“Who makes the game?” former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling asked his girlfriend in 2014. “Do I make the game, or do they make the game?”
The NBA soon answered Sterling by banning him from the league for life shortly after that racist tirade, caught on tape, became public. Six years later, the Milwaukee Bucks have offered a more definitive reply. Before Wednesday night’s Game 5 of their playoff series with the Orlando Magic, Bucks players staged a wildcat strike in protest of police violence. Their focus was acutely on the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, located about 40 miles south of their hometown arena.
Other NBA teams effectively canceled all three of the night’s planned playoff games as the strike spread through the sports world. Baseball, tennis, golf, and soccer players and leagues all joined the protest by sitting out games and matches or offering support to players who chose to strike. TNT host Kenny Smith, a former player himself, walked off the set mid-show in solidarity. Several NFL teams, also, have canceled their Thursday training-camp practices.
San Jose Sharks winger Evander Kane and Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, both of whom are black, called out the NHL for its silence. White commentators like Kelly Hrudey told ESPN, “I don’t think we should be here. I think the NHL should postpone the games. I really feel we should be more supportive of Black Lives Matter.” Following a formal request from the Hockey Diversity Alliance, the NHL announced Thursday morning that it would cancel that day’s slate of playoff games.
The August 26th work stoppage occurred four years to the day that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the anthem to protest all forms of systemic racism. But now, fellow athletes are no longer cowed into silence by browbeating team owners and sports leagues fearing racist backlash. It was time to say what they’ve likely always felt. Put succinctly, enough of this shit.
Like many moments of resistance to the powers that be, the moment was characterized best by frustration and exhaustion. From Mets infielder Dominic Smith to seven-time NBA champion Robert Horry to NFL executive V.P. Troy Vincent, the tears have been flowing from black athletes speaking about the difficulty of living in an America that permits violence and abuse from law enforcement officers. And certainly the NBA knows this issue all too intimately, from Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri to Bucks forward Sterling Brown to former NBA player Thabo Sefolosha, all of whom were assaulted by police officers.
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, whose father was a police officer, unloaded his emotions the night before the strike began. Referencing the Republican National Convention unfolding concurrently with this new uproar over the Blake shooting, Rivers said, “All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear.”
The next day, athletes staged the first collective work stoppage for civil rights in U.S. sports history. It shares the tipping-point nature of Kaepernick’s first protest, but also is similar in that it is born of pain and anguish. The strike, however, is a dramatic escalation from the kneeling protests, and in a positive sense. Kaepernick took away the ability for Americans to watch the NFL again without considering, even for a moment, the lives of the black men playing the game and their brothers and sisters off the field. The Bucks and all who followed them decided that, this time, they would take the game away altogether.
Many naysayers, however, just spout remixes of Sterling’s boast. We hear variations on “what do these guys have to protest? they’re wealthy” and “they’ll hurt the sport they love.” But the implication is that these men and women aren’t the stars of the game they play. The very same rags-to-riches stories celebrated in documentaries, articles, and SportsCenter segments later get weaponized against those same athletes when the ostensible trappings of the American dream aren’t enough for them. Perish the thought that their survival, and that of those who look like them, would be a priority over the living they earn. The athletes are the uniquely skilled, irreplaceable labor force — but somehow, they are the ones who should be most grateful to get a share of the massive wealth that their talents create for.
A living is not a life, nor does it save that life. These attitudes feed a misguided culture of ownership within fandom, which is hardly innocuous when nearly every franchise owner and commissioner is white, and most of the players are black. Such approaches assuage those Americans satisfied with our racist status quo, or drunk with infatuation with the rich and famous. In that respect, it was little surprise to see someone like White House senior advisor Jared Kushner speak up.
During a Thursday morning appearance on CNBC, the real-estate heir employed by his father-in-law b implied that these athletes are entitled. “NBA players are very fortunate that they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off from work without having to have the consequences to themselves financially,” Kushner said, mentioning one of the striking leagues that has plenty of black players. “So they have that luxury, which is great.” He then inflated President Trump’s circumspect record of advancing civil rights, almost as if these players should be satisfied or thankful for what little he has done.
As he did later when he said he wanted to meet with superstar and activist LeBron James — moving quickly to turn this into a reality show — Kushner then put the onus upon the NBA players to concoct the very remedies that they seek. “I think that they’ve put a lot of slogans out,” he told anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin. “But I think what we need to do is turn that from slogans and signals to actual action that’s going to solve the problem.”
These athletes are indeed grateful for the lives they built, as evidenced by their desire to continue them without interruption by bullet, nightstick, or any other weapon of the state. But whatever Trump has done, as well as his predecessors, has brought us here. It is therefore absurd to ask black people, rich or not, to be thankful for an America where we stand to be the victim of such a disproportionate amount of violence and prosecution from law enforcement. These athletes want this nation to be better than, evidently, their critics do
What do I mean, exactly? That’s actually a question that the willingly deaf offer, continuing to ask what’s behind the protests when everyone who listened to them knows.
The striking players offered specific calls to action. In the statement read by Bucks team members hours after their decision was announced, they called upon citizens to vote in November. But before that, they want Wisconsin’s state legislature to reconvene from its August recess and draw up new bills enhancing police accountability for incidences of brutality. “When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable,” the statement read. “We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.”
The Bucks have not issued some amorphous call to end white supremacy. They saw what came before them, and realized that denying their services as entertainers was their best recourse. Whether that will prove effective is up for debate. But Kaepernick began his kneeling before the Trump era began; now, with the Republican Party fully under his sway, it is now much easier to identify those people who are advocating or enabling racism.
It seems we regularly learn of some new horror being imagined within the Trump administration. In 2018, their border officials debated using a “heat ray” microwave weapon on migrants approaching from the south. The stuff of racist fantasy is now weighed as serious policy, and the president seeks to extend his stay in the White House by mucking with the Postal Service during a pandemic and before a nationwide mail-in election. To boot, Trump encourages police violence with his rhetoric and on-the-ground federal support to help brutalize protesters. The villains in this story may be easier to spot than any time in recent memory, yet men like Kushner call upon NBA players to solve problems that they exacerbate.
Even the Bucks’ direct call for a legislative session is above and beyond what they’re within their rights to do. Legions of black people are telling America that we are worn out, traumatized, and fed all the way up. It is clear that these athletes feel the same, and if they don’t feel like entertaining in a country where cops visit violence upon us with impunity, then more power to them. And it is, after all, their game. They’re the only ones who can play basketball, or any of these sports, at this level. Right now, they’re not giving that gift to a society that is so cavalier with their lives and those of their loved ones.
Trump and his fellow Republicans have made the unfettered restoration of America as it was prior to the pandemic, all while the plutocrats whom they serve use this time to widen gaps of opportunity and wealth. They want us drunk on normalcy, whether that be kids going back to school on time or the return of pro and collegiate sports. But as Rivers, who once worked for Sterling, remarked on Tuesday night, “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.” America can no longer enjoy its black gladiators, in particular, without recognizing the full value of their lives. If the status quo continues, we now know what these athletes can, and will, do.
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