By Pershelle Rohrer
September 8, 2020
Pershelle Rohrer is a second-year BGSU student from Logan, Utah. She is a Sport Management major with a minor in Journalism. Her primary sports interests are football, basketball, and baseball, both at the professional and collegiate levels.
Milwaukee Bucks players refused to play Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic on August 26 in response to the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23. Their actions led to widespread boycotts throughout the NBA and across the sports world.
Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times by a police officer while entering his vehicle, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down (Cohen, 2020). Three of Blake’s six children were inside the vehicle at the time of the shooting. Videos of the shooting quickly went viral on social media, and athletes quickly used their platforms to speak out against racial injustice.
Oklahoma City Thunder guard and National Basketball Players’ Association President Chris Paul sent a message of support to Blake and his family following the Thunder’s Game 4 win over the Houston Rockets, encouraging people to register to vote (Cohen, 2020). Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James asked, “Why does it always have to get to the point where we see the guns firing?” (“Inside the hectic,” 2020, para. 3). Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, the son of a police officer, said, “We keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back” (para. 5).
Bringing attention to social injustice and police brutality in America has been the ultimate goal for NBA players in the bubble since the killing of George Floyd in May. The shooting of Blake reawakened the players’ anger, and teams began to consider boycotting their playoff games in order to raise awareness. The Toronto Raptors were the first to discuss a boycott, considering skipping the opening game of their second-round series against the Boston Celtics scheduled for August 27 (Cohen, 2020).
The Milwaukee Bucks became the first team to boycott their game on August 26, participating in pregame warm-ups and media sessions before ultimately deciding not to play shortly before tipoff. Instead, the team participated in a Zoom call with Wisconsin lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes and attorney general Josh Kaul (“Inside the hectic,” 2020). Milwaukee is about 40 miles north of Kenosha, where Jacob Blake was shot.
Barnes said, “They just wanted to know what they could do. I mean, they were very interested in a call to action. They wanted something tangible that they could do in the short and long term. They wanted the walkout to be Step 1” (“Inside the hectic, 2020, para. 19).
The Bucks emerged from the locker room after over three hours, speaking to the media about their decision not to play. The Rockets and Thunder planned to follow the Bucks’ lead by boycotting their game, and the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers discussed doing the same. The NBA ultimately postponed all playoff games for that evening and the following day (Owens, 2020).
A quote from an ESPN article reflects on the events of the day: “The Bucks didn’t expect to be the thread that caused the NBA to unravel, one player said. But that thread had been fraying for awhile” (“Inside the hectic, 2020, paras. 10-11).
The NBA boycott also led to postponements of matches in the WNBA, NHL, MLB, MLS, and even tennis (“Inside the hectic,” 2020).
NBA analyst Kenny Smith walked off the set of Inside the NBA in response to the boycott, saying, “And for me . . . as a Black man, as a former player, I think it’s best for me to support the players and just not be here tonight” (McCarriston, 2020, para. 15). Eleven-time NBA champion and civil rights activist Bill Russell praised Smith’s actions. “I am so proud of you. Keep getting in good trouble,” he said (Bieler, 2020, para. 24).
Many athletes expressed their support for the boycott on Twitter, including San Jose Sharks winger Evander Kane, Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young.
CBS Sports writer Shanna McCarriston (2020) recognized that the statement was four years to the day from Colin Kaepernick’s first national anthem demonstration against police brutality and racial inequality. Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL since January 1, 2017, just over five months after he began protesting (Guerrero, 2020).
NPR’s Scott Simon recognized how far protests in sports have come since then. “This week really seemed to be a breaking point. And how did we get from Colin Kaepernick being considered an outcast not long ago to major league sports joining national campaigns of protest?” (Goldman, 2020, para. 10).
Players from all 13 teams remaining in Orlando’s NBA bubble met in the evening on August 26 to determine whether or not to continue the season. Before the NBA restart, Avery Bradley and Kyrie Irving argued for ending the season in order to prevent distraction from social justice issues following the death of George Floyd (“Inside the hectic,” 2020). The Lakers and Clippers voted to end the season, but the other 11 teams decided to continue and use their platforms in the bubble to promote racial equality.
Former University of Maryland basketball star and Harvard Law School graduate Len Elmore recognized the tangible change that the players have the opportunity to create. “Now they have started to take some action, recognizing the frustration that every person of color should be experiencing and certainly that they are experiencing. It’s a watershed moment,” Elmore said on Glenn Clark Radio (Gold, 2020, para. 3). He wished the boycott would have lasted longer due to his belief that the initial restart distracted from the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. He said, “I would like to see the thing last a lot longer. I thought the resumption of play would be a distraction and it wouldn’t change anything and we are kind of seeing that play out now” (para. 15).
Bucks guard George Hill shared Elmore’s concerns. On August 24, he said, “I think coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are” (Owens, 2020, para. 12).
NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman (2020) pointed out that the players ended their strike before they met with the owners about social justice issues, writing “Obviously, players lost leverage with that order of events. But owners have shown they’re at least willing to do what’s necessary to present the league as aligned with social justice, and the strike necessitated a greater showing” (para. 1).
Despite losing some of that leverage, the NBA and NBPA released a joint statement announcing tangible actions that will be enacted in order to support the movement. They established a social justice coalition to address issues such as voting, civic engagement, and police and criminal justice reform. NBA arenas will be used as voting locations for the 2020 general election. Lastly, the league will raise awareness for voting and civic engagement through advertisements for the remainder of the NBA playoffs (Feldman, 2020).
Chris Sheridan (2020) wrote that, “NBA players agreed to resume their season in a bubble in part because they believed their platform to push for social change could best be achieved through having their message seen and heard on every game telecast” (para. 21). They are finding concrete ways to take action as a result of the boycott, especially by encouraging people to vote. LeBron James established his More Than a Vote initiative in June to help fight voter suppression, and the NBA and NBPA agreement helps create “a safe in-person voting option for communities vulnerable to COVID” (Feldman, 2020, para. 7).
The NBA players accomplished their overall goal: they brought attention to another instance of police brutality and helped make Jacob Blake a household name. On August 27, Andy Nesbitt (2020) wrote, “They are keeping Jacob Blake’s name at the top of all conversations and they are doing their part to bring justice for a man who was shot seven times in the back” (para. 8). The boycott reminded fans of the injustices that were brought to the forefront of American life in May when Floyd was killed and showed the importance of the messages written on the players’ jerseys. The players look to continue using their platforms to promote racial equality and the importance of voting in November.
Bieler, D. (2020, August 27). Bill Russell led an NBA boycott in 1961. Now he’s saluting others for ‘getting in good trouble.’ Boston.com. https://www.boston.com/sports/boston-celtics/2020/08/27/bill-russell-nba-boycott
Cohen, K. (2020, August 26). The day the games stopped: A timeline since Jacob Blake was shot in the back. ESPN. https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29748584/the-day-games-stopped-line-jacob-blake-was-shot-back
evanderkane_9. (2020, August 26). Major statement by the NBA players I’m with it! [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/evanderkane_9/status/1298729342994874369?s=20
Feldman, D. (2020, August 28). NBA and players establish social-justice coalition, agree to promote voting. NBC Sports. https://nba.nbcsports.com/2020/08/28/nba-and-players-establish-social-justice-coalition-agree-to-promote-voting/
Gold, J. (2020, August 31). Former UMD basketball star: NBA boycott should’ve lasted longer. 247Sports.https://247sports.com/college/maryland/Article/Len-Elmore-talks-about-social-injustice-in-the-NBA-Maryland-basketball-150909738/
Goldman, T. (2020, August 29). Week in sports: Players strike in solidarity with protests for racial justice. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/08/29/907384544/week-in-sports-players-strike-in-solidarity-with-protests-for-racial-justice
Guerrero, J.C. (2020, August 29). Timeline: Colin Kaepernick’s journey from San Francisco 49ers star to kneeling to protest racial injustice. ABC7 News. https://abc7news.com/colin-kaepernick-kneeling-when-did-first-kneel-date-what-does-do-now/4147237/
Inside the hectic hours around a historic NBA boycott. (2020, August 27). ESPN. https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29750724/inside-hectic-hours-historic-nba-boycott
Mathieu_Era. (2020, August 26). FED UP. Ain’t enough money in world to keep overlooking true issues that effect the mind body & soul of what we do. We cannot be happy for self when our communities are suffering & innocent folk are dying.. since George Floyd, there have been at least 20 other police shootings. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/Mathieu_Era/status/1298719311066853376?s=20
McCarriston, S. (2020, August 27). NBA boycott: LeBron James, other stars react to players’ decision not to take court for playoff games. CBS Sports. https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/nba-boycott-lebron-james-other-stars-react-to-players-decision-not-to-take-court-for-playoff-games/
naomiosaka. (2020, August 26). [Naomi Osaka statement boycotting tennis match] [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/naomiosaka/status/1298785716487548928?s=20
Nesbitt, A. (2020, August 27). The Milwaukee Bucks’ boycott should be celebrated forever. USA Today.https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ftw/2020/08/27/milwaukee-bucks-boycott-celebrated/5642172002/
Owens, J. (2020, August 26). NBA playoff games postponed Wednesday after Bucks strike in wake of Jacob Blake shooting. Yahoo! Sports. https://sports.yahoo.com/bucks-players-dont-take-court-for-tipoff-vs-magic-amid-discussions-of-nba-player-boycott-201058529.html
RealBillRussell. (2020, August 26). I’m moved by all the @NBA players for standing up for what is right. To my man @TheJetOnTNT I would like to say Thank you for what you did to show your support for the players. I am so proud of you. Keep getting in good trouble. @NBAonTNT @ESPNNBA @espn #NBAPlayoffs [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/RealBillRussell/status/1298762120394182657?s=20
Sheridan, C. (2020, August 27). NBA players’ boycott is unprecedented, but 1961 and 1964 offered previews. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrissheridan/2020/08/27/nba-boycott-is-unprecedented-but-one-almost-happened-in-1964-and-one-did-happen-in-1961/#621b0bd67ef2
SportsCenter. (2020, August 26). “As a black man, as a former player, I think it’s best for me to support the players and just not be here tonight.” Kenny Smith walked off the set of Inside the NBA in solidarity with the players’ boycott. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/SportsCenter/status/1298752425608785927?s=20
SportsCenter. (2020, August 26). “Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.” Sterling Brown and George Hill read a prepared statement from the Milwaukee Bucks players. (via @malika_andrews).
[Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/SportsCenter/status/1298764348819673088?s=20
TheTraeYoung. (2020, August 26). Proud to be apart of this League… even more today ! WE WANT CHANGE[Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/TheTraeYoung/status/1298732388332081152?s=20
WNBA. (2020, August 26). United. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/WNBA/status/1298792243772428288?s=20