On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks NBA team didn’t take the floor for their scheduled game against the Orlando Magic. It was in direct response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Shortly after, the team released a statement, demanding an audience with Wisconsin’s attorney general to discuss justice for Blake, and action from the wider league.
And while the Bucks were the first to walk out, the sentiment was brewing amongst players that something had to be done.
For teams who have been wearing jerseys emblazoned with messages like “Black Lives Matter” and “Respect Us” since the start of their bubble season, signs weren’t enough.
“At the end of the day, if we’re gonna sit here and talk about making change then at some point we’re gonna have to put our nuts on the line and actually put something up to lose, rather than just money or visibility,” Toronto Raptors player Fred VanVleet said bluntly Wednesday’s walkout.
“I think everybody’s at the point of sitting up and saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ and sitting up there and having these discussions and Zoom calls… and putting apparel on — that’s not getting the job done. Taking a knee for the anthem, that’s not getting the job done. It’s starting to get washed out,” Raptors player Norman Powell said.
After the Bucks walked, other NBA teams, including the Raptors did too. Then the WNBA. Then MLB players. And finally, the revised NHL playoffs were halted Thursday — thanks to a push from the league’s newly formed Hockey Diversity Alliance.
As leagues scramble to recoup lost revenue and reschedule games, the conversation around police brutality is growing, spurred on by celebrity athletes like LeBron James and Evander Kane. But the conversation is also growing around how sports exploit Black bodies.
In an email interview with HuffPost Canada, University of Toronto assistant professor Janelle Joseph and PhD candidate Sabrina Razack noted that more players are realizing the influence they wield in terms of the money these leagues make.
“Black bodies are used for labour in sports with little regard for their actual lives,” they wrote.
If the players stop that labour, they threaten that income and can pressure team owners to make change, Joseph and Razack said.
“More athletes are recognizing their agency and power to advocate for social change,” they wrote. “The boycott is only effective because athletes are aware of how their productivity is depended upon in order to sustain the capitalistic sport structure.”
What is a boycott and what’s a strike?
The impact of the Bucks’ initial action was immediate — it influenced other athletes and forced leagues to cancel games and start negotiating with players.
It also threw the words “strike,” “boycott” and other labour terms into the spotlight.
“More athletes are recognizing their agency and power to advocate for social change.”
A boycott usually refers to actions by private citizens to withdraw their money, patronage or services from a specific business for a specific reason. For example, you might boycott Amazon and refuse to order things from the company to protest its treatment of gig workers.
A strike is when workers refuse work as a tactic to achieve something, and it’s often done through unions.
But what the NBA players, and specifically the Milwaukee Bucks players, did was not part of the NBA Players’ Association. After the Bucks walked out, the players’s association got involved. But initially they just did it on their own. And that’s a wildcat strike.
WATCH: Sports drive racial justice conversation. Story continues below.
In a statement, the players referenced Blake.
“The past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing our African American communities. Citizens around the country have used their voices and platforms to speak out against these wrongdoings. Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protestors. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”
And because the Bucks withheld their labour, and other athletes after them, change could is happening.
Experts Joseph and Razack said that the size of the strike forces the media and others to keep talking about why the players are striking. They said social media posts and dialogue from athletes are pressuring people to consider “what side of history they want to be on.
“When entire leagues and teams participate in a boycott, the media is forced not only to speak to the boycott but the reasons behind the decision,” Joseph and Razack wrote. “When industries are impacted, the issues are magnified, and the spotlight propels the movement to new heights. ”
They said the collaboration and solidarity between athletes across leagues and around the world has the potential for “profound social change.” They pointed to the continuing Black Lives Matter movement as proof that the collective voices of people have an impact.
“When entire leagues and teams participate in a boycott, the media is forced not only to speak to the boycott but the reasons behind the decision.”
“We are in a moment in history in which the collective voices of the people is enough to move the dial in a direction that serves to legitimize and condemn acts of racial violence,” they wrote.
The boycott has also served to amplify the voice of WNBA players, who face greater marginalization, racism and structural inequalities than their male counterparts.
After the WNBA Washington Mystics showed up to Wednesday’s game with shirts spelling out Blake’s name with seven bullet holes — representing the number of times he was shot — they ultimately decided to follow the NBA and boycott.
“What we have seen over the last few months and most recently with the brutal police shooting of Jacob Blake is overwhelming and while we hurt for Jacob and his community, we also have an opportunity to keep the focus on the issues and demand change,” the Atlanta Dream’s Elizabeth Williams said on behalf of the players.
The women’s players also have a lot more to lose by striking in terms of exposure and finances. But the players, the majority of them Black women, argued it’s essential they stand in solidarity.
“This isn’t just about basketball… When most of us go home, we still are Black.” Mystics player Ariel Atkins said. “We’re not just basketball players. And if you think we are, don’t watch us. You’re watching the wrong sport because we’re so much more than that.”
What happens next?
The NBA players have agreed to resume the season. The NHL is rescheduling games for Saturday. And MLB has already gotten rolling again.
But the strike had an impact.
During a call with players, NBA owners promised they would get to work on real action items that would benefit the Black community. The NHL Diversity Alliance said it’s already sparked new conversations with the league.
“Clubs are now forced to address the issue of racial inequality within their own organization and athletes will continue to demand their voices be heard,” Joseph and Razack said.
In a statement released Friday, the NBA and players union jointly announced a commitment to establish a social justice coalition and voting initiatives, including an immediate push to convert unused NBA arenas into voting locations ahead of the 2020 presidential election in November.