808s and Bold Takes Issue 27: Striking for Justice
Examining the NBA players' strike for racial equality and social justice
On August 26th, 2016, Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench as the national anthem played. When asked after the game why he did so, he stated that he was protesting police brutality and racial injustice against Black people in the United States.
On August 26th, 2020, the Milwaukee Bucks continued the fight for racial justice as before their first-round playoff game against the Orlando Magic, they chose to not come out for the game. It was an act that shook the sports world and one that was initially and incorrectly labeled a boycott. No, the Milwaukee Bucks did not boycott their game against the Orlando Magic.
They went on strike. Specifically, they went on a wildcat strike. That’s when strike actions are taken without approval from the union. The Bucks took a huge risk in going on strike. To begin with, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement specifically prohibits strikes. Second, the Bucks are one of the favorites in the league to win the title and while to many, that may seem trivial, winning an NBA championship is the pinnacle of their professional careers and, to some, their entire lives.
Soon thereafter, the rest of the NBA’s players went on strike as well, and other leagues followed suit. Teams from the WNBA, MLB, and NHL also postponed their games in solidarity with the NBA’s players.
That’s all to say that the Milwaukee Bucks’ actions were incredibly courageous, and their players should be lauded as heroes, but it’s not entirely surprising that this movement started in Milwaukee. The city is less than a 45-minute drive from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where yet another Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times in the back by a police officer.
The Bucks, though, have been directly affected by police brutality. One of their players, Sterling Brown, was the victim of police brutality when he was tackled and tased back in 2018. Their coach, Mike Budenholzer, was the coach of the Atlanta Hawks back in 2015 when NYPD police officers broke the leg of one of his players, Thabo Sefolosha.
The players, both on the Bucks and in the NBA, know about police brutality and racial injustice. They’ve seen countless injustices towards individuals who, for the most part, look a great deal like them. It’s why one of the main conditions that the players wanted the NBA’s plan to restart the season in Orlando to meet was an increased focus on social issues.
That included a lot: the Black Lives Matter logo on the court, pre-approved social justice messages on the back of the names of the players, and postgame interviews where the main topics of discussion were split between basketball and raising awareness of critically important issues.
There were many who thought it wasn’t enough or that the co-optation of protest by the NBA rendered it ineffective. Those criticisms are valid, but to the players’ credit, they’ve done an exceptional job making sure the names of victims to police violence like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are not forgotten, nor are the continuing issues that plague the United States to this day.
Just tonight, Jamal Murray scored 50 points in his team’s victory to force a Game 7. Instead of focusing on his remarkable achievement, Murray drew attention to his shoes for the second game in a row, shoes which bear the likeness of both Taylor and Floyd. “One person on those shoes had a knee on their neck for eight (minutes). It doesn’t take me —a 23-year-old—to recognize that is not right. That should be in everybody’s mind. If you don’t see it that way, there is a problem with you,” Murray said to TJ McBride of Mile High Sports on August 29th. Tonight, after the game, he had this to say.
“These shoes give me life. Even though these people are gone, they give me life, they help me find strength to keep fighting this world, and that’s what I’m going to keep doing,” Murray said just minutes after a Game 6 victory.
That sentiment was echoed throughout the NBA, and the players felt buoyed by their actions, but after the shooting of Jacob Blake, they realized they had to take yet another step. When the Bucks chose to stay in the locker room, they started a cascade of events that led to the entire NBA season hanging in a precarious balance. However, after a postponement, the league is back to playing, leading many to ask what exactly the players accomplished.
The answer? A whole damn lot.
Let’s start with the Bucks. When they were in the locker room, they reached out to both the Wisconsin Attorney and Lieutenant Governor to see what they could do. In a statement, the Bucks’ point guard George Hill called on the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene and vote on measures to “address issues of police accountability, brutality, and criminal justice reform.”
The legislature had been apart for months, but soon after the Bucks’ statement they reconvened and scheduled a vote on legislation addressing police reform that had been tabled since June 20th.
What people who ask what the players can actually do to improve the world based on these actions miss is that the owners of the teams these players are on are some of the richest and most powerful men in the country. Each one is a billionaire, and some, like Steve Ballmer, find their names in lists like Forbes’s “The 20 Richest American Billionaires.”
Many of them are large political donors, as this thread from Krishna Narsu shows that many NBA owners, including those of the Lakers, Pacers, Wizards, and Rockets, donated to Donald Trump’s campaign.
In fact, the Orlando Magic’s owner’s last name is DeVos. If that name seems familiar, it’s because it’s the last name of the USA’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Are the two related? You bet they are; Betsy DeVos is the sister-in-law of the Magic’s owner.
The players have gotten commitments from the owners to make many NBA arenas into voting centers, a crucial development to combat voter suppression. They have also created a social justice coalition that involves players, coaches, and owners to advocate for multiple social issues like voting, criminal justice reform, and increased civic engagement.
This isn’t to say that the players were perfect in their actions. There’s doubt within the community of NBA players and beyond in how dedicated the owners will be to continuing these measures as time passes and the efficacy of voting as a solution for all social issues. They are all valid complaints, and there are many who believe the players may have returned to play too quickly, that they’ve sacrificed the leverage they had without enough change.
What that view fails to recognize is that these players aren’t professional activists, and they made some strategic errors. The Bucks’ actions were decided upon quickly and without involving any players from other teams, causing some confusion among the rest of the league as to what was occurring. If the strike continued, there could have been near eight-figure losses for the NBA.
That loss would hurt the incomes of the players, which generally range in the millions. If you’re not entirely moved by that I understand, but the losses would also be felt in layoffs down the line of teams that would impact a myriad of everyday working man/woman positions and would upheave many of these individuals’ lives.
At the end of the day, what the NBA players were able to do was leverage their platform as some of the best athletes in the world to better it. They used the tools at their disposal to be instruments towards positive social change. The burden should not be upon the players, it should be upon elected officials, but these men and women have gone above and beyond to improve the society they live in.
That change will not come quickly. Unfortunately, it never has. It comes slowly, too slowly for far too many, but it will come. The NBA players and others in the leagues that have searched for actionable items for change have continued that fight, and they have done so valiantly. In doing so, they have become modern heroes.