Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 18, 2024

Black athletes shouldn't have to carry the weight for change

By MATTHEW RITCHIE | September 4, 2020



NBA players have remained active in their advocacy for racial justice and social equality throughout their bubble restart.

Last Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks blindsided the league and the entire sports world by deciding to sit out the scheduled Game Five of their first-round matchup against the Orlando Magic. Milwaukee did not emerge from their locker room until 4 p.m. in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., just a mere 40 miles from where the Bucks call home. 

As protests in Kenosha escalated on Monday, with three protesters shot, two of them dying from their injuries, Bucks guard George Hill made the personal decision to sit out the next game. According to The Athletic, this decision snowballed very quickly as teammates joined Hill in his choice to sit out the game. Subsequently, as the Magic warmed up on the court, Milwaukee’s players and coaching staff were nowhere to be found, residing in their locker room ready to take a stand. 

The Bucks players were hurting, plain and simple. On top of the geographical connection to the shooting and protests, there’s an intrinsic sympathy for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Shooting guard Sterling Brown was a victim of police brutality at the hands of the Milwaukee Police Department in 2018. He was forced to the ground by multiple officers, tased unnecessarily and stepped on for refusing to remove his hands from his pockets while waiting for a parking citation.

Instead of playing, the Bucks players sat in the locker room for nearly three hours, discussing their thoughts and feelings on the violence and racial injustices perpetrated against the Black community. They called Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul with their concerns and thoughts on the matter. Once they emerged, they came armed with a prepared statement delivered by Brown and Hill, with the rest of the team waiting in the wings. 

“The past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing our African American communities,” Brown said. “Citizens around the country have used their voices and platforms to speak out against these wrongdoings. Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha and the additional shooting of protesters. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”

Their choice to sit out the game sent immediate shockwaves through the National Basketball Association (NBA) and other sports leagues. The players in the subsequent playoff games that day, which included the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trailblazers and Los Angeles Lakers, also decided to strike out and refused to play. Players across the league didn’t miss a beat and stood by the Bucks players.

The NBA chose to postpone the games for the day. The players of the Women’s National Basketball Association, who always carry the torch for advocating social justice initiatives, unequivocally decided to support their male counterparts and elected to also sit out their games that day. Multiple teams from Major League Baseball, including the Milwaukee Brewers, sat out games as well. 

The gravity of this decision cannot be lost. It was the very first time in League history that the playoffs were stopped due to a player-led strike. Momentarily, the majority Black coalition of players held the NBA’s owners by the haunches and captured the attention of the surrounding world. 

The constant exhaustion of watching Black people disproportionately abused by the police manifested itself in a monumental wildcat strike. It was a real, visceral reaction: one that runs antithetical to social justice statements made by the NBA as a whole. The NBA often deals in pre-approved, sponsor-friendly statements that serve only as performative allyship. The League’s owners and higher-ups periodically co-opt the protest movements of the players to create the facade of a progressive organization. 

But that exact moment, the players banded together as a collective to take a radical stance, withholding Black labor to hurt the pockets of the elite with the purpose of eliciting tangible change. 

The guerilla nature of their protest, however, tempered over the next 48 hours. The players met that Wednesday night, and according to The Athletic, there was a clear divide among the remaining teams on whether or not to continue to the season. It was reported that the Lakers and the Clippers voted not to play the rest of the season, with the other teams, including the Bucks, electing to play on. 

The contentious first meeting ending with LeBron James and the rest of the two abstaining teams walking out after nearly three hours. The frustration with a lack of planning on the part of the Bucks, who did not even alert the Magic of their plan to sit out, led to the walkout. 

The following day was chock-full of players meeting with players, players meeting with the owners and calls outside of the bubble to politicians. By the end of last Thursday, the then 13 remaining playoff teams agreed to resume the playoffs, with a promise from the NBA to more aggressively support the causes that are important to them. The NBA and the Players’ Association agreed to establish a social justice coalition and to have team governors turn NBA arenas into safe voting locations for the 2020 general election. 

So, basketball is back, again. But even more so than the initial restart at the beginning of the bubble, we’re privy to the difficulties of existing as both a socially aware Black man and an NBA star in Orlando. 

There’s a ridiculous notion that superstar athletes that receive millions of dollars to play a “kid’s game” do not have the room to complain about social injustices at large.  That somehow their  role in society is reduced to strictly being a source of entertainment for a mostly white audience, solely because they’re being paid to play a sport. 

However, these men that you see perform on a nightly basis step off the court and continue to be Black men. They experience the shared trauma of knowing that they exist in a system that’s been designed to keep Black people at the bottom. Each athlete can look at themselves and see Jacob Blake as the police put seven bullets into him in front of his children. No amount of money fixes the intrinsic anxiety every Black person has when they get pulled over by the police. As instances of police brutality continue to go unpunished, the millionaire athlete experiences the same pain and empathy as the minimum wage Black American. 

So, as they play the game they love, these players also exist in the midst of the Black experience. That can be extremely difficult to balance, as the NBA players are in the bubble to play basketball and win an NBA championship. But many of the players attempt to represent their social justice causes and advocate for change at the same time. This only contributes to the emotional stress of quarantining in a bubble. Now, the players are trapped in a vortex of public attention and opinion, attempting to navigate social change while vying for a title. 

The truth is that they should not have to. It is not the responsibility of the likes of LeBron, Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, Nuggets guard Jamal Murray and others to singlehandedly fix the racism that Black people face every day. Neither does the average Black citizen have to fix every instance of racial injustice. The onus is on those that control the system that perpetuates racism and inequality to right the wrongs. Sometimes we ask too much of those who have been subjugated and denied the freedoms supposedly afforded to every American. 

What we witnessed last Wednesday was a moment. A welcome, potentially paradigm-shifting, albeit brief, moment. Anytime athletes wield the power that they have in society for positive social change is appreciated. However, instead of coming to expect grand, dramatic instances like this from our Black athletes, we need to hold those in power more accountable for the change they can enact. When the country doesn’t love you back, we shouldn’t be blamed. The pressure needs to be placed on America to figure it out. 

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