It started as a series of tweets.
Adrian Wojnarowski and other journalists began reporting just before 4:00 p.m. that none of the players from the Milwaukee Bucks had taken the floor for warm-ups in advance of their Game 5 playoff tilt against the Orlando Magic. The actions taken in the ensuing hours, amongst NBA players and across the sports world, ensured that August 26, 2020 will be a date that serves as a watershed moment in the intersection of sports and society.
Prior to Wednesday night, there had only been one boycotted game in the history of the NBA — in 1961. But for the first time in 59 years, the Milwaukee Bucks simply refused to play. This was no meaningless regular-season game, or a pre-season scrimmage that the Bucks decided to sit out to prove a point. This was a playoff game, for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and one of the favorites to take home the title. The Bucks were no stranger to confronting racial issues in America, with guard Sterling Brown writing a powerful op-ed in the aftermath of his tasering by Milwaukee Police in 2018, during a dispute stemming from the unarmed Brown parking in a handicapped space.
To be willing to sacrifice a playoff game, and accept a potential forfeit, was unprecedented. The Bucks announced that their players had decided to boycott Game 5, citing the shooting of Jacob Blake and their desire to bring additional attention to racial injustice in the Bucks’ home state of Wisconsin and the United States at large.
The hours that followed were perhaps even more unforeseeable than the Bucks’ action. First came the statement of solidarity from the Orlando Magic, the Bucks’ opponents, who refused to accept a forfeit and insisted on a postponement instead. Then came the rest of the teams slated to play in the playoffs Wednesday night, as the players from the Blazers, Lakers, Thunder, and Rockets all followed suit, collectively boycotting their crucial games and exchanging intense on-court competition for social justice-driven off-court collaboration.
For every positive Tweet that supported the players’ decisions, there seemed to be a rancorous one telling them to “just play” or to acknowledge their privilege and wealth and stay out of the “political arena.” Undeterred, the players organized a meeting at 8:00 p.m. for every single remaining player in the NBA bubble to discuss a path forward and to determine the best course of action to leverage their platform to create social change.
A similar story was unfolding 1,250 miles north of the Orlando NBA bubble. In Milwaukee, the Brewers were scheduled to host the Cincinnati Reds at Miller Park. Several photos captured members of the Brewers engaged in dialogue with players from the Reds, locked in intense conversation while scattered across the field for pre-game batting practice. Fewer than two hours later, the movement that began in Orlando had officially spread. The Brewers, who play a mere 30 miles north of Kenosha, Wis., where Jacob Blake was shot by police, had decided not to play on Wednesday night. In lockstep, the Reds followed the example set by the Orlando Magic, and refused to accept a forfeit, citing their desire to stand in solidarity with their NL Central Division rivals.
In a press conference with reporters, Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich was asked about the players’ thought process. “There comes a time where you have to live it, you have to step up,” Yelich said. “You can't just wear these shirts and think that's all well and good and then when it comes time to act on it, or make a stand or make a statement... you can't just not do it.”
Across the MLB, several other games were postponed, with players and entire teams refusing to play, instead imploring fan bases, ownership groups, and everyone involved in the sport to focus their attention on inequality and other systemic issues revolving around race. By the end of the evening, the impact of the Jacob Blake shooting and its aftermath was visible across the entire professional sports landscape.
Three NBA playoff games, three MLB games, five of the six scheduled MLS games, and the entire WNBA slate were postponed because of players’ decisions. Such action, especially collectively, is unprecedented. There are many that feel that these protests come from a place of privilege, citing athletes’ well-above average salaries as a reason that boycotting can somehow be considered tone-deaf. There are others that cite their beliefs that politics and social activism have no place in sports. Put simply, as Fox News host Laura Ingraham once told Lebron James, there exists a feeling amongst a considerable portion of the American population that players should just “shut up and dribble.”
What took place on Wednesday night across the world of sports was a resounding rejection of that perspective. As I reflect on these events, struggling to make sense of the power that sports can have in times of social turmoil, I remember a quote uttered by Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle in an interview focusing on the return to sports amid the coronavirus outbreak.
“Sports are like the reward for a functioning society,” Doolittle said. While these words may have centered more on the global outbreak that have claimed nearly 200,000 Americans lives, Doolittle’s perspective is no less applicable in the aftermath of what occured in Kenosha, and the ways it has touched the lives of countless Americans, particularly those with darker skin. In his piece “2020 Vision,” published in The Crimson earlier this summer, Harvard men’s basketball Coach Tommy Amaker spoke about the pain and division present in the United States following the death of George Floyd.
As a life-long sports fan, I have spent most of my 22 years eagerly anticipating the next game, looking forward to the NBA playoffs and MLB regular season alike. On Wednesday night, I experienced a rare joy and pride in the decision taken by professionals across the sports world to cancel their competitions. To take a stand of their own. Naomi Osaka withdrew from a semi-final, citing her identity as an African American woman first and foremost, before her profession as a tennis player. Several WNBA players including Ariel Atkins, spoke heart-wrenchingly about the plight facing African Americans across the United States. These stories must be heard.
In the postgame press conference after a one-run win, New York Mets outfielder Dominic Smith broke down into tears. Smith had kneeled for the national anthem prior to Wednesday night’s game against the Marlins, which proceeded as originally scheduled, and was overcome with emotion in his Zoom with journalists. In a moving display of bravery, Smith attempted to compose himself while asking how the events of the past 72 hours had impacted him.
“I mean, I think the most difficult part is to see that, people still don’t care,” said Smith, with tears streaming down his cheeks. “For this to continuously happen, just shows hate in people’s hearts… and that just sucks, you know. Being a black man in America, it’s just not easy.”
I realize there may be some who disagree with the decisions taken by the Bucks, Brewers, and oh-so many other professional players and teams last night. But this movement is hardly over, however, as at least five MLB games and all of the NBA playoffs have already been canceled on Thursday. In fact, the NHL recently announced the postponement of several playoff games today as well, in recognition of the racial justice and social unrest across our country, a remarkable step for a league that is frequently viewed as lagging behind in addressing these types of issues.
I would implore those who do disagree to genuinely consider the raw emotions and experience told by people like Dominic Smith. Or read the story of Sterling Brown, addressed at the beginning of this piece, and understand how a mere parking violation led to a tasering at the hands of Milwaukee PD and a genuine fear for his life. Ask yourself why you disagree, and how those beliefs can fully co-exist with the lived experience of so many of our African-American residents.
One final thought to share has to do with that one previously boycotted NBA game that I referenced earlier, which occurred in 1961. Bill Russell and several other Boston Celtics boycotted a game against the St. Louis Hawks after several players were refused service at the team’s hotel because they were black. Russell decided to take a stand against racial inequality, despite the pleas of his coach, Red Auerbach. Russell and his three teammates were joined by three members of the opposing team, in the first and only NBA boycott prior to last night.
1961 was the year my father was born, two months prior to Russell’s boycott. Much has changed in the 59 years since then. Yet players are still boycotting for the same reasons — to address racial inequality. It’s true, the topic of conversation has shifted from players being refused service in hotels based on the color of their skin. It’s become about the way the police and our governmental safeguards treat members of our society differently, based on the color of their skin. In a way, isn’t it the same conversation, though? This feels sad, and somewhat ironic to me.
The events in Kenosha and so many others across our country have contributed to eroding the faith and hope that many hold in our institutions, values, and direction as a country. In a way, sports are merely a distraction from our daily lives, a diversion to take in after a long day of work. But they can also be much more than that. On August 26, 2020, I believe we witnessed the power of sports at their best. A vehicle to inspire others, and to speak up for those who feel unheard. One last bit of symbolic irony—on August 26, 2016, Colin Kaepernick began sitting for the national anthem, to protest racial inequality. Exactly four years later, his actions have been amplified on an unimaginable scale, even though they likely cost Kaepernick his career.
As of Thursday night, several WNBA, NBA, MLS, MLB, and NHL games have all been postponed in recognition of the circumstances currently facing our country.
I have had many incredible moments as a sports fan—watching my beloved Red Sox win the World Series, seeing Aaron Rodgers play in person, and covering a Harvard basketball triple overtime win, amongst countless others that I will never forget.
But last night was perhaps my proudest moment as a sports fan. Because for one night, across almost all of the major sports in our country, the players refused to just shut up and dribble.
The legendary civil rights leader Nelson Mandela recognized the power these athletes and institutions can have in our lives. “Sport has the power to change the world,” said Mandela, who had a keen appreciation for the ways in which rugby had served as a vehicle to address South Africa’s apartheid issues in the early 1990s. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
If the presence of sports can serve to inspire and catalyze change, perhaps its absence can do the same. I certainly hope so.
— Staff writer Amir Mamdani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AMamdaniTHC.