In the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake, the Wisconsin based NBA team, The Milwaukee Bucks were in the locker room debating what they could do as a team to advance the cause. The NBA, being the most progressive league in sports had already allowed for verbal and visual displays of the BLM movement. Players have been putting social justice messages on their jerseys and warmups. “Black Lives Matter” is painted on the court. Teams were even allowed to kneel during the anthem, a gesture that was once extremely controversial and technically still against the rules.
All of this led players in the Milwaukee locker room to question what else they could do. In the end they came to the conclusion that the best thing they could do was stay in the locker room.
So last night the Bucks made the decision not to play the game. A playoff game, that they were favored to win against the Orlando Magic. The rest of the league followed. Soon twitter was lighting up as other leagues also canceled their games for the day. Athletes in individual sports showed their support by refusing to participate as well. The domino effect the Bucks started received a wave of support and then of course backlash. But ultimately there is very little to legitimately complain about because it was players engaged in a peaceful protest by exercising their individual right to not participate.
This is unprecedented.
This is one of those times where history teachers need to take a step back and realize that the history they need to teach, is actually the present they live in. So, what are the lessons?
Lesson 1: Political power is not the ONLY power.
Most groups in America outside of white, straight males find themselves short on political power as the system is currently structured. But this doesn’t mean that other groups don’t have power they can use toward their goals, too. In this case, while African-Americans don’t make up a large percentage of congress, they do make up a large percentage of the NBA. If the players refuse to play a lot of people lose money. There’s a domino effect all the way from owners and tv networks, to bars and restaurants. That is something that can make people listen, especially on a local level.
Lesson 2: Eventually you have to move beyond “raising awareness.”
In the age of social media so much of the activism we see falls into the category of “raising awareness” and while that is necessary it is also seldom a gateway to material solutions in and of itself. In the case of controversial shootings, nobody can honestly say they are unaware after the events of this summer. So, what comes next? The Bucks decided not playing altogether was the next logical option.
Lesson 3: Being rich and famous does not exclude you from the cause.
One of the reasons NBA teams have taken such a hard stance on this issue is because of several high-profile incidents involving NBA personnel. Former Hawks player Thabo Sefolosha received a multi-million-dollar settlement from the NYPD for their misconduct towards him following a night club incident. Former Bucks player Sterling Brown was involved in an interaction with police that resulted in disciplinary actions for the officers involved. As recently as last week a video came to light showing the Toronto Raptors President, Masai Ujiri being unnecessarily shoved after a playoff game last summer. Initially it was reported that Ujiri didn’t show proper credentials and acted aggressively towards the officer. The body cam footage revealed that all of those reports were not only false but in fact, the opposite was true.
The takeaway from these incidents is that your extraordinary talent may make you rich and famous, but it does not make you immune from racism. A lesson that the players clearly have taken to heart.
As a teacher, it is tempting to see the current events and think that the story is the controversial police interactions themselves. But unfortunately, those are not new. The response that those interactions saw this summer is what is without precedent. And the entire NBA refusing to take the court during the playoffs rises to the top of that list.