NBA: With boycott, players make definitive statement against racism even as league finds itself at crossroads

By refusing to play due to the Jacob Blake shooting incident, NBA players and teams have taken a definitive stand against racism. But the league finds itself at a moment of reckoning.

Amit Kamath August 27, 2020 10:21:59 IST
NBA: With boycott, players make definitive statement against racism even as league finds itself at crossroads

When the NBA was on the verge of restarting after nearly four months of being halted due to the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, league commissioner Adam Silver was questioned about the wisdom of restarting the league in a bubble in Florida, the state where COVID-19 cases had been growing exponentially in June.

“It’s on the rise in the majority of states in the United States right now, and my ultimate conclusion is that we can’t outrun the virus. This is what we’re going to be living with for the foreseeable future… we cannot sit on the sidelines indefinitely,” Silver told international journalists on a conference call on 26 June. “Ultimately, whether it’s fighting racism or a pandemic, we're coming back because sports matter in our society.”

Exactly two months from that date, the NBA bubble may have successfully evaded one virus ― with multiple rounds of tests revealing zero COVID-19 positives among players ― but the season could not remain immune from the other virus currently affecting America: racism.

On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks, strong contenders for the NBA Championship this season, chose not to play Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Round 1 playoff clash against the Orlando Magic, with the tie tilted 3-1 in the Bucks’ favour. The reason behind the decision was the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin by policemen who shot the African-American man from behind seven times in front of his family. The whole incident was caught on video and went viral, forcing a second wave of reckoning within the league. Before the Bucks’ move, Fred VanVleet of reigning champions Toronto Raptors and Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics had spoken of the possibility of not playing their Eastern Conference semi-finals due to the gruesome incident.

Within minutes of the Bucks’ choosing not to play, the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder tie was called off with both teams agreeing to not play as well. It didn’t take long for the NBA to announce that all of Wednesday’s games were called off and would be rescheduled.

NBA With boycott players make definitive statement against racism even as league finds itself at crossroads

An empty court and bench are seen as NBA Playoff games were not played on Wednesday. AP Photo

The Bucks decision set off a chain of events across sports and leagues in USA.

As the day progressed, games of the WNBA were also postponed as were some MLS and MLB matches. Naomi Osaka chose not to play her semi-final of the Western & Southern Open.

The reaction to the Bucks’ decision was quick, with Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, New Orleans Pelicans’ Josh Hart and Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell tweeting their support for the Bucks’ stance in all-capped tweets.

“F**K THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,” James tweeted.

Ever since Blake’s shooting on Sunday, there had been talk of teams not playing games to make a statement.

Many players travelling and living inside the Orlando bubble had been conflicted about playing basketball at a time when the country was faced with massive racial tensions, fuelled by the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of policemen.

Understandably, in a league where as many as 80 percent of the players are black, the sense of anger was strong. This is why despite the coronavirus pandemic growing in USA, many of the players had joined protestors in the streets in May to march for equal rights.

Yet, there was an alternate train of thought that playing inside the bubble, with the eyes of the world focused on them, was the best way to make a statement. Accordingly, courts at the Orlando bubble have the words “Black Lives Matter” written across them, each player was given the option of having a pre-approved social justice message written across the back of their jersey in any language they desired, and most players and officials took the knee and raised their fists before every game while the national anthem played (the same gesture that had turned Colin Kaepernick into a pariah in the NFL).

Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle began each of his press conferences by reading out an anecdote of racial injustice from the country’s history. Some players like Sixers’ Tobias Harris and Denver Nuggets’ Jerami Grant have used their media availabilities to shine the spotlight on instances of police brutality.

In its own way, each gesture was a statement against racial injustice. But none of it was a moment quite as powerful as when Kaepernick first decided to take a knee (coincidentally, it was on 26 August, four years ago, that he first sat during the national anthem).

Eventually, the shooting incident of Blake in Wisconsin told the players that they needed to make a stronger statement. With this move, they just told everyone that they are not willing to live inside a cozy bubble and play basketball anymore.

The case for playing on

With Wednesday’s games boycotted, the rest of the season remains under a cloud unless the league, players, teams, owners and the NBPA, the players’ association, all come to an agreement about playing games.

Initial reports have suggested teams like the Lakers and the Clippers have thrown their weight behind ending the season while others want the games to continue. Finding a solution acceptable to everyone is going to be difficult, particularly because the NBA is already a league where players and even managements have been vociferous in taking a stand on issues. Stars like James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry have openly clashed with US President Donald Trump, with the Curry-led Golden State Warriors refusing to go to the White House after winning the NBA Championship and James calling Trump a ‘bum’ in a tweet.

Earlier in the week, as the murmurs for boycotting games had grown into a chorus, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said he wanted the players to continue playing instead. His rationale was simple: “We can fight for justice, but we still should do our jobs. I really believe that. Doing our jobs, people are seeing excellence from Americans: black Americans and white Americans. I would still do my job. That’s just my opinion. But if my players told me no (games), it would be no (games).”

NBA With boycott players make definitive statement against racism even as league finds itself at crossroads

File image of Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. AP Photo

Rivers has been at this crossroads before. As has league commissioner Silver. When Silver was new at his job as the league commissioner in 2014, the Donald Sterling scandal had broken out. Sterling, the owner of the Clippers, was caught on audio tapes making racially derogatory comments. Silver, just two months into the job, banned Sterling for life, and levied a $2.5 million fine on him.

Rivers was the Clippers coach back then as well. Even then, the Clippers players had considered boycotting their Playoff games against the Warriors, but eventually it was not required as the owner was booted out of the league.

“I would say that the biggest difference in the two cases is that now it’s every team that is making the decision, and back then, it was just our team. We were the only ones who were left with making the decision. I think at least in this case it evens the playing field for everyone. Honestly, I hope everyone plays. I just think showing the excellence in doing your job, there's nothing wrong with that. But also fighting for what's right is important, as well,” said Rivers on Tuesday.

A day later he added: “During the Donald Sterling incident, Matt Barnes, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, JJ Redick, they all pulled together. At the end of the day, the one thing we decided, when we were little kids, we were in the backyard by ourselves, we had these dreams about winning the championships, Donald Sterling was not in our dreams, and neither were these cops. So they're not going to take anybody, they're not taking our dreams away, all right? So that would be my message (to the players now).”

Rivers had been as shocked by the video of Blake’s shooting as everyone else, but he was even more incensed after watching the speeches at the Republican National Convention.

It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad.

“What stands out to me is just watching the Republican Convention, viewing this fear. All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear. We’re (African Americans) the ones getting killed. We're the ones getting shot. We're the ones that were denied to live in certain communities. We've been hung. We've been shot. All you do is keep hearing about fear,” he said in an extraordinary monologue on Tuesday.

“It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my colour. It’s just really sad. We got to do better. But we got to demand better. It’s funny, we protest. They send riot guards. They send people in riot outfits. They go up to Michigan with guns (armed white protestors had entered the Michigan statehouse in May protesting against the coronavirus lockdown). They’re spitting on cops. Nothing happens. The training has to change in the police force. The unions have to be taken down in the police force.

"My dad was a cop. I believe in good cops. We’re not trying to defund the police and take all their money away. We’re trying to get them to protect us, just like they protect everybody else. I didn't want to talk about it before the game because it's so hard, like, to just keep watching it. That video, if you watch that video, you don't need to be black to be outraged. You need to be American and outraged. How dare the Republicans talk about fear. We're the ones that need to be scared. We're the ones having to talk to every black child. What white father has to give his son a talk about being careful if you get pulled over? It's just ridiculous. It just keeps going. There's no charges. Breonna Taylor, no charges, nothing. All we're asking is you live up to the Constitution. That's all we're asking for everybody, for everyone.”

On Wednesday during a media availability before the Bucks’ decision, Rivers reiterated his stance that players should continue playing while simultaneously raising their voice against injustice. He also spoke about facing racial incidents in the past.

“I've had some awful things happen to me, and through racism, house being burned down by skinheads. I don't know. I just think you grow up through the '60s and the '70s, I think you've gone through it. You've seen it. You've seen a lot,” he said.

Moment of reckoning

Two months ago, when Silver had announced his grand plans for reopening the league inside the bubble, there were concerns that the league could come to a standstill again if there were cases of coronavirus among players. The league has avoided that scenario. Yet, it finds itself on the brink of a shutdown despite painstakingly putting together a restart plan that was equal parts ambitious and crazy.

Silver faces another moment of reckoning, as monumental, if not more, as the one he faced in 2014 when confronted with the Sterling scandal,  two months into the job as the league commissioner.  The steps he took then became part of his legacy and earned him widespread respect among the teams and players.

Now for the second time in four months, he needs to convince his players that whether it’s fighting racism or a pandemic, the league needs to return ‘because sports matter in our society.’

Updated Date:

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