Last Wednesday, 26 August, the Milwaukee Bucks surprised everyone by refusing to come out to play Game 5 of their first round series against the Orlando Magic. Within minutes, the move reverberated among the NBA playoff teams in the Bubble, and later caused a tsunami effect across many more sports leagues in the US. Aside from the 3 NBA games for the day, major league baseball and soccer, as well their sister league, the WNBA, also put games on hold in protest over the perceived lack of clear action on the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
It was the first time for major sports leagues to have taken such a bold step on an issue of grave magnitude. What was it really all about? And what did it hope to accomplish?
This first-ever boycott of games was a show of solidarity over perceived systemic police brutality and violence against black people. This comes on the heels of the nationwide protests that rocked the US in light of the George Floyd death. Enough is enough, the players’ spoke out. The players wanted the whole world to know that there is much to be done in regard the raging racism issue in the US , and in the whole world. They wanted everyone to feel the fear, the sorrow and the rage they have long kept bottled inside their hearts. And yes, by putting their careers on the line, by showing their willingness to sacrifice the very source of income that have sustained them, the players wanted to focus more attention to this social reform issue advocated by the Black Lives Matter Movement. The message was clear: the players don’t just want to play, they want to be more relevant to a festering social issue prevailing. They want their voices heard. They want to leverage on their political capital as topnotch athletes to draw attention to the problem at hand.
And for a while, it seemed that the NBA season was hanging by a thread. It was reported that Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard led the Lakers and the Clippers in advocating for a complete stoppage of the playoffs. However, cooler heads prevailed. A day later, the players decided – after a series of more emotional and heated talks, and deeper consultations – to stay and resume the games. The realization was that they stood a better chance of raising awareness to the issue of racial equality and social change by continuing to play. If they left the Bubble, they would have surrendered the power of the media platform available to them. Without their ability to play, they would have reverted to being nameless individuals whose voices would have been drowned by the noisy crowd. There too was the threat of losing the mega-buck income they were enjoying, if the NBA season – and the NBA itself – was to fold up. As the saying goes: do not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. That said, after a thorough study and deliberation on the matter, the collective decision was to stay and finish the playoffs.
But did the boycott accomplish anything?
The issue of racism was never solvable inside the NBA alone. It is a complex societal issue that some pundits claim cannot be fully fathomed by the players alone. And it cannot be solved overnight. Former NBA star Chris Webber articulated this well, even as he applauded the young ones for starting something for the next generation. But he cautioned that they have to be smart about it, that they must have a plan, and that they must be able to articulate the plan. Failing that, the movement against a global malaise such as this would simply die down like embers on a dying fire.
But yes, in answer to the question of whether or not the boycott accomplished something, the players were definitely successful in getting the entire world to sit up and listen to the problem at hand. With that alone, the boycott move was already a resounding success. The players knew that the answer to the problem was beyond the playing arena, yet their action drew huge attention to it, moving the needle a little bit in the social Richter scale. As the saying goes: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
What really is needed to effect lasting change? Do the players have the power to drive change? Can they eradicate racism? The sad reality is that the issue cannot be eradicated in one stroke. Matter of fact, some people will say that it cannot be totally eliminated. But a strong immediate change has certainly been achieved. And it can be further enhanced through the strong arm tactics of big business, through the power of the NBA owners and their cohorts whose economic and political leverage can bring more attention to the problem at hand.
The NBA players have shown great leadership and solidarity by taking the dramatic step forward in articulating this noble cause. The move to boycott was certainly not without its share of risks. Still, the players soldiered on. Took the risk. And having seen the terrain up ahead, they have taken the smart decision to stay and play on. Knowing full well the danger that goes with a work stoppage, they knew when to stop and listen. Under these trying circumstances, being able to continue playing matters. Because being able to play affords them the platform and the power to further articulate their advocacy.
We commend the players for taking the bold step forward, for demonstrating clear solidarity over the issue of social inequity. And even as we do so, we applaud them for the wise decision to return to the playing field. Thankfully, this has been a win-win for everyone. Well done, indeed!!!
For now, it’s back to the games, folks!!!
Cover pic courtesy of The Indian Express. Other photos courtesy of CBS Sports, Fox Sports and USA Today.