In Sports and Everywhere Else, Collective Action Can Make Change

The history of American professional sports is inseparable from a history of protest. But never before has such a large cross-section of leagues been impacted by political action. We should celebrate the development.

An empty court and bench is shown with no signage following the scheduled start time in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic during the 2020 NBA Playoffs on August 26, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Kevin C. Cox / Getty)

On Sunday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, police fired four bullets into Jacob Blake, severing his spinal cord and adding another chapter in the long history of US state violence against black Americans. On Wednesday, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, scheduled to play that night in their playoff series against the Orlando Magic, did not. Instead, they went on strike, issuing a statement that read, in part, “It is imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.”

The history of American professional sports is inseparable from a history of protest. Individuals from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to Craig Hodges to John Carlos and Tommie Smith to Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese have used their platform as professional athletes to advance progressive ideals in an industry and a nation that have historically been regressive.

On the collective front, in 2016, after the police murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, players from three WNBA teams wore shirts during warm-ups decrying their killings; others around the league used their postgame press conferences to highlight criminal justice reform and police brutality rather than the games. In 1964, just before the first-ever televised NBA All-Star Game, the players refused to leave the locker room until demands for better working conditions were honored. Three years earlier, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics refused to play in an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky, after multiple businesses refused to let them enter during the road trip.

A half century later, athletes are still protesting against racism. But the Bucks’ strike was more significant than any recent action.

First, it quickly spread to other teams and leagues: by the end of the night, all Wednesday and Thursday NBA games were canceled, with no one knowing if the season would continue beyond that. The WNBA players also refused to play on Wednesday night. Three Major League Baseball games were canceled, along with five Major League Soccer games. Tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from a semifinals match in New York City before agreeing to return after the tournament was postponed. Never before has such a large cross-section of American professional sports been suspended because of athletes demanding political action; historically, most strikes have been isolated to each league’s players’ union and centered on work-related issues.

Second, the players are now making more concrete demands for action from the billionaire owners and politicians. A week after the 2017 murders of Castile and Sterling, four NBA stars — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul — were celebrated simply for taking the stage at the ESPY awards and calling for athletes to “speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence.” Today, after the NBA players listed voter suppression as one of their chief areas of concern, the Houston Rockets announced their arena will be open for voting from October 13 to Election Day, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, joining other teams who’ve done the same.

But all is not joy in Mudville. After their one-day strike, the players have decided to return to work; the games will resume. While there are surely a multitude of factors impacting their thinking, one is undoubtedly, as always, money. ESPN reported that:

NBPA executive director Michele Roberts and senior counsel Ron Klempner, both of whom were on site in Orlando for Wednesday’s meeting, explained that if the players decide not to play the remainder of the season, they could lose 25-30% of their salary for next year. The league could also terminate the collective bargaining agreement and lock out the players while terms of a new CBA are negotiated under the economic and societal duress of the pandemic.

It’s easier to think nothing will change than to trust change will come, or to be cynical when what’s sold as significant turns out to be something less than that. Earlier this month, league commissioner Adam Silver announced the creation of the NBA Foundation, a partnership between the owners and players intended to “drive meaningful economic opportunities for Black Americans.” The headline that the owners will commit $300 million over ten years to the program is impressive — until you realize that means each owner is giving $1 million per year to the foundation. That’s 0.0025 percent of the net worth of Robert Sarver, one of the league’s poorer fat cats, the equivalent of someone earning $50,000 donating $125. And yet the owners, apparently with a straight face, are, according to ESPN sources, thinking of asking the players to contribute funding, too.

“If we stop playing today,” one front-office executive asked players on Wednesday, “is that changing anything in the world? Will everyone else in the world just move on, and then will we lose our platforms?” It’s a fair question: How does one balance power and presence without sacrificing one or both? There’s no simple answer. But one thing that’s clear from even a short strike: athletes are closer to the public’s sensibilities than those of billionaires and politicians.

By taking collective action, they were able to remind the public of a universal truth: the more we work together, the more we can shape the world rather than be shaped by it.