they had to take drastic action.
Sitting out a game is unprecedented. Outside of labor strikes, this has not, to my knowledge, happened in major American sports. It reminds of Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving a Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympics, and Colin Kaepernick taking a knee four years ago to the day of the Bucks’ protest. The same problem — police brutality against Black people — persists.
Sports is a sign of a healthy, functioning society, and for the majority-Black population of NBA players, society is not functioning right now. Protesting a playoff game, in the middle of a potential championship run, is extremely significant. It’s important to not think of this as simply a “2020 is crazy” moment. This is more than that. It might be the most important sports event of this century.
Other teams followed suit. The Rockets and Thunder, scheduled to play after the Bucks and Magic, decided not to play, as did the Lakers and Trail Blazers. The NBA then officially postponed its games for Wednesday. The Celtics and Raptors likely won’t play Game 1 of their second round series tomorrow, as they had already been discussing a move like this. It’s possible the NBA won’t be playing games for a little while.
The players aren’t here to decide what this means for the NBA season. Basketball is no longer part of the thinking. They know the problem isn’t going away, and that people’s attention spans are shorter than ever. There is a better chance of solving these issues if full attention is placed on the Black Lives Matter protests, police reform, and broader Black issues.
It took no less than a month for Kyrie Irving to be vindicated by history. (History moves quickly these days.) Irving had said before the restart that the players should consider holding off on the playoffs in order to focus completely on the social justice movements developing around the country. He was vilified by nearly everyone, and the story became Irving’s personal history rather than his argument.
There were some that raised fair responses to Irving, most prominently LeBron James, who said that he and other players could play basketball while also pushing for change. Given James’s past advocacy, that point carries weight. He and other players and coaches certainly did continue to use their voices in the bubble. But after the latest killing of an unarmed Black man, a strike became the most effective method of communication.
An important thing to remember about this situation is that the Bucks and other teams would not feel the need to do this if many people in America showed any sign of understanding their concerns. There has been progress since the Floyd protests started, but Donald Trump is still president and the Republican National Convention is pushing forward, disparaging protesters as Marxist and violent. Opponents of Black Lives Matter right now echo segregationists during the Civil Rights movement. History is repeating itself, and these players are going to make sure they have influence.
And this may not end with the NBA. The Milwaukee Brewers are now taking similar action by boycotting their scheduled game tonight, and there could be more boycotts to come. Playing sports right now could begin to feel irresponsible and distracting. These players aren’t going to take you away from your everyday problems — they’re going to make sure you know about their everyday problems, which are likely a whole lot more significant than yours. It’s a huge move, and it’s going to make sure no one lets this issue fall by the wayside.
Whether you like it or not, the players have the power here and they are using it. A strike in the bubble will reverberate for a long time.