At the start of the 2018-2019 NBA season, I wrote about the NBA surpassing the NFL as “America’s Sport.” The piece was met with some skepticism. But what I was really getting at is NBA players are the most powerful athletes in pro sports. The NFL may be the most popular sport to watch, MLB may have the strongest players’ union, but NBA players are without a doubt the most influential athletes on the planet.
Whether it be social issues or random pop culture moments, no other athletes move the needle as much as NBA players do. And we have to also show love to the WNBA players as well. Those women have been at the forefront of these social issues before the NBA and earn less media coverage for their activism. One of the best players in the WNBA, Maya Moore, paused her career to help free an innocent man from prison. Had it been an NBA player, this would’ve been frontpage news. Moore, along with Colin Kaepernick who started this modern era of player activism in 2016, are the faces of the movement for social justice reform among athletes as far as I’m concerned since they have sacrificed more than anybody else.
What the Milwaukee Bucks did Wednesday hasn’t been done in 59 years. As ESPN’s Elle Duncan pointed out, the last time NBA players refused to take the court was in 1961. Bill Russell and the rest of his Black Boston teammates sat out during an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky because they were refused service at an Indiana bar and at a Kentucky hotel coffee shop. Meanwhile, the Bucks’ strike—or protest or boycott, whatever you want to call it—happened exactly four years after Kaepernick first sat down for the national anthem during a preseason game in San Francisco. History has this weird way of repeating itself, doesn’t it?
Sometimes it’s unfathomable that we’re still here, kicking and screaming about all the injustice in society our elders have been kicking and screaming about all of their lives. Yet, it really isn’t surprising at all because this is the country we live in. The United States of America sits on a land that was stolen, raped, pillaged, then built on the backs of slaves and this country hasn’t been able to properly reckon with its past. The descendants of slaves have been trying to earn acceptance and respect for the better part of four centuries. Even after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation which led to the “freeing” of slaves, Black Americans weren’t allowed to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, about 100 years after they were supposedly free. Instead, they’re still hunted and shot in the streets like animals by those meant to protect them. Black athletes are tired of not only being Black in a country that hates them, like Clippers coach Doc Rivers said the other day, but also by feeling like they have to entertain everyone and just shut up and dribble.
That was one of the big reasons why players weren’t sure about heading to Orlando. Some felt like this wasn’t the time to pause the movement so basketball could continue while others felt they would be able to use the platform to amplify their message as the world watched. Players also had to deal with being away from their family and friends for months, essentially making this like a space mission. All of this is an incredible ask. Kyrie Irving was criticized for suggesting that they should keep the season on hold and that wasn’t fair. Yet, I thought and still think the NBA bubble was important to pull off. Nevermind the success they’ve had when it comes to the lack of COVID-19 infections inside ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, this opportunity gave the players the platform to be able to send the message they sent yesterday. There’s also the fact that situations like that of Jacob Blake will likely happen again and again and again because this is how it is in America. Are pro athletes supposed to just not play their respective sports ever again? That remains the conundrum these athletes are in, unfortunately. Muhammad Ali uplifted his people when he was shuffling his feet inside that ring, but then again, it wasn’t until he sacrificed it all that America started to really pay attention.
The players of the NBA and WNBA have done an exceptional job at raising awareness of the social issues that continue to plague us and they should be commended for it. If only our leaders in the halls of Congress would follow their lead.
The Bucks decision to not suit up for a playoff game sent ripple effects throughout the sports world. The WNBA followed and postponed games, so did several MLB teams, tennis star Naomi Osaka decided not to play, forcing the Western and Southern Open to postpone matches—even the NHL postponed games Thursday. Mere hours after deciding not to play, Bucks players were on the phone with Wisconsin attorney general Josh Kaul and lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes, according to ESPN’s Andrian Wojnarowski. Barnes spoke to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne about the call telling her, "They wanted something tangible that they could do in the short and long term. They wanted the walk out to be Step 1." In their team statement, the Bucks called for justice for Blake and said it was “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,” referring to a police reform bill that was introduced in the state legislature on June 20. Shelburne also reported that Wisconsin governor Tony Evers called a special session and told lawmakers to vote on the bill immediately.
The bill includes the ban of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, annual training on de-escalation techniques, statewide standards on use of force, and requires potential officers to allow their previous employer to disclose their work history. Is this enough? Absolutely not. As long as states and counties continue to throw the bulk of their budget towards militarizing the police and not towards social programs like education, recreation, and housing, police reform bills will continue to fall flat. We’ve been talking about police reform since Barack Obama was in the Oval Office and police brutality seems to have gotten worse. Reform isn’t what we need. What we need is the defunding of police across this country. That may be too radical of a pill for some to swallow, but we must continue to push the narrative in that direction.
We’re at a tipping point in our country, emotions are high, people are out of work, we’re dealing with a global pandemic the likes the world hasn’t seen in 100 years. I would’ve been proud of these players whether they decided to play or not and you should be, too. Pro athletes, especially Black athletes, are role models to many. It’s important for the youth to understand what’s happening right now, to know their history and why we are where we are at this pivotal moment. The players of the NBA and WNBA have done an exceptional job at raising awareness of the social issues that continue to plague us and they should be commended for it. If only our leaders in the halls of Congress would follow their lead. This is only the beginning.