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Past taking a knee: How a wildcat strike led the NBA to embrace political activism

NBA players made a statement by sitting out games. What happens when the teams return to the court?

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Officials stand beside an empty court at the scheduled start of an NBA basketball first round playoff game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The Milwaukee Bucks didn’t take the floor in protest against racial injustice and the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police in Kenosha, Wis.

Ashley Landis, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The Milwaukee Bucks’ refusal to play in a playoff game Wednesday set off a chain reaction that continues to reverberate in the sports world. On Friday, about 100 NBA employees staged a walkout in solidarity with players, and the league announced plans to make its arenas available as voting centers, among other actions.

Sunday’s shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, resonated with players who have openly wondered since the league restarted in July whether it was right for them to join the league’s Walt Disney World bubble amid ongoing protests of police violence against people of color. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell was questioning the value of sports events in the face of what feels like an existential threat. “This is why we don’t feel safe,” he wrote.

The NBA went without games for three days; the WNBA, NHL, MLB and MLS all saw events canceled; the Ole Miss football team walked out of practice. But as players across sports start returning to action, the question lingers: Can they play and protest at the same time?

A history of stepping aside

The correct term for NBA players’ actions, labor experts say, is “wildcat strike” — a withholding of labor without prior union approval. “ESPN and others have called it a boycott, but that’s not right,” Jacob Rosenberg wrote for Mother Jones. “Workers came together to withdraw their labor power. It’s a strike.”

Numerous athletes have stepped away from their sports to participate in or elevate a cause. Ted Williams left baseball at his peak to serve as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, and Pat Tillman abandoned his NFL career to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, citing the injustice of less fortunate Americans being disproportionately pressed into military service.

When Muhammad Ali declared himself a conscientious objector on religious grounds during the Vietnam War, he was unable to box professionally for more than three years. More recently, Maya Moore, a four-time champion with the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, took two seasons off to work for the freedom of a man convicted of assault, despite a lack of physical evidence, according to ESPN. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, an offensive lineman with the Kansas City Chiefs who is also a medical doctor, opted out of the upcoming season to battle the pandemic at the front lines.

Where those instances involved sacrificing one thing for another, though, NBA players and other athletes saw this week’s stoppage as a meaningful act in and of itself.

“Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball,” the Bucks’ Sterling Brown, who was pinned and tased by Milwaukee police in a Walgreens parking lot in 2018, said.

“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman,” tennis star Naomi Osaka wrote as she pulled out of a tournament in protest.

William C. Rhoden of the Undefeated noted a frustration among players that the NBA’s gestures, like “Black Lives Matter” painted on the courts and messages such as “Antiracist” and “How Many More?” stitched onto jerseys, felt like empty symbolism.

“What happens when your actions are no longer seen, your words fall on deaf ears and all that is left is unsatisfied justice?” Rhoden wrote. “Don’t play.”

Victoria Jackson, a professor of sports history at Arizona State University, argued that the NBA’s messaging — and the patterns of protest around the sports world — came to feel hollow, pushing players to take another step.

“Taking a knee became so performative,” she said. “It loses its power when it just becomes part of the structure and what everyone is doing. ... It’s not going to influence that reflective moment among the people watching.”

Jackson sees the strike not as an outlier but as a result of deep-seated tensions in American sports culture. “The history of modern sport is a history of Black athletes navigating how they’re both entertainment and human,” she said. “Their experiences in the real world are not left on the sidelines when they play.”

How far will it go?

In the hours after the Bucks’ initial strike, analysts wondered whether the NBA season was over; reports that the two Los Angeles teams had voted to leave the bubble fed the conjecture.

On Friday, though, the league and the players’ association announced that games will resume on Saturday. Other leagues have largely resumed standard operations.

Some have argued that playing undermines the players’ message. “First of all, we shouldn’t have came to this damn place, to be honest,” George Hill, the Bucks’ backup point guard, said in the days leading up to the strike. “Coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are.”

But the players have started a conversation that others contend will outlive the duration of any specific strike. In addition to successfully pushing for arenas to be made available as voting locations—a concept that is also spreading to other leagues—players were able to establish a social justice coalition in the league, and the NBA’s network partners will now make advertising slots available for “promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity.”

Oklahoma City Thunder point guard and players’ association president Chris Paul said, “Fifteen years in this league, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Jackson, a runner and former track and field athlete in college, recognizes the toll of sitting out, especially amid a pandemic.

“These are people who are having to deal with what we’re all dealing with, which is their health and well-being,” she said. “Speaking personally, when you have your sport ripped away from you, it can be devastating. It can quickly turn athletes into downward spirals, because your sense of identity is shaken. ... Being understanding of that is really important.”

For now, the games will go on, with increased awareness, new measures in place, and the promise of more to come. But the strike was meaningful, Jackson said, beyond its already tangible outcomes.

Recent years have seen the United States women’s soccer team advocating for equal pay, NFL players taking knees and college football players pushing toward unionization. “I think we’re only getting a taste of the potential power athletes hold,” she said. “This isn’t the needle moving. It’s signaling that there’s much more that could potentially happen here.”

If sports have resumed, an important aspect has changed: players have shown they’re willing to walk away.