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Returning to the court gives NBA players more leverage, not less

The options for continued protest – and attention – are magnified by staying in the bubble

By resuming the NBA playoffs, players haven’t given up their leverage to demand change. They’ve gained more.

The playoffs came to a shuddering halt Wednesday over the shooting of yet another Black person, this time a man named Jacob Blake, who took seven bullets in the back from a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Four years to the day after then-San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick first protested police brutality, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play Game 5 of their first-round matchup against the Orlando Magic. The sit-down quickly spread to Wednesday’s other two NBA games, was picked up by tennis champion Naomi Osaka, and spread to other sports leagues.

The NBA players’ initiative was an unprecedented display of power by professional athletes, the apex of a Black protest tradition launched by legends such as Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, and John Carlos and Tommie Smith. After the initial decision not to take the court came a feverish period of limbo: Should the players end their season, or keep playing? Was Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving right all along to say the season should have never resumed? Above all, how could this group of wealthy, famous, mostly Black men use their influence to stop police violence?

George Hill (center) of the Milwaukee Bucks reads a statement to the media on Aug. 26 at AdventHealth Arena.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The answers revolve around the three basketball courts at Walt Disney World in Florida, where the NBA created a coronavirus-free bubble amid the pandemic that changed life as we know it. This is where NBA players have the most opportunity, attention and leverage to change sports as we know it, and create the most potent player movement in history.

Carlos and Smith would have been ignored if they raised a fist at a protest march instead of on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Kaepernick would still be in the NFL if he protested on Tuesdays instead of Sundays. To maximize their impact, NBA players need the NBA stage. They need to stay in the bubble, where they can exert the most influence.

“When I raised my fist at the Olympics, I couldn’t do it in front of the Apollo Theater. I couldn’t go do it in Central Park,” Carlos told me this week. “I had to do it where the world could see it so they could evaluate it in terms of, ‘Hey, man, am I being involved in systemic racism?’ ”

Outside the bubble, the players’ collective voice and presence would be diluted. They could march in the streets – or not, as the Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown pointed out – but they would not have millions of TV viewers and dozens of interviews with captive media in Orlando, Florida. Irving is a perfect example of how little attention even star players get outside the bubble: After the injured Nets guard said the season should be canceled to keep the focus on social justice, Irving’s activism and charitable deeds have received less coverage than, for example, the strip-club chicken wings named after LA Clippers guard Lou Williams.

Tommie Smith (left) and John Carlos (right), gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Summer Olympics, protest against unfair treatment of Black people in the United States.

It would be easy, but shortsighted, to call the decision to resume play selfish, or to claim that NBA players care more about winning games than saving lives. Yes, the players have millions of dollars in salary to lose. Their championship windows are fleeting. They don’t want to alienate fans heading into a new labor deal with owners. And most of them have an almost primal desire to play. Hoopers need to hoop, no matter what.

But in this case, the best social justice strategy aligns with their personal interests. The only people their strike can directly force to act are NBA team owners. Halting the playoffs for several days pushed owners to put more of their billions toward meaningful social change. Canceling the season would have been the nuclear option for players. It would have made the league fight for its own survival, not Black folks’. It would not have exerted meaningful pressure on state legislatures to pass stricter use-of-force laws or end qualified immunity for police.

By continuing to compete, the players preserved their options. As the former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson told me for his autobiography, when discussing the strategy behind his legendary walkout over the discriminatory NCAA rule on academic eligibility, Proposition 42, “The fear of the riot is more powerful than the riot itself.”

So what are the options for the players if there is another senseless shooting? Perhaps they could delay the start of a game to broadcast video of the last moments of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Jacob Blake. They could let the ref throw up the opening tip, then walk off the court and talk about the killing of Breonna Taylor. Maybe the Bucks, who began this movement, will reach Game 7 of the Finals against LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers – and both teams could decide to end the season right there, without a champion. Now that they’ve decided not to end the season yet, the possibilities are endless.

The greatest accomplishments in sports are about rising to the moment and performing under pressure. This is that moment. The stakes are actually life and death. By continuing to play, the NBA fraternity can shine the brightest light on injustice and defend victims of oppression.

Carlos, the 1968 Olympic hero, said the Lakers invited him to speak to their team via Zoom about a week ago, before the strike was conceived. He declined to fully reveal what they talked about, “but I did say this – they’re at the crossroads, as I was in Mexico. I had my vision, my ideas about how we could make this a better society. But I realized that if I lost that focus, it would never come about. I had to stay focused and make sure I got on the victory stand.

“If I didn’t make it to the victory stand, everything else is out the window.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.