In June, as the National Basketball Association prepared to restart its season amid the twin crises of the pandemic and the nationwide protests against racial injustice, the general manager of one team told the sportswriter Sam Amick, “You know and I know why we are playing — for the money.”
Players knew this, too, but trudged forward. Some, like Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets, questioned their role in distracting the country from protests. But the players ultimately decided to play, in no small part because the league agreed to let them use the games as a platform. Their jerseys were emblazoned with messages of social justice: “Black Lives Matter,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Say Their Names” and “Enough.” LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers spearheaded a voting rights initiative with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In interviews, James and other players at times made statements about racism in response to questions about basketball. But it soon became clear that neither those actions nor the money was enough.
On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks set off a fast-moving wave of protest in professional sports when they refused to play their scheduled playoff game against the Orlando Magic. They did so to demand justice for Jacob Blake, the 29-year-old Black man who was shot in the back several times by the police in Kenosha, Wis., on Sunday. The rest of the league quickly joined the strike. By Thursday, less than 24 hours after the Bucks’ action, discussions among N.B.A. players, coaches and owners had reportedly led to an informal agreement to resume play, but not before a ripple effect, including postponements of games in the W.N.B.A., Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer, had swept across professional sports.
By Friday, the strike had produced results. The N.B.A. and its players’ union made its return to play official. The playoffs would resume on Saturday with an agreement from the league to create “a social justice coalition” to be “focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.” Part of that initiative will include converting some N.B.A. arenas into polling stations in the upcoming election.
At the height of his career as an N.B.A. superstar, Michael Jordan once infamously defended his choice not to engage in politics, joking with teammates that “Republicans buy shoes, too.” James and his contemporaries are in another place altogether, withholding labor and taking reputational and financial risks that may have a lasting impact on professional sports and their role in society. Jordan, too, has evolved into a new role: As the owner of the Charlotte Hornets and the N.B.A. Labor Relations Committee chairman, he helped broker Thursday’s agreement to return to play.
To many, the walkout and its impact amounts to a watershed moment, and in some ways, it is. But it is one that was made possible by the Black athletes of past decades taking risks and making sacrifices for social justice.
Most Americans are familiar with Colin Kaepernick, who began his protest of racial injustice on Aug. 26, 2016, exactly four years before the Bucks’ strike. He lost his job and won a settlement from the National Football League, joining athletes like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali who became global icons after taking a stand.
Kaepernick’s use of the national anthem evoked Tommie Smith and John Carlos holding up their fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, but few sports fans of this generation know their names. The N.B.A. has its own legacy. In 1959, Elgin Baylor of the Lakers chose not to play in his team’s game against the Cincinnati Royals after he and other Black teammates were denied lodging at multiple hotels. Two years later, the same thing happened to Black players on the Boston Celtics. This time, those players, led by Bill Russell, and the Black players on the opposing team, the St. Louis Hawks, chose to sit out. In 1995, the Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf decided he would not stand for the national anthem because doing so violated his religious beliefs. After a one-game suspension, Abdul-Rauf adjusted, bowing his head to “pray for those who are oppressed” as the music played. He faced death threats, was viewed as a pariah across the league and found himself without work just three seasons later.
Black women’s contributions to this history cannot be ignored. In July 2016, W.N.B.A. players on three teams took to the court with “#BlackLives Matter” printed on their warm-up shirts. They were fined for wearing attire that was not approved by the league. Days later, the Indiana Fever defiantly wore the shirts again on television, and the fines were rescinded. In September that same year, the Fever became the first entire professional team to kneel during the national anthem as they demonstrated their solidarity with Kaepernick.
One of W.N.B.A.’s best players, Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx, has spent the past two seasons fighting for racial justice away from basketball. Her activism contributed to the 2020 release of Jonathan Irons, wrongly imprisoned in Missouri for over 20 years. Multiple players are following Moore’s lead and skipping the current season in pursuit of justice. Those who chose to play have continued their activism with a protest of one of the league’s owners, Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, who tried to suppress their voices.
In 2014, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors nearly refused to play a playoff game in order to protest the Clippers’ owner, Donald Sterling, a notorious racist. But there was little time to plan, build trust or consider the ramifications, and that action was called off. In 2020, players had months to thoughtfully consider whether they could play without trivializing their message.
This is not the same league that shut down in March. The players now have proof that they are more powerful together than any one-man brand. Many marched with their neighbors over the summer. They tearfully and publicly grieved the loss of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others. They saw that constitutional rights don’t exist unless we practice them, that economic disruption gets results. They saw protesters of all backgrounds undaunted by tear gas and white supremacist militias. They saw again that Black life, dignity and sanity hang in the balance, and democracy hangs with them.
Some will argue that protest in sports is nothing new, and neither is racism, so nothing will change. On this we agree: The walkout will not end racism. But it would be wrong to underestimate this moment. Those who downplay the walkout have an interest in doing so and speak from a place of fear and denial. They fear that it will ripple beyond the professional sports leagues where it has already taken hold into more leagues, cities and partner industries that stand to profit from the silence of Black athletes. They deny the truth about the state of the country, the grievous harm caused by racial oppression and the inevitability of continued unrest in response to it.
It is still early. The N.B.A. players’ message may not have reached everyone yet, nor has the economic impact been assessed. But it’s clear that while these athletes may be ready to return to basketball, they are finished playing America’s rigged game. And they have delivered a message that the entire country needs to hear: When it comes to social justice, it’s better to think and act like a team.
Michael P. Jeffries is the dean of academic affairs and a professor of American studies at Wellesley College. He is the author of three books on race and American culture.
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