HARRISON HAMM, Special to The Denisonian—This column was supposed to be about basketball, perhaps about Luka Doncic’s playoff superstardom or the awakening of LeBron James’s Los Angeles Lakers. Circumstances made that topic feel irrelevant. While the NBA playoffs resumed on Saturday, last week saw historic change in how athletes use their voices.
The Milwaukee Bucks began a frantic series of events when they refused to take the court on Wednesday for Game 5 of their first round series against the Orlando Magic.
The strike came in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed man who was shot in the back by police in Wisconsin. From there, the other two NBA games that night were postponed as players protested from the NBA’s Orlando bubble. A number of other sporting events were since canceled, as playing sports in the wake of such injustice no longer felt palatable.
Milwaukee’s strike, initiating a series of tense players meetings in Orlando, was the first time outside of traditional labor strikes that a major professional sports team had staged a protest like this.
Immediately, the usual complaints rolled through: sports teams shouldn’t be so political and athletes should be grateful for their jobs. Not insignificant, the Bucks sat out on the fourth anniversary of Colin Kaepernick’s first time kneeling during the national anthem.
Players no longer care what sort of blowback they receive. They know that these issues can no longer be disregarded as “politics.” The killing of Black people on the streets, and the vast unwillingness to fix a broken system, is a human rights problem, and for the widely Black NBA populace, it’s personal. Money loses its importance, as displayed by the devotion of underpaid WNBA players to the cause.
A child’s game can no longer be the singular focus. Athletes have been trending in this direction for years, and this event — which is reverberating across society — is the culmination.
The power of athletes is immense. They have wealth, the admiration of many young people and leverage over uber-rich owners, who need their services.
LeBron James, the poster-child and trailblazer of modern athlete activism, made sure that the impact of the Bucks’ protest would go beyond the initial strike.
After first advocating that the league end the playoffs and focus on social justice, James agreed to resume on the condition that owners commit tangibly to reform, beyond press releases and dollar amounts.
The players banded together and wielded their influence to a greater extent than we’ve seen in the past. They inspired other sports to shut down and kept the public’s attention on the Black Lives Matter movement that has been ongoing since May.
The era of Michael Jordan’s “Republicans buy sneakers too” is over. Players are making you think about the issues this country faces, and if you deflect by saying James has to solve China too, you’re part of the problem.
The biggest part of the players’ efforts will be the awareness they’ve generated. Americans don’t like it when their sports are threatened, but sports is the reward of a functional society. Fans are going to have to accept the perspectives of the players, because this isn’t going away.
There was legitimate progress made even in the last couple of days. Bucks players got on the phone with the Wisconsin attorney general in order to push for arrests in the Blake killing.
They established a social justice coalition, involving players, coaches, and owners, that will push for increased voter access and advocate for criminal justice reform. Every franchise-owned arena will be used as a voting location. They collaborated with TV networks to create advertising that promotes civic engagement and voting.
James’s recent “More Than a Vote” initiative is aimed to recruit poll workers and increase voting destinations in order to combat voter suppression.
Players are taking action and they will continue to use their platform as basketball resumes.
They will make sure you can’t ignore them as people.