August 26, 2020 will go down in history as The Night That The NBA Bubble Burst.
Last night was a strange and serous night for the NBA. And an emotional one.
History was made.
For the first time ever, an NBA team didn’t play in a scheduled playoff game. In fact, none of them did.
If you were surfing over to ESPN.com to check out the NBA Playoff scores, what you saw for each of the games on the evenings schedule was “PPD.”
But “postponed” doesn’t tell the story of what this was. A boycott. Or probably more correctly, a strike.
Call it what you will, but it was perhaps the boldest collective player protest in the history of sport.
“We are most certainly evolving towards athletes participating in and helping to lead the national conversation on social issues. And as players’ influence, power, and platforms continue grow, it will surely follow that they will wield influence and have a voice in inspiring and creating change.”
— Concluding lines of ‘Or, How About We Don’t ‘Just Stick To Sports’?, published a month ago in The Good Men Project
One month ago, we published ‘Or, How About We Don’t Just Stick To Sports?‘, which addressed the shift from athletes and the sports media “sticking to sports” to using their platform to push for social and cultural change.
In order to tell that story, we reviewed the history of so many unarmed Black men who continue to be murdered by police in this country.
George Floyd’s murder in plain daylight was the fuse that unleashed a burning fire of protests across America unlike this country has ever seen.
This past Sunday, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in another incident caught on video, a police officer shot a 29-year-old Black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back at point blank range. Blake was shot as he attempted to enter the driver’s side door of his car with his three young children inside.
Protests quickly ensued, and protestors gathered to condemn the shooting. On Tuesday evening, 17-year-old white supremacist, Kyle Rittenhouse, took to the streets with his AR-15 and shot at the protestors, killing two of them. Making matters worse and shining a further light on the problem, in the press conference that followed the eventual arrest of Rittenhouse, Kenosha Chief of Police, Daniel Miskinis, blamed the protestors who had been murdered for being out past curfew and defended armed vigilante groups as civilians out to protect property and “exercise their constitutional right.”
With these events, we are – again – viscerally confronted by an impossibly racist and evil America:
Black man with no weapon walks away from Kenosha police and is shot 7 times in the back. White teen with assault rifle who just shot 3 people and KILLED 2, walks by Kenosha police with his gun & they offer him a water and he gets to go home. No greater summary of America exists.
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) August 27, 2020
“What’s changed is that there is a struggle in the streets that is reflecting into the world of sports. That’s the true history of sports activism: it never starts in a vacuum. It always begins because thousands of regular folk take to the streets and demand change.”
— Dave Zirin, The Nation
In the aftermath of Kenosha, Wisconsin and against the backdrop of the Republican National Convention blasting out its fear-based themes about civil unrest and “law and order,” reports began to surface on Wednesday that the Raptors and Celtics had met and were considering boycotting their scheduled playoff game for Thursday evening.
Led by vocal players such as Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet, Celtics guard Jalen Brown, and Bucks guard George Hill, many players across the NBA were concerned about playoff games taking attention away from bigger issues at hand across the country. Others like the Lakers’ LeBron James and Clippers’ coach, Doc Rivers, have been speaking out passionately and angrily in support of #BlackLivesMatter in their pre- and post-game comments.
With everything even further intensified by the murder of Jacob Blake, it was growing more apparent that many NBA players felt they needed to do something more than paint “Black Lives Matter” on their courts, wear BLM t-shirts, or put social justice slogans on the backs of their jerseys.
“At the end of the day, if we’re gonna sit here and talk about making change, then at some point we’re gonna have to put our nuts on the line and actually put something up to lose, rather than just money or visibility. We’ve gotta take responsibility as well. Like, what are we willing to give up? Do we actually give a f— about what’s going on, or is it just cool to wear ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the backdrop, or wear a T-shirt? Like, what does that really mean? Is it really doing anything?”
— Fred VanVleet, PG, Toronto Raptors
As William Rhoden wrote for The Undefeated yesterday:
What do you say when words are not are enough, when gestures are no longer sufficient? What happens when your actions are no longer seen, your words fall on deaf ears and all that is left is unsatisfied justice?
And that’s exactly what they did.
Just before game-time for the Bucks/Magic playoff game in Milwaukee, both teams stunned the NBA by leaving the court and heading to their locker rooms. Soon thereafter, we learned that the teams decided that they would not be playing the game in an act of protest.
The Milwaukee Bucks have decided to boycott Game 5, source tells ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 26, 2020
Later in the evening, after they had the change to collect themselves and speak as a team, the Bucks released a Statement, which was read by forward Sterling Brown. These issues are even more personal for the Bucks and for Brown himself, as he has been been on the receiving end of police brutality:
“The past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing our African American community, 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 have 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 have been no actions, so our focus 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… In this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement…We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin state legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform. We encourage all citizens to educate themselves, take peaceful and responsible action and remember to vote on Nov. 3.”
It was later reported by Wojnarowski that inside their locker room, the Milwaukee Bucks had been on a conference call with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Paul and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes.
— The Recount (@therecount) August 26, 2020
The news quickly rippled out from Milwaukee to other two NBA Playoff games on last night’s schedule: Thunder/Rockets and Lakers/Blazers. Both were postponed due to player strike.
Amazingly, there was no coordination among the teams or with the league beforehand. According to NBA beat reporter for ESPN, Adrian Wojnarowski, who called this “a pivot point for the NBA and professional sports in North America”, “The NBA, owners and front offices didn’t see this wave of player boycotts coming today. Hours ago, they all expected to be playing these games tonight.”
In addition, this ripple effect from team to team happened organically through word of mouth. Once the other teams found out about the action the Bucks had taken, they decided to do the same.
“We shouldn’t have even come to this damn place [the NBA Bubble], to be honest. I think coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are.”
— George Hill, Guard, Milwaukee Bucks
Yesterday’s news out of the NBA has received a huge amount of attention, in sports media and national media and across the nation.
That is a good thing. That is the point.
When he heard the news about the strike out of Milwaukee, Dave Zirin of The Nation commented “They are putting the focus exactly where it should be. The police shot Jacob Blake in the back, justice is a pipe dream, and this is not a time for games.”
Others came out in support of the protesting athletes:
shoutout to NBA athletes who refuse to ‘shut up and dribble.’
— j.d. durkin (@jiveDurkey) August 26, 2020
Nor do we deserve the games. We can’t cheer them on the court, then kill them off of it.
Sean Doolittle said it best: sports are the reward for a functioning society. We are not a functioning society, and have not been for a long time.
— J.D. Cunegan is writing BITTER END 🏳️🌈🏁 (@JD_Cunegan) August 26, 2020
In a powerful statement that he released to ESPN Former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was suspended for one game in 1996 when he refused to stand for the national anthem, delivered the message that “society has to change” and that he hoped that these protests would be a step in that direction:
“This in my estimation is not only an intelligent but bold step forward, the kind of positions taken that, when sustained, can produce meaningful results. We have burnt police precincts and been arrested in protest. We have pleaded time and again with politicians, had meetings with sheriffs and chiefs of police, shed tears in disgust on national television for the world to see and drawn the attention of much of the world that was protesting with us over the unarmed, unjustified killing of Black people by murderers in police uniforms. Still, white supremacist racism is failing to hear our cries. So just maybe — just maybe — this new generation of human beings who happen to be athletes, and powerful ones at that, will do what our generation failed to do, and that is to stick together for something bigger than themselves. This is a sacrifice I’m hoping they will sustain.”
Of course, in our deeply polarized nation with a history of telling athletes to “stick to sports” when we don’t want to hear what they need to say, other fans were commenting, “What’s the point. It doesn’t do anything.”
For anyone reading these athletes statements on social media, a warning: Don’t read the comments. Because its ugly in there.
Sadly, these fans apparently don’t understand or appreciate the long history of protest and social change. Or they don’t care or understand what Black people are feeling.
If they care to, there are many voices to listen from and to learn from.
One of those voices is former NBA player and multiple time NBA Champion, Robert Horry, was brought to tears watching the video of Jacob Blake and is terrified that one day his kids will not come home to him, explaining that “I don’t think people understand, especially White people, how hard it is for Black people to watch that”:
I know so many black fathers who feel exactly like Robert Horry
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) August 27, 2020
Another is the Mets’ Dominic Smith:
“The most difficult part is to see people still don’t care. … Being a Black man in America, it’s not easy.”
The Mets’ Dominic Smith with a powerful postgame press conference after Wednesday’s game. pic.twitter.com/qnl23vTr28
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 27, 2020
“It was hard enough even coming down here, to be honest. But I guess [protesting is] something you talk about with your team, for sure. We haven’t talked about that as the Celtics. But those emotions are real. That is real. Yes, we’re athletes. Yes, we’re being paid to play a sport that we love. But we are human beings, members of our community. We are fathers, uncles, nephews, brothers, etc. So all those emotions are real, and I don’t really have a lot to say.”
— Jaylen Brown, Guard, Boston Celtics
“We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear. It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. We got to do better. But we got to demand better….My dad was a cop. I believe in good cops. We’re not trying to defund the police and take all their money away. We’re trying to get them to protect us, just like they protect everybody else.”
— Doc Rivers, LA Clipper Head Coach
Another fascinating aspect of last night’s protest was the way that it spread from the NBA to other sports. What began as a pre-game discussion with his teammates by George Hill led to an independent action by the Milwaukee Bucks and the opposing Orlando Magic, which then led to the Lakers and Blazers and Thunder and Rockets to do the same.
Shockingly, from there, the protest then rippled out and jumped to Major League Baseball. Reports surfaced that the Milwaukee Brewers were discussing whether to play their scheduled game last night against the Reds. Minutes later, it was officially announced that the Brewers would not be playing. Both teams agreed to sit out.
We have come to expect the NBA (and WNBA) to be leaders in social justice activism. But baseball – a sport that has less than 10% Black players – has never been at the forefront in the same way. Zirin described the protest hitting baseball as being “like breaching a fort”:
Holy crap. The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds have cancelled their game tonight in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. To have this movement enter the world of baseball is like seeing a rock smash through a tank. It’s damn near unfathomable.
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) August 26, 2020
He also highlighted one truly remarkable nugget from the Brewers/Reds protest, this comment by Brewers closer, Josh Hader:
‘It’s not about the game, it’s more than that. This is a time where we need to really not stay quiet.’
As some may remember, two years ago, there was a lot of controversy over Josh Hader’s ten year old racist and homophobic tweets were discovered. We wrote about it here, and described it as ‘a big societal teaching moment.’ It looks like Hader has definitely grown, learned and changed. That is incredible hopeful.
Just before evening on August 26, 2020, it was reported that other MLB teams, including the Seattle Mariners (who have the most Black players of any team in baseball), were meeting and discussing the possibility of not playing. Soon thereafter, they too decided not to play.
Instead of watching us, we hope people will focus on the things more important than sports that are happening.
– Dee Strange-Gordon
— Dee Gordon (@FlashGJr) August 26, 2020
As the Athletic’s Lindsey Adler wrote, this was a bold risk taken in the name of what is right:
It’s easy for many of us to look back at things like baseball’s integration or the civil rights movement and believe we would be on the right side of history. Hindsight obscures the courage it takes to take a controversial risk in the name of what’s right.
— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) August 26, 2020
The WNBA, which is also in its Playoff season and has long led on social justice issues, had planned in-game protests and entered their arenas wearing T-shirts that had Jacob Blake’s name on the front and seven bullet holes on the back.
After the NBA teams all decided not to play, the WNBA changed course and also did not play their games:
WNBA players from the Mystics, Dream, Lynx, Sun, Mercury and Sparks take a knee and lock arms while wearing shirts that spell out Jacob Blake
No WNBA games will be played tonight. pic.twitter.com/MkdApV31Bu
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) August 26, 2020
Major League Soccer did the same:
The PSRA stands in solidarity with the decision by MLS players to boycott tonight’s games in protest of the continued unjustified killing of black men and women by law enforcement. There are more important issues in our country than soccer. We hope this will inspire change. pic.twitter.com/H16qUlzNNv
— PSRA Officials (@PSRAofficials) August 27, 2020
It was quite an evening. What began in the NBA spread like wildfire throughout the world of sports.
“We are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified. If you’re sitting here telling me that there was no way to subdue that gentleman or detain him before the firing of guns, then you’re sitting here lying not only to me, but you’re lying to every African American, every Black person in the community. Why does it always have to get to a point where we see the guns firing? His family is there; his kids are there; it’s broad daylight. My prayers go out to that family and that community, but I’ve got nothing nice to say about those cops at all.”
— LeBron James, NBA Superstar, Los Angeles Lakers
As for what comes next for the sport(s) and for the social movement, this is unknown on every level.
As of the publication of this article, the NBA is continuing to meet to see how or whether they will proceed. There was a meeting in The Bubble last night, and reports were that “the season was in jeopardy.” According to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, “Players spoke passionately about voting and police reform, per sources. There’s a sense from some that if owners don’t come up with something that makes them believe staying will help move these important issues forward, this season is done.”
In what might be the comment of the evening, with the remainder of the NBA Playoffs and season in serious jeopardy, Jemele Hill wrote that “The NBA season is going to be cancelled because of racism, not COVID. Think about that.”
“I really don’t know how else to describe it as an African American male. When does it stop? When do we feel comfortable? When do we feel safe? … I just want this s— to stop, to be completely honest with you.”
— Donavan Mitchell, Guard, Utah Jazz
August 26, 2020 was a strange night for the NBA and for the world of sports.
In a strange way, it reminded me of that night in March when Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and COVID-19 canceled everything. Every sports story was about how there was no sports. The way it rippled out across the NBA and through the entire sports world, to Major League Baseball and the WNBA and Major League Soccer, literally “going viral.”
Many believe that – on some level – the fact that we are dealing with a global pandemic has aided this social justice movement. Because the world had paused – in many ways – we had nothing to distract us when we all watched the murder of George Floyd. And many, who were at home and working from home, joined in protests in cities across the country.
Viral spread in social movements is the holy grail of change-making.
We can see that the protests are coming faster and closer together and are increasing in intensity.
We can see more Americans becoming aware of and confronting the issues of racism and police brutality every day.
We can see more Americans willing to take bold action to demand real change.
We can see these athletes using their platform in ways that never have before been done in American history.
We can hope that all this leads to a real tipping point.
Photo Credit: YouTube/ScreenCap (FoxSports)
For more on this topic by Michael Kasdan, see:
Or, How About We Don’t ‘Just Stick To Sports’?: On the shift from athletes and the sports media “sticking to sports” to using their platform to push for social and cultural change. Is it different this time?
The Day The Sports Games Died (Or Were Postponed Indefinitely Due to COVID-19): This was among the weirdest 24 hours in the history of sports. And also in everything else. Now what?
Amazing to see.
— Michael Kasdan (@michaelkasdan) August 26, 2020