Note: This article originally appeared on Standing Room Only. It has been republished here in its entirety.
It was one of those days where I found myself constantly refreshing Twitter, constantly opening my phone to find the newest scrap of information, the most recent unenlightened shred of hot-takery the tempestuous maelstrom of the Internet had to offer.
Last Wednesday (August 26), the Orlando Magic took the court for Game 5 of their NBA playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Magic were warming up on their side of the court; the Bucks didn’t show. The starting lineups were announced; the Bucks were still in the locker room. Frazzled NBA execs rushed in and out of the locker room area like worker ants at a hill, frantically wondering what the hell was going on. The tip-off horn blared through the convention room as virtual fans moved in static synchronicity along the wall monitors. The event had all the pomp, but there was no circumstance. The Milwaukee Bucks were on strike.
They went on strike to draw attention to the plight of Jacob Blake, 29. He’s currently paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in the back 7 times by police officer Rusten Sheskey in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Just another chapter in the life of a Black man in white America.
We’ve seen this story before, far too many times. Most recently, the world watched appalled as George Floyd narrated his own death at the hands of Derek Chauvin.
“Mama…I can’t breathe…Get off me…I can’t breathe…Mama, help me.”
NBA players, like so many Americans, had had enough. They actively voiced their frustration, fear, and distress. They demanded action; they demanded change. The assault on Jacob Blake shows just how much work remains to be done.
The Milwaukee Bucks took it upon themselves to take the first step. After the Bucks went on strike, the players on the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, also scheduled to play that day, announced that they too would refuse to take the court. Soon all NBA games that day and the day after were postponed.
The strike jumped from the hardcourt to the diamond. The Milwaukee Brewers, who play their home games just an hour’s drive north of where Jacob Blake was shot, joined the Bucks and refused to take the field. The Seattle Mariners, who have a league-high ten Black players on their active roster, also sat out in protest. The Dodgers and Giants joined them, with the league’s most high-profile Black player Mookie Betts taking a stand for racial justice. Other individual players, including Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, and Matt Kemp sat out for their teams that night. Many teams that didn’t strike on Wednesday refused to play Thursday to stand in solidarity with their fellow athletes fighting for racial justice.
It was a provocative statement from the players of Major League Baseball. Collective action is rare among the players unless contracts are involved. It’s even more rare from an ownership group and commissioner that vaingloriously shrouds themselves in the mantle of Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues while refusing to put forward anything but the most sanitary statements on racial justice.
Unsurprisingly, criticism for the strike was as swift as it was absurd. Right-wing sports commentor Clay Travis claimed it was another example of the “get woke go broke” NBA — though the connection between marginally lower ratings and political activism is specious at best. Bots took to Twitter in force as numerous accounts used the exact same language to announce their departure from NBA fandom. Never one to ignore a good controversy, President Trump got in on the action, claiming that the infusion of politics into sports would “destroy basketball.“
But what the hell is political about any of this?
It would be political if Lebron James showed up to a Zoom press conference wearing a “No Malarkey” campaign hat. It would be political if Trevor Bauer wrote #MAGA2020 on the mound before every start. It would be political if Joe Maddon waxed poetic for thirty minutes about the minutiae of the United States tax code instead of talking about the deplorable state of his franchise.
Politics is about the partisan vitriol that often overrides desires and efforts for real legislative change in this country. And that’s not what the players are doing here. They’re not writhing in the mud with Donald Trump, nor campaigning for Joe Biden. No, what they’re doing is so much more important.
This isn’t politics. This is humanity.
This is a cry to value Black lives and treat them as equal, valuable, and worthy of respect. This is a demand to stop the violence — to stop the senseless, repressive killing of Black men and women, and to stop the violence and looting that has gripped a small minority of the protests. This is a plea to be seen as more than athletes, and rolemodels, for all of us to see past the logo and the uniform and the fantasy points to see the human underneath.
You don’t have to agree with the agenda of the Black Lives Matter organization. You don’t have to agree to Defund the Police — perhaps you support the idea that increased training programs will improve our police forces, or perhaps you’re even more radical and want to launch a campaign to abolish the Second Amendment. These are all political questions, all debates to be had over policy and legislative directives.
But the very fact that Black lives matter, the simple God-given value of their human life — that is not political, nor is it fair game for some partisan vanity competition.
I hear you. You hate politics. You hate the insincerity, the bluster about grandiose values without any consideration of the trials and tribulations of everyday Americans who are hurting, God they are hurting. And sports, sweet blissful sports, are your escape. You lean back in your favorite leather recliner, cold beer cradled in your calloused hands as the poetry of physical motion taking place on your screen eases the existential dread that has made 2020 so oppressive. And when the players go on strike over something like this, you can’t help but feel that your peaceful oasis of sports has been seized by the hateful rhetoric of politics.
But step back for a moment. Remember that sports are a part of our society. Sean Doolittle even called them “the reward for a functioning society.” The problems of our society indelibly affect the sporting world. When 9/11 happened, the sports world became a beacon of hope, an affirming sanctuary of normalcy in a world turned upside down by terror. When natural disasters happen, sports are there to rally us, to unite communities in the face of unbelievable anguish.
Why, when our society faces a long-overdue reckoning on racial justice and systematic discrimination, would sports not be there to help us confront our original sins?
Maybe you’re still opposed to this idea. Maybe you sit back and demand that the athletes play, and score, and dance, all for your entertainment. Maybe you refuse to allow any discussion outside of X’s and O’s into your personal sports bubble — but sure, let’s keep the National Anthem, that great pump-up banger that gets athletes ready to perform at the highest levels of their abilities. That’s an essential component of sports.
Or maybe, just maybe, you can’t see the athletes for what they are. For all their incredible accomplishments, those transcendent moments where they take flight, defy the odds, and display seemingly supernatural gifts of athleticism, they are as human as you and me. They feel the pain in our society, and they feel an obligation to use their platform to enact a positive change in the world.
That, more than any home run, any three-pointer, any goal, turns them into the stars we make them out to be.