The NBA played its first official restart game on July 30 after shutting down due to COVID-19 in March. So far, it’s gone well.
The NBA’s method for a safe return to play was to create a bubble at the Disney Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., for the teams returning to compete for the playoffs. They created strict rules for the players to keep everybody safe and there have been no cases of COVID-19 inside the bubble as of the NBA’s last report on Aug. 19.
On top of that, the games have been exciting. Devin Booker led the Phoenix Suns to an 8-0 record in their remaining games, making the Suns the only team to go undefeated in the bubble. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard led the Trail Blazers to the eighth seed in the West, completing his third 60-point game of the season. Additionally, Luka Dončić led the Mavericks to an overtime win on a recently injured ankle, putting up a 43-point triple-double, including a buzzer-beating three.
Then, things got better in a whole different way. According to ESPN, on Wednesday, Aug. 26, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for their game five matchup against the Orlando Magic in protest of the murder of Jacob Blake at the hands of the police in Kenosha, Wis.
“Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball,” the Bucks said in a statement.
The statement went on to call for justice for Jacob Blake and for the Wisconsin Legislature to address police brutality, accountability, and criminal justice reform.
As a result of the Bucks’ refusal to play, the other four teams scheduled to play that day decided to boycott their games as well, and the NBA ended up postponing all the games scheduled for the next two days.
This sent shockwaves throughout the sports world as the MLB, WNBA, and MLS all suspended games. Multiple NFL teams and even a few college football teams cancelled practices as well.
This wasn’t entirely unexpected. Players had mentioned wanting to boycott games after the Blake shooting, and the league had tried to place some emphasis on social justice as they returned to play. But up until that point, many of the actions taken had little to no effect—actions like painting “Black Lives Matter” on the court, wearing social justice slogans on the backs of jerseys, and promoting ads about Black Lives Matter. This was all performative activism. The NBA was sending a message, sure, but it was easy to ignore, cost them very little, and accomplished next to nothing.
The boycott, on the other hand, did something. It forced a conversation. It shut down the distraction of basketball, returned the focus to the Jacob Blake shooting, and it forced the NBA to figure out how they would stand up for social justice.
I hesitate to give the NBA too much credit. The move they made was the logical one; had they done anything else, they would have been cast as the villain in the eyes of the media and the fans. The real credit here goes to the players, starting with the Bucks, especially the veteran point guard George Hill and the younger shooting guard Sterling Brown, who was a victim of police brutality in 2018. The two players led to the decision to boycott the game, according to the NBA.
The Bucks didn’t know what would happen to them as a result of their boycott. The NBA could have easily fined them, made them forfeit the game, or levied an even worse punishment. However, they did it anyway, despite the possible consequences. Their actions made history.
According to the NBA, no pro sports team had ever refused to play a game on the grounds of social justice, let alone cause a shutdown of an entire sports league and almost all of the sports world for such a reason. Yet the players still made a stand, using the only tool they had: basketball. They took away that source of entertainment—that distraction—and shifted the focus to social change.
Out of this boycott came a much-needed conversation between the players and the league, which resulted in teams setting up polling places in their arenas and practice facilities, and creating a coalition made up of players, coaches, and governors that will focus on solving social issues within the Black community—real action, with real effects.
Of course, this doesn’t solve everything. It doesn’t “end racism,” but it’s a start.
As Chris Webber said on TNT that Wednesday night, “We know nothing is going to change, we get it…we understand it’s not going to end. But that does not mean that you don’t do anything. Don’t listen to these people telling you don’t do anything because it’s not going to end right away. You are starting something for the next generation and the next generation to take over.”