/ 27 August 2020

More than a game: NBA players in wildcat strike to protest racial injustice

Oklahoma City Thunder V Houston Rockets Game Five
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - AUGUST 26: A general view of the court after the postponed game five of the first round of the NBA Playoffs between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets at The Field House at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 26, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The NBA announced the postponement of today's games in response to the Milwaukee Bucks boycotting their game in protest against the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin police. (Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images)

On Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks chose to strike in an act of defiance against the shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake, by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin days before.

Twenty-nine-year-old Blake, who survived the encounter after being shot seven times in the back, is reportedly now partially paralysed.

Instead of playing their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, the players sat inside their locker room while their opponents, referees, broadcasters and others waited on the court. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Bucks were on a conference call with the attorney general and lieutenant governor of their home state of Wisconsin, where Blake was shot.

When the team eventually addressed the media, their statement, in part, read: “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. We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable.”

Two other playoff games were scheduled for Wednesday night. All four teams — the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers — elected to boycott their respective games. 

The Women’s NBA (WNBA), also playing in a “bubble” and widely considered a progressive league, also chose not to play their games in solidarity with male players. The WNBA has long been protesting against racial injustice, even going against one of the team’s owners who is against the Black Lives Matter movement.

When the NBA suspended its season in March, it was because of the coronavirus. When the season restarted in July, the coronavirus was the only reason NBA executives thought the season could again be derailed. They were wrong.

Undertaking an effort that would cost more than $150-million, the NBA broached the idea of restarting the season on a closed campus — now commonly called “the NBA bubble” — with heavily restricted movements and regimented Covid-19 testing, firm quarantine protocols and games without fans.

Players mostly felt confident their physical health would be protected, with only a small number of players opting out of the restart season for various personal reasons. 

But for the players to fully commit to a season restart, they wanted the league to commit to some changes that would help to advance the social justice conversations that were happening at the time in the United States. 

The killings of two unarmed African-Americans, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, at the hands of police had thrown numerous parts of the US into civil uprising, with protests being conducted in various regions of the country.

Pressure was being put on authorities and representatives on various levels and there was optimism that momentum was being gained that would help the US move forward in terms of justice and legislation after yet another murderous example of systemic racism.

The players, most of whom had been partaking in protests and making donations to social justice causes, wanted the NBA to understand where their concerns were at such a critical time in the US’ history if they were to agree to a restart. After talks with the league primarily through the NBA Players Association (NBPA) union, it was agreed that players would put social justice messages on the backs of their jerseys instead of their surnames. Additionally, the courts would be branded with “Black Lives Matter” in a show of solidarity and teams would be allowed to kneel during the national anthem before games — a very taboo act of non-patriotism in conservative American culture.

Not long after the season officially restarted, the NBA pledged $300-million to the creation of a foundation that would support the economic empowerment of black communities in North America. As far as American sports leagues go, the NBA is widely regarded as a progressive league. However, the league has still not managed to quell its players’ understandably preoccupied minds.

Jacob Blake’s shooting, and not coronavirus, is the blow the NBA probably did not see coming.

By numbers, the league’s players are overwhelmingly black. And throughout this “bubble” portion of the season it has become unquestionably clear that the justice for and fair treatment of their fellow Americans means more to them than sport.

After a critical win by his team on Sunday night, Oklahoma City Thunder star and NBPA president Chris Paul was asked about the game. “I don’t know, that’s all good and well. I just want to send my prayers out to Jacob Blake and their family. The things we decided to come down here to play for and we said we’re going to speak on and the social injustice and the things that continue to happen to our people. It’s not right, it’s not right,” was his answer.

The fight for black lives, although most prominent in the US, is a global fight. Congolese Serge Ibaka, who plays for the Toronto Raptors, reminded journalists of that in a briefing in early August. “This is one thing I want people to understand: What is going on in the United States is what is going on everywhere. In the States, you can see what is happening directly, how police [are] killing somebody. But in Congo, in Africa, in all the countries in Europe, it’s happening too, in different ways. The fight we’re fighting here is bigger than the fight people are thinking [about] because if we can win this fight here, we’re going to change a lot of things around the world.”

In multiple media briefings this week it became clear that the NBA’s players have begun to question whether they should have elected to come to the “bubble” in the first place. For the time being, it does not appear that there is a firm plan in place going forward — some sources say the season is in jeopardy. But one thing is clear: the players are no longer satisfied with just being athletes. They want to be forces for change and they’re willing to sacrifice for it.