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The night the NBA suddenly stopped — and why it matters

NBA players held an unprecedented protest over racial injustice.

Los Angeles Lakers’ star players Anthony Davis and LeBron James kneel during the national anthem before Game 3 of the NBA first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers on August 22.
Kim Klement-Pool/AP
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

For one night, the NBA suddenly stopped.

The Milwaukee Bucks, who were supposed to have a chance Wednesday to clinch their first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic, didn’t come out on the court for their 4 pm tip-off. The news soon broke: The Bucks were boycotting the game, believing they should not play given the recent shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Within a matter of hours, the entire Wednesday slate of playoff games had been postponed.

A summer of racial tension and plague has culminated in some of the world’s best and most famous Black athletes walking out on the job in protest of police violence. The NBA had seemed for the last few weeks like a city on the hill amid the pandemic, its Disney World bubble a success story of no infections and exciting basketball. The playoffs had gotten underway with star players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo all expecting their teams to compete for a league title.

But the protests of the spring and summer after George Floyd’s death were never far from mind. Many of the players had returned hoping to use their platform to amplify racial justice protests: “Black Lives Matter” was written on the court. Players wore jerseys with (league-approved) catchphrases like “Equality” and “Say Her Name” and “Vote” printed on the back.

Then Jacob Blake was shot in the back just 45 minutes from Milwaukee and the Bucks decided they couldn’t play in good conscience. Other teams and other leagues soon came to the same conclusion. The games were off, at least for one night.

“Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we have seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha and the additional shooting of protestors,” Sterling Brown, a Bucks player who was himself the target of aggressive police behavior in the last few years, said on behalf of his team. “Despite the overwhelming pleas for change, there have been no actions, so our focus cannot be on basketball.”

On Thursday, the New York Times and ESPN reported NBA players were planning to resume playoffs, citing anonymous sources. The competitive and financial pressure to do so is great. But even one night of protest from the league’s stars was an extraordinary moment not only for sports but for American politics.

Individual athletes have protested out of political conviction before. And some of them have been ostracized; Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem and quickly found himself without a job in the NFL. NBA players have more often been on the leading edge of athlete activism, supported by a more progressive league office. But there had still never been anything like Wednesday’s walkout.

The players may not have had a specific list of demands, but Black scholars I spoke with said the very fact of the work stoppage itself was historically significant.

“This is an unprecedented act of collective protest. There is no precedent in sports history,” Hasan Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University, told me in an email. “We have reached an inflection point among Black athletes.”

What the NBA players accomplished with playoff games walkouts

The NBA walkout was, it would appear, somewhat spontaneous. It became clear something was amiss only when the Bucks did not emerge from their locker room for the start of their game against the Magic. According to Marc Spears of The Undefeated, Magic players didn’t know the Bucks players were planning a walkout for the game. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that it was George Hill, a Bucks point guard, who first broached the idea of walking out in Milwaukee’s locker room before the game.

The league office and team owners were also caught off guard by the Bucks’ decision, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Milwaukee players, who live and work less than an hour from the scenes of the Kenosha, Wisconsin, shootings and protests — and who themselves have experienced police brutality — appear to have felt an urge to act.

They quickly gained the support of their opponents and other teams and, in no time at all, other leagues. The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, scheduled to play the next game after Bucks-Magic, soon agreed to boycott their game as well. So did the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers, who were supposed to play the primetime game on Wednesday night.

Fans who might have thought they were tuning in for pregame analysis were instead greeted by some remarkable television, with retired player and commentator Kenny Smith walking off the Inside the NBA set in solidarity and former All Star-turned-color analyst Chris Webber offering his heartfelt support for the protesting players.

The NBA was shut down. And in a matter of hours, the WNBA — where some players like league MVP Maya Moore had already taken dramatic action for racial justice, with Moore sitting out the 2019 season to focus on her activism — shut down too. Several Major League Baseball games were canceled Wednesday night as well, although others were played. The NHL also played its scheduled playoff games.

It all happened fast. And so perhaps it is no surprise that the path forward was unclear. The NBA players did not have any comprehensive set of demands. Nobody was sure how long the work stoppage would last or whether the playoffs would resume at all. The players association met Wednesday night to discuss extending the walkout into a full strike, with some teams reportedly voting to leave the Disney World bubble and go back home. It was not until a second players meeting on Thursday that the decision to restart the season was reached.

But that doesn’t mean the NBA players didn’t have any idea what to do with their platform. Bucks players spoke by phone to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. They also gave a statement urging the Wisconsin legislature to reconvene and consider bills on policing reform.

By that measure, the NBA walkout is already a success. NBA owners, hugely wealthy and influential people, are tweeting their support for police reform. Even the family of Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the owners of the Orlando Magic, put out a statement “condemning bigotry, racial injustice and the unwarranted use of violence by police against people of color.”

The day after the walkout, the Houston Rockets announced that their arena would be used as an early in-person voting center. Other venues in other cities had already taken the same step, but the timing of the Houston news is impossible to ignore; players were urging their teams’ owners to take concrete action in response to their grievances.

Black activism has always been characterized by a multi-faceted approach. Regular people who boycotted the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system during the civil rights era were doing their part. Black celebrities who focus the media’s attention on issues of racial justice[ are playing a different role.

“The way Black politics have worked is that there is not one special tactic. There is a utilization of multiple tactics to be successful,” Lakeyta Bonnette-Bailey, a Georgia State University professor who studies Black politics and culture, told me. “The news cycle went off to discuss other things ... Even if it’s a one-time tactic, they are showing their solidarity and bringing the media attention to express they are fed up.”

Black athletes often use their platforms to protest for racial justice — but never quite like this

Black celebrities, and athletes specifically, have a long history of protest. It reflects the “linked fate” Black Americans feel with one another, Bonnette-Bailey told me, regardless of their wealth or status.

“Black people share a group conscious, a linked fate,” she said. “What happens to other Black people matters to me.”

Many Black individual athletes have put their careers on their line over the years to show support for civil rights and racial justice. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, two Black American sprinters raised a fist on the medal ceremony platform. It was the summer of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and protests over the Vietnam War. The US athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, had been politically active in their private lives but wanted to use the moment in the public spotlight earned through their athletic success to express their support for human rights.

And they paid a real price: US Olympic officials, under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, banned Smith and Carlos for supposedly “politicizing” the event, as Smithsonian magazine recounted in 2008. They came home to death threats; Carlos’s wife later committed suicide and he blames in part the pressure from his notoriety.

The NBA, as the league for some of the best known individual Black athletes and with an outsized place in Black culture compared to football or baseball, has always been a forum for Black activism. Elgin Baylor, a star rookie for the Lakers in 1959, boycotted a game in his rookie season after a hotel in West Virginia told the team’s Black players could not stay in the same accommodations as white players. It was something that had happened before, earlier that season. Bill Russell, the leader of legendary 1960s Boston Celtics teams, and some of his black teammates also sat out a game in 1961 after they were also turned away from a hotel while on a road trip.

And today, professional Black athlete of today are not immune from the same kind of discrimination just because they are successful on the court or the field. Brown was arrested and tasered by some of the city’s police officers in January 2018, after putting his hands in his sweatshirt. He had been stopped in the first place for parking in a handicapped spot before running into a convenience store. New York City agreed to pay then-Atlanta Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha $4 million in 2017 in a settlement over his wrongful arrest and the use of excessive force by the arresting police officers.

After Eric Garner died in a chokehold by a NYPD officer, NBA players wore shirts with “I Can’t Breathe” printed on them. At the 2016 ESPY awards, top players like James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony appeared in all black to speak about the needs for reform after a summer of shootings and racial tension. James, the face of the league, has parried with Donald Trump on Twitter since the latter became president, and is investing millions of dollars to support voting rights for Black Americans and to hire poll workers for the 2020 election. When Fox News host Laura Ingraham insisted James “shut up and dribble,” her words became a rallying cry for players who insisted that they would do no such thing.

But there had never been a moment of NBA activism quite like this. The players were reportedly ready to walk out of playoff games in 2014, after leaked audio of then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist comments was released. But the league intervened, banned Sterling from the NBA for life and ordered him to sell the team, thus avoiding the players feeling they needed to walk off to force change.

To have the entire league shut down now, in the middle of the playoffs meant to salvage a season derailed by Covid-19, is a sign of how seriously the players take the issues they are protesting.

“For teams to stand down speaks to the seriousness of their commitment, especially during the playoffs, ‘enough is enough’ is the message,” Jeffries said. “‘We will not entertain while we die.’”

The walkout could have serious consequences for the NBA and its players

Covid-19 combined with the recent spate of police shootings to make playing untenable for the NBA’s players — and yet the pandemic may have also, oddly enough, help facilitate such an unusual show of solidarity from star athletes to protesters in the streets.

The unrest after George Floyd’s killing had already unsettled the league. Some players wondered whether the NBA should resume its season at all, given how important this moment seemed to be for Black activism. Could they do more good at home than on the court?

Ultimately, the decision was made to set up the Disney World bubble and finish the season, in no small part because of the money the league and its players would lose otherwise and because of the platform some players and coaches believed they would have to speak out on political causes they support. Some gestures were made by the league to support those desires, such as the custom jerseys with social justice messaging.

But no one could have imagined, when play resumed in July after having been suspended in March, that the players would use their platform to stage a walkout meant to direct the country and the world’s eyes back to the problem of racial injustice. With the players living together in Disney World hotels for weeks on end, there was clearly a lot of chatter within teams about how to respond after the news of Jacob Blake being shot by police. Some players started to talk about going home. They settled for now on sitting out at least one game.

But that decision did not come without risks. The players were technically violating league rules by refusing to play, an action that is supposed to result in in financial penalties. But nobody is sure the league would actually try to fine players for protesting on behalf of racial justice.

If the entire season would have been canceled, the league would have lost millions upon millions of dollars in TV revenue. The NBA already lost money by canceling games in the spring, and it may struggle to regain its financial footing for a while, because fans do not appear likely to be attending games in arenas any time soon. Those revenue losses will inform the league salary cap, and by extension, the pay for players, going forward. That is one of the factors players were forced to consider as they debated whether to resume play or not.

On-court legacies were at stake in the decision whether or not to play. LeBron James is 35 and, with three titles already won, has precious few seasons left to match Michael Jordan’s six. The Bucks are currently championship contenders, with Antetokounmpo the reigning MVP, but the whispers have already begun about whether he would leave without the team having more playoff success. The Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets entered the bubble with title aspirations of their own. The Toronto Raptors hoped for an opportunity to defend their 2019 championship.

And in a hyperpolarized political moment, the players could risk alienating fans through their political activism. The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss has reported on the NBA’s deteriorating TV ratings over the last decade and he posits at least part of the explanation is fans who do not share the players’ politics have tuned out. Top Trump White House officials, like Jared Kushner and Marc Short, were dismissive of the players’ protest; Short called it “absurd and silly.”

Some people may also be perturbed by what they perceive as inconsistencies in the NBA politics; the league and its players were notably reluctant to criticize China’s policies toward Hong Kong at the beginning of this season. Because of the wavering support at home, the league has invested billions of dollars in establishing a presence in China but that requires cooperation with the Chinese government, which has cracked down on civil rights in Hong Kong and is holding millions of Muslim Uighur people in detention camps.

So this is a fraught moment for the NBA, in more ways than one. But if the players’ goal was forcing a conversation about racial justice and police reform, they have succeeded.

“In one fundamental way, it’s already successful in terms of politicizing the athletes themselves. I strongly suspect that we will see more social justice activism from them, not less, and more from other people drawing inspiration and courage from them. And from a social justice perspective, that is a major victory,” Jeffries said. “It’s up to us, as a society, and not them to make change beyond that.”

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