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While many marveled at the ability of the NBA to execute a successful restart amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I marveled at the ability of the league to restart during a time of widespread civil unrest. George Floyd wasn’t the first unarmed Black man to be killed by the police. However, it was something about watching with your own eyes as Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as the life drained from his body — as he cried out for his mother and repeatedly struggled to let Chauvin know that he couldn’t breathe.
It can be argued that the officers involved in Floyd’s death were charged due in large part to the involvement of former NBA player Stephen Jackson who was a close friend of Floyd’s. Jackson’s advocacy amplified the already large amount of media coverage and we saw an influx of professional athletes, namely NBA players, making strong vocal statements. At one point, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving publicly opposed the restart of the NBA season amid the civil unrest. In June, Irving, one of the National Basketball Players Association’s six elected vice presidents, was on a call with nearly 100 players where he made a plea for players to sit out the league restart, and focus their time and energy on eradicating the racism and oppression plaguing the African-American community.
While Irving’s pleading did not stop the league restart, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin put the sports world on pause Wednesday (Aug. 28) night. With the world’s eyes and ears focused on them, the NBA took a stand. While the constant protests, marches, and social media posts have not been enough to spark meaningful government action, grinding sports to a screeching halt delivered a profound, unavoidable, in-your-face blow.
The NBA released the following statement via Twitter afterward:
“The NBA and the NBPA today announced that in light of the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision to not take the floor today for Game 5 against the Orlando Magic, today’s three games – MIL-ORL, HOU-OKC and LAL-POR have been postponed. Game 5 of each series will be rescheduled.”
The NBA and its commissioner Adam Silver have become the standard as of late when it comes to speaking out against social injustice and actually making an effort to demand change. The league’s influence was swift and widespread as the WNBA, MLB, WTA, USTA, and ATP Tour all canceled games to unite in protest against police brutality. The NHL followed the day after.
They’ve Got the Ball in Their Court
Let’s be clear. NBA players have not shied away from the frontlines of protests. They’ve made documentaries, recorded podcasts, and been vocal on their social media platforms for quite some time now. However, none of those tactics held the same weight as Wednesday’s stoppage in play. The COVID-19 pandemic has left the nation, if not the world, sports-starved and chomping at the bit for any kind of sports programming they can get their hands on, and professional athletes hold a lot of leverage. Lakers guard J.R. Smith posted to his Instagram story, “Oh you don’t hear us…well now you can’t see us.” It’s a powerful reminder that the idea of athletes being one-dimensional entertainers is inaccurate. A large percentage of the players inside the NBA bubble are African American and could find themselves, or their loved ones, as the next hashtag. It is a reality that is hitting closer and closer to home. If it takes putting basketball to the side to lobby for legislative changes to minimize that risk, then so be it. Clearly the individuals in charge of the task are not getting the job done.
Just as Stephen Jackson’s star power aided in the arrest of the cops involved in the killing of Floyd, the stance the Bucks took caught the right attention on Wednesday. With no previous warning, they sat inside their locker room as their opponent, the Orlando Magic, warmed up on the court. The team was on a Zoom call with Wisconsin lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes and attorney general Josh Kaul. They wanted to know what they could do beyond sitting out of a basketball game. According to Barnes, those steps include pressuring state lawmakers and brainstorming where to go from there.
Hit Them Where it Hurts
Labor strikes have been successful tools of negotiation throughout the history of the United States and what’s going on with the NBA is no different. Basketball is big money and the league, like much of the nation, took a large financial hit as a result of the pandemic. The industry affects businesses across a large spectrum including television, gaming, tourism, and hospitality, and a continued strike could have far-reaching consequences. We saw firsthand the influence the NBA holds on the other professional sports associations, so it would be short-sighted to think the financial ramifications would be limited to just the National Basketball Association. Behind the NFL, the often-conservative MLB is the second highest revenue generator of the nation’s sports leagues. Their stand in solidarity with the NBA is monumental.
According to ESPN’s NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski, and Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, the NBA teams met Wednesday night to discuss how to proceed with the season. The meeting opened with players having a Zoom call with Jacob Blake’s family members before audio issues cut the call short. Sources say that the subject matters of the aforementioned meeting were voting and police reform.
Some fans may be pondering what more NBA owners can do in the fight to end racism and oppression. If you think the most that can be done is “Black Lives Matter” court signage and social justices slogans on the backs of jerseys are enough, you are blissfully ignorant. NBA owners are some of the richest and most influential people in the world. They hold diverse portfolios containing real estate holdings, retail chains, private equity, and more. Plus, quite a few contribute to political campaigns and are less than six degrees of separation from those in power who can actively put legislation in place to get a handle on the ridiculous police brutality issue that does not seem to be going away despite the constant public outcry.
So, What’s Next?
Emotions were still raw during the Wednesday night meeting; which LeBron James left early, followed by the rest of the Lakers and the Clippers. The remaining players planned to continue the conversations Thursday morning. Thursday’s meeting coincided with the NBA’s Board of Governors call. Ultimately, the NBA released the following statement regarding that day’s scheduled playoff games.
This afternoon’s meeting is expected to cover plans for the resumption of the season restart as well as plans of action moving forward on social justice issues, according to Wojnarowski. According to sources, the benefit of finishing the season is the platform the players, coaches, and league as a whole would continue to have as the world tunes in to the games and, most importantly, their messages. Either way, the NBA has the world’s attention and the ball is in its court.