The NBA has gone to great lengths to show support for important social causes, but few saw the Milwaukee Bucks-led strike coming. The postponement of playoff games showcased the political power of athletes and inspired other leagues. NBA referees showed they were supportive of the protest, too. They did their own demonstration in the days following the death of Jacob Blake.
The day NBA players used their platform in the strongest way
Few organizations have tied their image to social justice like the NBA. It is clear why this has happened. The league is predominantly Black in a time when America’s racial fractures are as clear as they’ve been since the ’60s. The league’s public support of players who refuse to “shut up and dribble” is better than the example set by leagues like the NFL.
But to more cynical NBA fans, the messages can come off as well-meaning, but vapid examples of brand management. Putting Black Lives Matter on the court is just a gesture. But gestures don’t mean anything unless you’re willing to back up the slogan. Change doesn’t occur unless people are willing to risk angering people.
The Bucks did that when they went on strike before game five against the Orlando Magic. They protested Jacob Blake’s murder in Wisconsin. One way the NBA sold the bubble idea to players was that their voices would be amplified if they played out the season. This was true to an extent, although the worries about basketball distracting from racism are warranted.
The Magic joined their opponents in the protest, as did every other team scheduled to play in the next few days. As the athletes discussed actionable items they wanted in exchange for returning to the court, it seemed like the season may just end. But that idea was too radical to gain momentum. The NBA playoffs are still happening. But the fight for justice is far from over, and more and more people are getting involved.
NBA referees supported the cause with their own protest
Referees mostly exist just to get criticized for every error they make. But most people will approve of the way they supported the strike, details Sports Illustrated. Joined by other NBA employees, the officials, marched through Walt Disney World while wearing shirts with the message “everybody vs. racism.”
“We’re here because we feel like we’re a representation of America, or what America could be,” said NBA official Marc Davis. “This isn’t about right versus left. This is about right versus wrong. It’s everybody versus racism.”
Refs chose this display of unity after meeting the night before to discuss how to join the protest. They don’t have nearly the platform of a team with Giannis Antetokounmpo. But any sort of revolution has to include people who don’t have a massive fan base. The group marched three times around the campus, receiving applause from Disney employees.
Athletes are only getting more vocal about their beliefs
To understate the terribly obvious, 2020 has been a horrible year for nearly everybody. The end of the coronavirus pandemic is still out of sight, cops abuse power with depressing regularity, and California has been on fire for weeks. Athletes feel the stress of these events, too. And they’re using their power to bring light to causes they care about.
It’s not just a feature of the NBA anymore. The MLB and MLS all took the NBA’s lead and postponed games in honor of the fight for racial justice, while Naomi Osaka has worn masks bearing the names of different black people during her run in the US Open.
The success of their stances is still up for grabs. Some NBA franchises can’t even turn their stadiums into voting centers for the upcoming election, let alone pressure local governments into police reform. On the other side, former owner of MLS club Real Salt Lake and NWSL’s Utah Royals, Dell Joy Hansen, was forced to sell the team after his racist and misogynistic tendencies were exposed, details ESPN.
Regardless of the struggles, it’s clear that the idea of sticking to sports is no longer for any major sports league. Even Roger Goodell got strongarmed into putting out a video supporting Black Lives Matter a few months ago. We should probably get used to seeing more demonstrations like these for the foreseeable future. Player power is often discussed as simply a way to create superteams, but it could be so much more than that.