‘We Want Change.’ NBA Protest Turns American Sports Upside Down

There has never been such a massive boycott of sports before in the U.S. as the one on Wednesday night. And the ones who staged the boycott were the players themselves. They are demanding police reform and easier access to voting.

It began on Wednesday around 10 p.m. Polish time. The fifth Milwaukee Bucks vs. Orlando Magic National Basketball Association playoff game was minutes away from starting. Experts said that the Milwaukee team was set to make it to the finals, so the game was expected to be a slam dunk for Giannis Antetokounmpo’s team, Antetokounmpo being one of the NBA’s stars, MVP winner in the previous season, and on Wednesday, named this season’s best defensive player.

The NBA is the league of surprises, so I logged on to the game a few minutes before 10 p.m. to see whether the favorites would easily defeat Marcin Gortat’s former team. But the surprise lay elsewhere. It turned out that the start, as if it were a flight, was delayed, and later, that the game was “postponed.” Antetokounmpo and other Bucks players had decided not to leave the locker room. The reason was that the team was in shock over events Sunday in which police officers shot Jacob Blake, a Black resident of Kenosha, Wisconsin, seven times. The 29-year-old man had been trying to get into his car where three of six children, 3, 5 and 8 years old, were waiting for him. Blake is alive, though he will never walk again; he is paralyzed. Wisconsin is 50 kilometers (approximately 31 miles) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

There Will Be No Game Today

The reaction of Bucks players was spontaneous. They did not consult with the opposing team, trade unions or the league and they most likely expected to forfeit to the Magic. Yet the Orlando players left the court in a gesture of solidarity during the warmup a few minutes before the first whistle. And then the events took on the speed of Kamil Stoch taking a ski run up the hill in Wisła-Malinka. Instead of a sports coverage, I saw a fascinating spectacle: NBA commentators and experts discussing racism in the United States with empathy and expertise. They received telephone and video calls from basketball fans of various generations who shared their experiences. The recurring theme was weariness and disappointment over the lack of change in the attitude of police officers toward Black citizens. According to 2019 data, 74.8% of NBA players are Black, 18.1% are white.

Two more playoff games were scheduled for that night, but within a half-hour, Oklahoma City Thunder, the team on which Chris Paul, the president of the National Basketball Players Association plays, along with the Houston Rockets, the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers refused to play, and the NBA canceled the playoffs. League referees issued a statement supporting the players and racial equality, while basketball players from the Women’s National Basketball Association refused to play all three of their scheduled games. Statements from club authorities also followed.

The same thing happened with Major League Soccer, where only the first of six matches took place, and with Major League Baseball. Naomi Osaka, one of the best tennis players in the world, and who is of Haitian and Japanese background, refused to play in the Western and Southern Open tennis semi-finals. On Monday, the U.S. Open kicks off in New York, one of the most important tournaments of the year, and Osaka, who is set to play, is seeded at No. 4.

Vote Passes the Ball to ‘Education Reform’

Professional sports in the U.S. and Poland differ. First, basketball, baseball and hockey players in Poland are not traded by their league, their place is secured. Clubs do not raise future players in youth leagues, they recruit players at university tournaments. The league makes sure to level the playing field and the best players end up on the weakest teams. Clubs have a system in place that limits runaway salaries, and one can change teams only under a few limited circumstances. In addition, there is a “luxury tax” system so there are no all-star teams. In a different version of how the sport is managed, one star is surrounded by strong even competition. This generates a strong emotional response which fills modern sports halls and stadiums. There is always “someone to watch.” That is, of course, when there is no pandemic raging. Since the current season resumed, games have been played to empty stadiums. Additionally, millions of people all over the world buy NBA team passes to watch the games live or on-demand. And they must see those matches just as the sponsors must see the logos of their companies. Advertising has many faces. Commentators read advertising slogans and announcements while the games are being broadcast. This is the reason why the NBA returned in July.

This season taking place during the pandemic is different in addition to the fact there is no audience. First, in a year that has seen the explosion of a movement demanding equal rights for Black citizens, a great majority of players wear some of the 30 slogans they agreed to print on their jerseys instead of their own names. So there were players identified as “Black Lives Matter,” “Equality,” “Peace,” “Justice,” “Vote,” “Freedom,” “Enough,” “Education Reform,” “Say Their Names,” “I Am a Man,” “I Can’t Breathe ” and “Power to the People,” among others.

According to the Los Angeles Times, each of the players received a memo from league officials before the season resume which said, “A central goal of our season restart will be to utilize the NBA’s platform to bring attention and sustained action to issues of social injustice, including combating systemic racism, expanding educational and economic opportunities across the Black community, enacting meaningful police and criminal justice reform and promoting greater civic engagement.”

Most importantly, 22 teams taking part in the season’s finale were housed in a sports complex in Florida where games are played under sterile conditions. A few weeks’ separation from family was not part of the contract, however, the players agreed to it, and over the last month, they have been playing and promoting “Black Lives Matter” at the same time. Participation in games is a kind of patriotic duty; after all, the national anthem always plays before the first whistle. But this time, players realized they were taking part in the same old spectacle, and despite their appeals, the everyday lives of Black citizens have not changed at all.

Basketball players have experienced the problem firsthand. In 2015, New York police detained Atlantic Hawks players Thabo Sefolosha and Pero Antić outside a nightclub. The video from that incident does not show clearly whether the police officers attacked Sefolosha, but in the end, they escorted him limping to a police car. Due to the injuries he sustained, Sefolosha lost out on the rest of the season including the playoffs. And in 2018, Sterling Brown parked his car in a handicapped parking spot, an offense that carries a fine of up to $200. Eight police officers subdued him, made him kneel, used their knees to press his head against the ground and hit him with a stun gun. And then one of the officers boasted about it online. Brown is a Milwaukee Bucks player.

What do players risk by boycotting games? Their earnings, of course. They are bound by a contract worked out by the basketball association which carries penalties for absences. Players have already been receiving only three-fourths of their salaries because of the pandemic. If this season is not completed, LeBron James, a 35-year-old LA Lakers star and currently the sport’s greatest player, would lose around $8 million of his $37.4 annual contract. But after the video was published showing Blake being shot in the back, it was James who tweeted, “And y’all wonder why we say what we say about the Police!! Someone please tell me WTF is this???!!! Exactly another black man being targeted. This shit is so wrong and so sad!! Feel so sorry for him, his family and OUR PEOPLE!! We want JUSTICE”

Choking back tears, Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers coach and the son of a police officer and a former player, added, “It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.”

General Meeting in a Ball Room

While Orlando players were warming up before their game against the Bucks, the Bucks were on a Zoom teleconference call in their locker room. Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, were on the line. Barnes told ESPN reporters that the basketball players had asked what they could do to make a change in the short term and in long term. “They wanted the walkout to be step one,” he said. Basketball players asked why the police officers involved in the shooting had not been arrested.

After three hours in the locker room, the Bucks issued a statement saying, “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.”

On Wednesday night in an Orlando hotel ballroom, players and coaches of all 13 teams (there are 30 teams in the league) gathered at a meeting that was described as emotional and chaotic. I imagine it to be like deliberating in a sports hall during the French Revolution, an extremely important event taking place within a group that meets for the first time under unexpected conditions.

The Bucks are the favorites in the NBA in the East, whereas in the West, the main battle will be fought between two Los Angeles teams, the Lakers and the Clippers. Their leaders are, respectively: James, an outspoken legend of the league and the quiet Kawhi Leonard, James’ most likely successor, winner of two MVPs in league finals and current champion (while still playing under Toronto Raptors colors). Together with the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, these are the three top teams and the three top players. Both James and Leonard overwhelmingly supported boycotting the remainder of the season.

We Will Not Play Without Guarantees

There has never been a season break like this in the history of American professional sports. It has happened that the schedule was affected by events like 9/11, catastrophes like earthquakes and hurricanes, and now, a coronavirus pandemic. The players were, of course, ready to give up honors, money and even their careers for the higher good. Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali gave up his boxing title to protest the Vietnam War. Exactly four years ago (the anniversary was on Wednesday) Colin Kaepernick practically ended his career in the National Football League. In a protest against police brutality and cases like the one that took place in Ferguson, Missouri or in Baltimore, Maryland, right before the match, instead of standing during the American national anthem, he sat down. Later, out of respect for veterans, he started kneeling on one knee. That gesture was taken up by other sports players, but it was Donald Trump who added fuel to the fire demanding that club owners remove players who didn’t respect the flag. Kaepernick was left in the lurch as being bad for business. For four years, nobody has wanted to hire the playmaker who tipped the scales in Super Bowl 2013 in favor of the San Francisco 49ers, even teams that need this kind of player to complete their team.

Hence, this interruption in NBA games sets an even greater precedent. The boycott occurred despite the league leadership’s decision to spend $300 million over 10 years to underwrite a foundation supporting the Black community.

Two meetings were scheduled on Thursday one with club owners (91.4% of whom are white, and whose point of view is clear: will the world change if you do not play?) and one with the players. It soon turned out that the players wanted a change but they also wanted to keep on playing. But it is the club owners who influence politicians, as they are a group of America’s richest entrepreneurs. On Thursday night, the players have scheduled a video conference call with the club owners. This online meeting is to be attended by basketball association representatives, league officials and the best basketball player in history, Michael Jordan. A statement mentioned the probable return to the games on Friday or Saturday. The majority of players were said to be in favor of finishing the season.

Before the meeting, Paul warned about the price that the players and the league would have to pay if the season was canceled.

The Weirdest NBA Season in Years

It is weird because it is played in installments. Yet the four-month break caused by COVID-19 will soon be a thing of the past while the two or three days when no game was played may bring about a long-lasting change. America has to change because inequalities are growing and living is becoming increasingly harder for white and Black people, and for people of color in general, as they say in the U.S. Trump’s presidency is not the cause, but the effect. The basketball players are calling for easier access to voting, police and education reform. A barrage of critical, vulgar and vicious comments from internet trolls is like water off a duck’s back to them. They have already made up their minds and they will not turn back. In the year 2020, this is one of the most reassuring bits of news.

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