In an unprecedented move, the Milwaukee Bucks, the best team in the NBA and led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, boycotted Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first round against the Orlando Magic in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 23.
The shooting — in which Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times in the back by a police officer while entering his vehicle after trying to break up a domestic dispute — came after a summer of unrest following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Out of the civil rights movement, which has arguably lasted decades, this era features athletes at the forefront of the fight for racial justice more so now than then. The response to this has been, like all issues in the world today, expressly partisan. Some offer their fullest support for players and their efforts, while others wish they would “shut up and dribble” and completely remove politics from sports.
Evidently, calls to remove politics from sports are not working; they have never worked, and they never will. If they had any influence on athletes’ decisions to protest, Colin Kaepernick would not have knelt a second time, Kathrine Switzer would have stopped running and Muhammad Ali would not have refused the military draft. And just because athletes earn millions of dollars each year does not delegitimize their efforts or their humanity. They still realize the unavoidable rot of institutional racism and police brutality, continuing to fight for that in which they believe, net worth and “cozy” lives be damned.
The NBA’s persistent calls to vote, stand up against oppression and arrest the officers who killed Breonna Taylor, as well as paint on-court Black Lives Matter logos and embroider social justice messages on jerseys, have not had the profound impact the NBA hoped for. This could be a consequence of the confination of nearly the whole NBA to one location for months, as well as the symbolic gestures of solidarity that are the jersey statements. It is also most definitely a product of a government that is untrusted, ineffective and distracted by petty and hyper partisanship.
The Bucks’ actions were reverberated throughout the rest of the NBA, the entire MLB and more to the point where the sports world stood still. The WNBA, too, joined the Bucks in protest, but did so more strikingly. Instead of refusing to leave the locker room, Washington Mystics players met at center court wearing T-shirts with seven bullet holes in the back and Blake’s name printed across them. Naomi Osaka, a 22-year-old Black female tennis star with two Grand Slam titles to her name, single-handedly brought her sport to a standstill after announcing on Aug. 26 that she would not participate in her Aug. 27 semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open.
Players are not allowing the country and, more comprehensively, the world, to hide in the world of sports and avoid recognizing the sustained injustice levied upon Black people in the U.S. The potential distraction of sports from this social movement led numerous players, including Vice President of the NBA Players Association Kyrie Irving, to opt out of the NBA restart in Orlando. Athletes saw this exact moment in history as an incredible opportunity to create meaningful change. A restart, players such as Irving believed, would waste that opportunity. Now the NBA is forced to realize Irving’s point: social justice is bigger than itself.
No longer, the NBA says, will its games overshadow oppression and inequality. No longer will it merely engage in symbolic activism by releasing statements of solidarity and printing messages on the court. Regardless of whether the NBA is an “appropriate” place for protest, the time for action is now, and it has already undertaken significant measures to end racial injustice and more are on the way. People, not players, are standing up to see justice finally achieved in the U.S., and that’s powerful no matter how it’s spun.