By Olivia Montes
Last week, the nation, prepared to watch the Milwaukee Bucks square off with Orlando Magic, instead saw something else historical unfold.
Just minutes before tip-off, when the news of Jacob Blake’s hospitalization after being shot several times by police in Kenosha, Wis., came onto the players’ radar, the Bucks, instead of participating, boycotted the game in solidarity with Blake and his family.
The boycott postponed both the game against Orlando and other play-offs taking place that same evening.
This act of protest was, asThe New York Times’ Kurt Streeter describes, “a swift jolt” to both the association and everyone anticipating the match, meant to raise awareness towards the ongoing issue of systematic racism and injustice.
While this protest was unique in its own kind, as Streeter explains, this is not the first time that this kind of jolt within the world of sports has happened.
“Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Billie Jean King, the W.N.B.A. star Maya Moore and a long line of female athletes fought for justice and equal pay. And, of course, four years ago…Colin Kaepernick was spotted for the first time in his protest of police brutality, refusing to stand during the national anthem,” Streeter said. “The current refusal to play, however, is not simply a shock. This is an earthquake.”
For as long as both the protest and sports itself have existed, there have been significant moments in which a player takes a political stance in the middle of a game or match in the world of professional sports.
In addition to Kaepernick, more recent responses towards police brutality have taken place within the latter half of the last decade, including MBA players wearing jerseys with the words “I Can’t Breathe” after Eric Garner’s death by an NYPD officer’s chokehold in 2014 and Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, and Chris Paul wearing all-black attire to the 2016 ESPY Awards to honor other victims of police brutality that same year.
With the events of this past summer in mind, including both the deaths of Floyd and Taylor and worldwide BLM protests, several teams associated within the organization and outside the sport have made similar actions proclaiming their support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and its message. With the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, players wore approved jerseys with statements generated toward audiences, including “Equality,” “Vote,” and “Say Her Name”.
However, within many eyes of the public, these stances interpreted as a passing trend within the greater celebrity community.
“Players chose to use nationally televised games as a platform for their grievances. They draped their courts and jerseys with slogans and calls for change. They knelt during the national anthem,” Streeter said. “Yet those protests had lost their power.”
However, this walkout is different; with players physically walking out before a game, they have shifted the conversation towards issues related to racial injustice that needs to be recognized by demonstrating their frustration towards victim after victim, time after time.
Other teams scheduled to play, including the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers, have also postponed taking the court. The Womens’ National Basketball Association (WNBA), following Colin Kaepernick’s example, knelt in unison this past July, with the backs of their jerseys matching the same bullet holes as Blake’s.
Other teams—ranging in both racial and sport being played—belonging to other national sports associations, such as the National Football League (NFL), the National Hockey League (NHL), and Major League Baseball (MLB) have also voiced their support to the movement and stated their intentions to postpone upcoming games in unity with the NBA.
“Individual athletes have protested out of political conviction before,” Vox Media’s Dylan Scott said. “But there had still never been anything like [this] walkout.”
And, as with any form of widespread protest, this was also met with backlash; in addition to being scorned for violating league regulations, these teams’ refusal to participate was labeled as disrespectful towards not only their own profession, but also to those watching them.
“On social media and cable news, some fans and commentators heaped scorn upon the players for walking out in the first place, depicting them as selfish athletes who were only throwing a tantrum for the sake of virtue signaling,” Jemele Hill, a contributing writer for The Atlantic, said.
However, as Hill explains that, despite the plausible risks of losing revenue and halting their careers as professional athletes, audiences were missing the point.
“What critics…ignore is that the NBA is a predominantly Black league, and that just because its Black players are professional athletes, that doesn’t protect them from police violence and harassment,” she added.
Because of this, these and several other players have chosen to put their careers on the line for the opportunity to acknowledge and spread the message that racial injustice is in fact a national issue that affects a large majority of Americans, including those who have dedicated their lives to a sport.
“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,” Scott added. “This is a fraught moment…in more ways than one.”
“But if the players’ goal was forcing a conversation about racial justice and police reform, they have succeeded,” Scott said.
“Though this appears to be a temporary work stoppage…a new high bar of protest has been established,” Streeter said. “Black athletes and their allies will not hesitate to effectively strike again.”
While this is not the first time these associations have given voice to declare “Black Lives Matter” or hold similar stances before, during, or after games, as time has proven, this will not be the last.
The more that these incidents continue to happen, the more Black Americans and people of color become casualties as a result of this violence, the more players will speak out—and the more these and similar protests will become as standard as the sport itself.
“After George Floyd, a Jacob Blake was only a matter of time, [and] after Blake, someone else is likely to come next,” Hill said. “When a country doesn’t respect Black lives, it can’t expect Black athletes to hold back their anger.”
Featured Photo caption: After the police-related deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and now the hospitalization of Jacob Blake, this past summer, NBA players are now taking action. Photo Courtesy of Pexels.