The strike that almost popped the bubble

NBA players are not responsible for upending the police system in the U.S.

Toyloy Brown III, Opinion Editor

“The burden of having to represent is itself the shadow of racism. No one expects Kid Rock to represent. No one expects (President Donald) Trump to represent,” said Ta-Nehisi Coates, famed author and journalist.

There is nothing inherently wrong with someone famous representing a group of people — it can lead to empowerment and bring a sense of pride. However, the pressure Black NBA players have to spur real change in the United States is exorbitant and is a side effect of the racism that regularly besets Black people.

The Milwaukee Bucks were scheduled to play Game 5 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic, on Aug. 26. The Bucks led the series 3-1 and needed a single victory to move on to the next round. However, 20 minutes prior to tipoff, Bucks players decided they no longer wanted to play and were willing to forfeit the match. Rather than play the playoff game, the Wisconsin-based team was compelled to call its state Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes in the locker room. It was likely an attempt to convince Kaul and Barnes to arrest the police officer who shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, seven times in the back in front of his three sons, ages 3, 5 and 8.

The decision the Bucks made did not only start a wildcat strike, a strike without union leadership’s approval, in which every other NBA team in the bubble followed suit in solidarity, but other sports leagues like the NHL, MLS, MLB and the WNBA (which has been the most vocal and at the forefront of social issues for several years) all decided not to play their regularly scheduled games. Even some NFL teams decided to cancel practices and Naomi Osaka, the No. 9 ranked player in the Women’s Tennis Association, sat out her semifinals match at the Cincinnati Open to protest police violence. The unexpected unified defiance displayed across sports from athletes in varying leagues that in effect impacted the figurative wallets of sports’ stakeholders and disrupted the customary viewing of fans was an unprecedented occurrence in American sports.

The NBA and its players have been instrumental in keeping Black Lives Matter in the spotlight. (Twitter)

The impetus for such massive dissent in professional sports was not merely due to the Kenosha, Wisconsin incident and the events following. The frustration that drove players to protest games span back to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and others who lost their lives at the hands of police officers (in the case of Arbery by a pair of vigilantes) in 2020 alone. The emotional devastation for these avoidable losses of Black lives are exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic that already has disproportionately affected African Americans. What occurred in Kenosha was the culmination, a breaking point for athletes, especially for the NBA team whose home city is only an hour away from the location where Blake was shot.

During the NBA protest, the question that took precedence for players and onlookers was whether the postseason was going to be continued. The shooting that left Blake paralyzed happened while NBA players were playing games in jerseys with phrases like “I Can’t Breathe,” “Respect Us,” “How Many More” along with others. They were playing on basketball courts that had “Black Lives Matter” inscribed large enough so it can be clearly read by TV viewers. Interview opportunities had been used by players to constantly talk about the racism that affects them personally and other Black people throughout the country. The players’ actions are an effort to shame America for the apathy it has shown for its Black citizens’ well-being and to inspire spectators to demand more from their country. However, it all seemed to be rendered pointless in an instant when another Black life simply did not matter in Kenosha.

The NBA season was in jeopardy not because there was a coronavirus outbreak in the bubble, but because the 80% Black league was sick of the rampant violence and fear instilled into African Americans from police officers. Players were virtually back in the same place they were in May and June when the nation was experiencing a social uprising against anti-Black racism and the prospects of the NBA playoffs were in balance. The players, as well as the viewers, are again urged to question whether basketball should be played in Disney World to begin with.

The question is straightforward, yet multi-layered. In the initial 200-plus NBA players meeting on the Wednesday the Bucks striked, the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers (the teams many would say have the best chance of winning the title) were the only teams who voted against continuing the playoffs out of the 13 teams who were still in the bubble at that point, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. The next day, another meeting happened and the two teams reversed course and all the players agreed to continue playing.

There are three primary reasons why NBA players have remained motivated to play basketball amid a pandemic and the country’s racial upheaval: to complete the basketball season they had already started, to prevent massive economic downturn in the league that will have significant ramifications for future seasons and to utilize their collective platforms in the bubble to bring awareness to social justice issues — specifically law enforcements’ excessive violence against Black people.

People who disagree with the decision to resume the playoffs may minimize the impact of the strike because it was simply a postponement that lasted three days. They may question whether the players are committed enough to doing all they can when it comes to drastically changing the police state in the U.S. that has for generations punished the poor, authorized racism and cultivated a cesspool of injustice. Are players willing to put their careers on the line similar to Colin Kaepernick, which led to him being jettisoned from the NFL? If the players decided to only play until meaningful changes in laws occured, then the NBA’s economic standing would falter dramatically and without question, influential owners would have all the motivation to make moves to prevent the peril the NBA can face without Black bodies on the court. That reasoning is sound and explains that a clearly more radical protest would increase the chances of a more radical result than playing basketball in the bubble.

We anticipated that NBA players would keep the ‘conversation’ going with millions of people watching games and interacting on social media. That has been successful. However, did we anticipate that the NBA players’ decision to be in or out the bubble would make Black lives matter more than they have shown to be worth in the U.S.?”

— Toyloy Brown III

A layer that is crucial to highlight are the expectations players have in the fight against police brutality regardless of if they played in the bubble or not. We anticipated that NBA players would keep the “conversation” going with millions of people watching games and interacting on social media. That has been successful. However, did we anticipate that the NBA players’ decision to be in or out the bubble would make Black lives matter more than they have shown to be worth in the U.S.? More directly, did we expect police brutality to end or happen less frequently because of players’ decision to play or not? These may appear to be ridiculous questions to ask, but it serves the purpose of putting things into perspective when it comes to the power players have and the power it takes to uproot America’s policing problem. It is unreasonable to ask these Black men to shoulder this size of a load when they are not capable of creating legislation to enact these changes.

These millionaire basketball players did not create these issues and as mostly Black individuals, they are also the victims of racial profiling and cruel treatment from cops — the Bucks’s own Sterling Brown was unlawfully arrested, tased and kneeled on. These athletes, regardless of the millions they have earned, do not have to resolve issues regarding the police system that have lineage that directly correlates to the patrolling of enslaved African Americans.

It is not the responsibility of the oppressed to solve issues invented by the oppressors.

This fact seems obvious but is not reflected in everyday discussion of this matter. For example, why are we not questioning if the NHL season should be cancelled? How about the MLB or the PGA tour? An observant sports fan may realize and contend that the racial makeup of these leagues as majority white has something to do with the reason players in those leagues are not being asked to sacrifice their paychecks for a larger cause. The point is not to say athletes from those leagues have to solve these problems either, but it isn’t a coincidence that the league with more Black players bears that burden.

Should we also in good faith ask one of the wealthiest classes of Black people in the U.S. to give up money today they will never see again and limit the future earning power of players who aren’t in the league yet? The ways wealth and ownership has been stripped away from Black communities is another debilitating issue that is not heightened at this present moment but is worthy of its own movement. The point is that asking players to give up generational wealth and limit the potential money players who are not in the NBA yet can make is a grave move. And whenever basketball would have a way to return, the terms of the collective bargaining agreement players would have to consent to would be a nightmare to complete without being railroaded by owners into taking a raw deal. There is also a good argument to be had that a cancelled season would arguably be more debilitating for NBA players than it would be for owners and executives.

Speaking of owners, one of the least discussed angles of this entire matter is the silence and lack of action from them. The 22 billionaires who own at least 20% of an NBA team, according to Forbes, are being let off the hook. It has to be acknowledged that part of the decision to return happened after there was a meeting in which players spoke to owners. This interaction resulted in an agreement to include three additional items to assist players: all NBA arenas will be converted into voting sites, the creation of a social justice coalition and to have advertising during playoff games that promoted voting. These are positive things but this should have already been in place and are not nearly enough. People should deride owners and demand them to answer questions about why they aren’t doing more to support what players are fighting for.

The players are skeptical of owners’ allegiance to these social justice causes, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. Rightfully so.

“I think that promises are made year after year. We’ve heard a lot of these terms and these words before … and we’re still hearing them now,” said the Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown in an interview. “Long-term goals are one thing, but I think there’s stuff in our wheelhouse as athletes and our resources and the people that we’re connected to that short-term effect is possible as well. Everybody keeps saying that ‘change is going to take this, change is going to take that’ and that’s the incrementalism idea that keeps stringing you along to make you feel like something’s going to happen, something’s going and nothing’s happening.”

Whether the players decided to play or not, we should respect their decision. The amount of pressure on them to amplify social justice efforts and to continue spreading awareness to the degree they have done thus far is commendable, especially as they have been away from their children, spouses and other family members for months. However, they do not owe it to anyone to unilaterally “take one for the team” as many Black people have done in the past for this country. 

What has been made clear, though, for everyone paying attention to the NBA is that players have the audacity — or temerity if using an owner’s perspective — to in essence, take a few days off to prioritize their mental health and to leave the NBA powers in the metaphorical dark. These modern NBA players are emboldened and are more willing to leverage their talents to get their demands.

The 23-year-old Brown is evidence of players who are young but not easily deceived. He is not buying what the owners are selling — the new superficial solutions and recycled empty promises from before he was even in the league. Incrementalism is no longer the game plan the NBA can employ on its players. As much as the NBA is their career, the players’ hearts are with their people.