Boycotts provide powerful moments and frank discussions about social justice
From Kenny Smith dramatically walking off the “NBA on TNT” set to Robert Horry emotionally talking about conversations he’s had with his son via an appearance on Spectrum SportsNet, sports media was filled with indelible images and must-see commentary Wednesday in the immediate aftermath of the Bucks and Magic’s decision to boycott their NBA playoff game.
My social media feeds were filled with viral videos from Wednesday, such as Chris Webber’s powerful appearance on TNT (“I have young nephews that I’ve had to talk to about death before they even see it in a movie”) to Mets first baseman Dominic Smith addressing the situation on SNY (“The most difficult part is to see that people still don’t care.”)
From a media standpoint, the afternoon was marked by confusion and flexibility as sports networks scrambled to cover a story that reaches far beyond the basketball court.
NBA TV, which was supposed to carry the game, initially had game announcer Bob Fitzgerald and analyst Jim Jackson commenting on the situation. Eventually, the network brought Chris Miles into its Atlanta studio. Analyst Sam Mitchell, who connected remotely via video, proved to be the strongest, most effective voice on the network Wednesday afternoon.
“The players made it very clear — crystal clear — they would come into the bubble, but their minds and hearts were on the social unrest in the United States,” he said at one point. “I don’t think some people listened to them … Things are still happening. Black people are still getting shot. Black people are still being mistreated. People are just tired of it.”
ESPN was about 12 minutes into its “NFL Live” studio show, talking about how Cam Newton would replace Tom Brady in New England. Host Laura Rutledge: “We’re going to get back to some football momentarily. But breaking news right now that we want to get to.”
The show never got back to football, with NFL analysts spending the rest of the show discussing their experiences of racial inequality in America — typified by this exchange toward the end of the show:
Marcus Spears: “For as much as the crowd of, ‘We need to keep this out of sports …”
Keyshawn Johnson: “Man, nobody listens to them!”
Spears: “There ain’t no refuge no more. We’re dealing with a human rights issue, and let’s go forward with it. Salute to the Bucks for doing what they’re doing and everybody else that’s standing on the side of right in these situations.”
Shortly after 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN interrupted “NFL Live” for a special edition of its NBA studio show “The Jump,” where host Rachel Nichols shined, deftly navigating between allowing ESPN reporters Adrian Wojnarowski and Marc J. Spears to break news while finding time for analysts Kendrick Perkins and Jay Williams to offer their perspective.
These are the types of programming decisions and on-air conversations sports networks should expect to have in the coming months.