Colin Kaepernick may be the face of athlete protests against racial inequality in the United States, but NBA players are currently leading the way in the fight for social justice reform. On Wednesday afternoon, ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks’ NBA Playoffs Game 5 against the Orlando Magic, the team led by Giannis Antetokounmpo and George Hill refused to take to the hardcourt in protest of the shooting of yet another unarmed Black man — father of three, Jacob Blake.
This issue is personal on multiple levels for the Milwaukee Bucks players. Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which is just 40 miles from Fiserv Forum, where the Bucks normally play their games. And two of the team's own players, John Henson (who is no longer on the roster) and Sterling Brown, have had altercations with the police that were racially charged and unnecessarily escalated by the cops.
Following the boycott, the Bucks players issued a joint statement, which read: “The past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing our African-American communities. Citizens around the country have used their voices and platforms to speak out against these wrongdoings.
“Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we've 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. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.
“When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.”
The league and its owners were reportedly unaware of the decision, meaning the move was one the Bucks players had made on their own accord. This is an important point, as the league could try to control the narrative around the boycott and position itself in support of the players. Of course, it’s good that the league backs its players, especially on issues as vital as this. However, Complex makes a good point in this article, which states that Kyrie Irving’s fear that the NBA bubble would be used to distract from social issues ultimately proved to be correct.
The NBA bubble gave the impression that it was business as usual for the league and its players, most of whom are black men that are genuinely and personally invested in social justice. That is clearly not the case, as the strike has shown. Without putting words to their actions, these players are clearly upset at the lack of progress, and perhaps also realizing that the NBA bubble is a distraction to the cause.
The move is unprecedented and is a big step in creating visibility for an issue that has engulfed the United States over the past few months and should not, cannot go away until real progress is made.
Whereas in the past, athletes’ and the league’s actions were limited to news interviews and social media posts, this latest protest by the Milwaukee Bucks — which was backed up by the other teams scheduled to play that day — is an aggressive stance that should make a difference in the wider Black Lives Matter movement. While social media posts and interviews serve to keep the conversation going and increase the cause’s visibility – especially when athletes with millions of followers are the ones doing the talking and posting — refusing to play is a whole new ballgame.
Going on strike and refusing to play an NBA Playoffs game — when the league is already having to forfeit gate receipts due to coronavirus — hits the NBA’s bottom line hard. At its core, this boycott is people of color taking a stance that directly affects white America’s bottom line and causes a real inconvenience — to the owners, the media, the sponsors, and the fans.
Just as Kaepernick put his career on the line via his peaceful protests and refused to give in when he was faced with being pushed out of the league, the NBA players involved in the boycott have put their livelihoods on the line for something they believe in.
Therefore the players are the real driving force behind the NBA’s push for social reform. It is the players who are majority Black, while the owners and management in the league are majority white. They are the ones that face backlash from owners, the league, its sponsors, and the fans, all of whom have a vested interest in the NBA Playoffs continuing as if nothing had happened. To take action in the face of a very real threat is commendable and what the media should focus on.
There is a danger, however, that the NBA will try and control the narrative. So far, the league has only issued a statement that all Game 5s would be rescheduled. Time will tell how the NBA handles this situation, but if the league truly wants a reformed society, it will let the players take the lead, even if that means canceling the remainder of the season, an option that looks to be on the cards as the NBA and its players met last night.
Social media posts can be swiped past and statements to the media ignored or forgotten. But the NBA Playoffs being disrupted —or even canceled — will have a much bigger and longer-lasting impact in the fight for equality.