I remember when sports leagues across the globe shut down in March because of COVID-19.
- I was angry.
- I didn’t know what a world without sports could look like.
- I wanted to see the athletes return ASAP for my entertainment.
When the major North American sports leagues returned in July and August, I was thrilled because I could finally feel the rush of live sports that I couldn’t get from watching old games on YouTube anymore.
However, on August 26th, we were reminded of what a world without sports would look like, but for a different, yet necessary, reason.
The Big Picture: In the wake of what happened with Jacob Blake, National Basketball Association players from the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic boycotted Game 5 of their first-round playoff series.
Jacob Blake is a 29-year-old Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin who is a now a victim of police brutality. According to Blake’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, Blake was trying to de-escalate an argument between a group of people before police showed up with a warrant for his arrest regarding charges of third-degree sexual assault, trespassing, and disorderly conduct. When Blake opened his car door, which had his three children inside, Blake was then shot seven times in the back, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
It didn’t take long for the rest of the NBA teams, who are currently in the playoffs, to boycott their games as well and to speak up about systemic racism and police brutality in the United States and Canada.
Soon after, the rest of the North American sporting world stood at their side:
- Nine National Football League teams boycotted practice.
- A few Major League Baseball teams postponed their games out of protest as well.
- The Women’s National Basketball Association also postponed their games, as well as Major League Soccer.
- Initially, the National Hockey League caught flack for not postponing their games on August 26th, opting to have a “moment of reflection” instead. However, blowback from fans and players resulted in the postponement of games on August 27th and 28th.
It was extremely powerful to see so many athletes of different ethnicities and backgrounds to come together under one message: to make sure Black lives matter and that equality exists for all.
A Collective Message
This isn’t the first time NBA players have boycotted games.
- Basketball legend Bill Russell famously walked out of a game in 1961 to protest racism. Soon after, his actions were followed by his Black Boston Celtics teammates, as well as the Black players on the opposing St. Louis Hawks. However, the white players continued to play the game.
This year’s protests actually happened four years to the day when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
- At the time, Kaepernick protested alone because many players were afraid to rock the boat and jeopardize their job security.
Four years later, this protest is different because it was a unified effort by all players, unafraid of losing their job because equality outweighs anything else.
- This mirrored efforts by he WNBA whose season restart was also dedicated to adding to the conversation against systemic racism through their Say Her Name campaign, dedicated to the memory of Breonna Taylor who was killed by police earlier this year. This has come as the WNBA also introduced a Social Justice Council of players to push for change, a framework which likely helped to inspire the NBA players call for a coalition for social justice to be built in their league.
This time, living without sports had a different meaning, and instead of being angry about it, I, a half-Black man, was proud to see this many athletes take a stand.
What’s so hard to understand about the players’ message?
It felt like after every tweet about the athletes’ protests, someone would reply, saying the athletes should shut up and play their sport or leave “politics” out of sports.
My question is: how is striving for equality political? All anyone is talking about is bringing attention and change to the fact that Black men and women are being injured and killed by a group of people who are supposed to keep everyone safe.
This group of complainers seem to be the type of people who can’t be happy with athletes when it comes to talking about issues like BLM.
- People will complain if an athlete is talking about non-sports-related issues, however, athletes are also constantly criticized for making a lot of money to play a game instead of using their platform for more.
- People also complain that they use sports as a distraction from real world issues.
But now is not the time for distraction. What should a Black person do to distract themselves from the fact that police and racist groups are hurting people like them based on the colour of their skin?
There’s no escaping the reality of what Black people go through every day living in America. Therefore, society does not deserve a distraction from this.
More Than Just a Game
When I was exploring the discussion around the boycotts, I saw people asking what the point was as they didn’t think that stopping sports for a few nights would change anything.
But it does.
Some were even wondering why all those games should be cancelled because of what happened to one man.
But it’s not about one man.
- It’s about the 400 years of racism in North America that’s consisted of Black people being treated as subhuman.
- It’s because of the fact that an estimated one in every 1000 Black American men can be expected to be killed by the police over the course of their life. That’s one too many.
- In 2020 alone, we saw Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and many other Black people, who we don’t even hear about, die at the hands of the police, resulting in Black Lives Matter protests around the world.
Reality check: The cancellation of all those games forced people who were ignoring and avoiding these issues to face reality.
- You watch people like us —Black people— for entertainment, yet choose to look away when one of us is a victim of police brutality. How can you support any Black athlete when they’re playing their sport, but not when they want social equality?
- Just because you’re not Black and you don’t think these issues apply to you doesn’t mean you’re allowed to ignore it. Things can only change if everyone from all different races supports the same issue together.
Doc Rivers, head coach of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, said it best last week at a press conference:
“It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s just really so sad … We got to do better. We have to demand better.”
And it’s working. For anyone questioning what these protests can do, they’ve already began to accomplish some ground in a short period of time, at least by the NBA.
- The NBA and National Basketball Players Association have followed in the WNBA’s footsteps by creating a social justice coalition to advocate “for the reform of police and criminal justice policies, increasing voting access, and promoting civic engagement.”
- Cities that have arenas controlled and owned by the NBA will use the facilities as voting locations for the upcoming 2020 American presidential election.
The Bottom Line: When the NBA and subsequently every other major North American sports league boycotted their games last week, they accomplished their goal of grabbing the world’s attention and making a lot of people face many uncomfortable truths.
But the fact stands that this needs to be a movement, not a moment, by all leagues involved.
The NBA already showed that they’re committed to the movement by creating various initiatives within a few days to influence change.
Now it’s time for the other leagues to prove that their protests are not just performative activism and that they have plans in place to pressure lawmakers to make a difference.
Now it’s our turn as “ordinary” citizens to continue fighting with the athletes and everyone else protesting around the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, white or anything in between — equality can only happen when we fight together.
The ball’s in our court now.
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