Over a week ago, in Kenosha, Wisc., police officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, four times in the back while Blake’s three children watched from the backseat of his car. According to witnesses, Blake had been trying to deescalate a fight when officers stopped him, citing outstanding warrants for his arrest for sexual assault and domestic violence charges. Blake survived the shooting and was transported that same night to a nearby hospital where he was subsequently handcuffed to the bed. He is now paralyzed from the waist down, and has watched as his shooting sparked protests and riots across the country, after cellphone video of the incident went viral.
The story was powerful enough to pierce the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) “bubble,” which had been set up to allow for the resumption of play despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While playoff games continued as planned on Monday and Tuesday of that week, news broke on Tuesday night that players from the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, due to begin their second-round playoff series the next day, were considering a boycott to focus attention on the Blake shooting. ESPN NBA correspondent Marc Spears reported on Twitter that Raptors head coach Nick Nurse heard several players mention their desire to leave the bubble, with Celtics star Jaylen Brown Tweeting that night the simple message “I want to go protest.”
Wednesday’s first scheduled play-off game was set to feature the Milwaukee Bucks, who play their home games less than an hour from Kenosha, but the team failed to show up on the court for pre-game warm-ups and then announced that they would not be playing Game Five of their matchup with the Orlando Magic. Soon after this announcement, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers opted to not play their game later that night, with the NBA ultimately canceling all games Thursday and Friday as well.
Several prominent NBA players took to Twitter to support the Bucks’ decision to not play on Wednesday, with Memphis Grizzlies rookie point guard Ja Morant and San Antonio Spurs shooting guard DeMar DeRozan both tweeting “Respect.” Other players tweeted demands beyond simply canceling NBA games to shift public focus to the shooting and the protests. Lakers star LeBron James tweeted “F**K THIS MAN!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE SICK OF IT.” while Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson and Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray tweeted “WE DEMAND CHANGE!” and “WE DEMAND JUSTICE!!!” respectively.
The NBA has long been one of professional sports’ most vocally progressive leagues on social justice issues. After many Black Lives Matter protests earlier this summer, Commissioner Adam Silver had the words “Black Lives Matter” printed on every court, while also allowing players to wear jerseys with messages like “I Can’t Breathe,” “Equality,” “Say Her Name” and “Anti-Racist” where the players’ names usually are. Despite outside criticism from conservative pundits and politicians over the cancellations, NBA players presented a united front, with Cleveland Cavaliers veteran center Kevin Love declaring on Twitter “We have the strongest, most unified league in the world!!! #change.”
Wednesday night, ESPN’s lead NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski reported that players from both Los Angeles teams, the Lakers and the Clippers, had proposed cancelling the entire season due to Blake’s shooting. With both teams considered among the favorites for the NBA title, the news sent shockwaves through the sports community and showed the level of dedication from the players to this cause.
The next morning the NBA convened its Board of Governors, inviting Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Chris Paul and Miami Heat swingman Andre Iguodala, the president and vice-president of the NBA Players’ Union respectively, to speak. After long deliberations between NBA players into Thursday morning, the players decided to end their holdout, and voted to continue the playoffs.
Beyond the debates over policing, brutality and racial injustice, the cancellation of games also prompted conversations about the power of organized labor to effect social change. Reporters like Wojnarowski and even LeBron James consistently called the cancellation of games a “boycott” from NBA players, but left-wing politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were quick to point out that the NBA players were withholding their labor, not their money, making it a strike rather than a boycott. Other figures on the left were disappointed that the NBA Players Union decided to end its strike. Since the strike was technically illegal under their collective bargaining agreement’s no-strike clause, activists believed it underlined the power workers have in the workplace even when the law states otherwise. Some, like Guardian columnist Derecka Purnell, were especially frustrated that President Barack Obama had spoken to Chris Paul urging him to end the strike, with Purnell saying on Twitter that “President Obama told Black NBA players striking for racial justice to keep playing ball.”
The NBA playoffs resumed this Saturday, with the Milwaukee Bucks defeating the Magic to finish out their first-round series, yet there are few visible effects of the strike’s demands. While the NBA promised a new three-point social justice strategy that included the creation of a social justice council, allowing all NBA arenas to be used as polling stations for the November election and opening up advertising spots for PSAs about voting and civic engagement, it will be important to see if these concessions are enough to satisfy players’ broader demands for justice.
The strike also continued the conversation about the intersection of sports and politics, and forces the question about how effective these NBA strikes can be. The NBA strike was announced four years to the day since then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the National Anthem to protest systemic racism. But Kaepernick’s move likely had a much larger social impact than the NBA strike, since the NFL has a much larger and more ideologically diverse audience than the NBA, which caters mostly to a young, urban and liberal audience.
Additionally, the strike raises questions about the intersection of class and race when it comes to social justice movements. There is no doubt that every Black NBA player knows the depths of America’s racism and that their actions come with good intentions. Is there something more players can do besides striking, especially when the average NBA player earns $7.7 million yearly, and the average Black household had a median net worth of just $11,200 in 2014?
But the players’ unity highlights the need for collective rather than individual action when trying to address issues as deeply anchored in American society as systemic racism. Most players already donate a lot of money to charitable causes, and there’s only so much that those financial contributions can do. More broadly, the responsibility for combatting racism in the United States doesn’t fall on the shoulders of NBA players, but on the people in power who have continued to make decisions that uphold and advance racist structures. Although a sustained holdout or even the complete cancellation of the playoffs would have been more effective, the brief strike shows that change will not come if we continue life as usual, and that causing what late-Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble” is a necessary part of enacting the structural change this country needs.