The impromptu strike touched off an unprecedented show of solidarity across the world of sports. The WNBA opted to postpone all of its games, too. Major League Soccer postponed all but one match. In professional tennis, Naomi Osaka announced on Twitter that she was pulling out of her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open in New York today. In Major League Baseball, the Milwaukee Brewers postponed their game against the Cincinnati Reds. The Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres also didn’t play. And several MLB players—including the Chicago Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward, and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Dexter Fowler and Jack Flaherty—decided individually to bow out of games.
This was a historic act. Black athletes—and some allies of other races—sent the message that America doesn’t get to enjoy their talents if it can’t respect Black people as human beings.
In hindsight, the strike was almost inevitable, because many inside the NBA bubble in Orlando were growing more and more outraged over what was happening to Black men outside it. The day after Blake was shot by police, the Bucks point guard George Hill was so visibly frustrated that he refused to answer a single question about the Bucks going ahead 3–1 in their series against the Magic. Coming to Orlando “just took all the focal points off what the issues are,” Hill told reporters.
Late Tuesday night, after his team beat the Dallas Mavericks by 43 points, the Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who is Black, wasn’t thinking about what had happened on the court. With his eyes full of tears, Rivers declared, “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”
Hill, Rivers, and others were mentally exhausted, and their mood these past few days could easily describe how much of Black America feels right now. Players truly believed that they could use their time in the NBA’s bubble to continue to raise awareness about racial injustice. They have worn uniforms with racial-justice slogans and T-shirts that say Black Lives Matter played on courts bearing the same message, and often steered interviews away from basketball to talk about issues such as voter suppression and police violence.
But after seeing Blake critically injured in front of his three children, something broke inside these players. Making matters worse, two of the people protesting police violence in Kenosha were shot and killed, apparently by a vigilante. (A 17-year-old suspect is now in custody.) Rather than blaming the shooter for the deaths, the Kenosha police chief, Daniel Miskinis, insisted yesterday that the protesters had created the problem by breaking curfew. The entire situation apparently enraged James, who tweeted, “WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT.”
Despite the potential financial risks, the players were right to explore whether they could grab America’s attention by withholding their services. Had the NBA players opted to carry out a long-term strike, just imagine what that might have looked like: They play in cities that depend on the revenue they generate. Perhaps upon feeling the financial strain, officials in those cities might have been more motivated to reimagine their police force. Perhaps NBA owners might have been so bothered by losing money that they would have used their power and connections to put pressure on the right people to change the status quo. An extended strike also would have put pressure on NFL players to act. Pro football is by far the most popular sport in America. Nearly 70 percent of its players are Black. If Black NFL players followed the NBA players’ lead, a big chunk of the sports economy would be made contingent on racial progress.
At the very least, this week’s historic disruption shows that Black players should leverage their talent to promote change at every possible opportunity. They’ve tried to sweet-talk America into caring about racial injustice, but the litany continues. After George Floyd, a Jacob Blake was only a matter of time. After Blake, someone else is likely to come next. When a country doesn’t respect Black lives, it can’t expect Black athletes to hold back their anger.