The Bucks stay off the court, the rest of sports follows as players call for racial justice
Twenty minutes before the scheduled Game 5 tipoff between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic last Wednesday afternoon, Bucks President Peter Feigin felt like any other fan as he hunkered down in front of his television.
Then Bucks GM Jon Horst called.
Horst quickly explained that Bucks players had decided to boycott the game in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in nearby Kenosha, Wis. “Then it all broke,” Feigin said, as he recounted the conversation the next day.
It was a move that blindsided the Bucks and NBA and then snowballed through all of sports as players raised their already strong social justice voices to unprecedented heights, resulting in game postponements in MLS, MLB, the WNBA and, the next day, by the NHL.
Feigin already knew that players around the league were increasingly upset with the latest police shooting and were discussing ways to raise awareness. But like the Bucks owners and the rest of the NBA, he didn’t know that his top-seeded playoff team had decided to boycott the game just before tipoff, triggering one of the most historic days of protest in sports.
“I think the immediacy of it being right before the game, the timing was surprising,” Feigin said. “The shooting had been a very serious conversation in and around our team being that it happened in our backyard.”
As Feigin was speed-dialing his team’s owners, Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins had arrived at the Disney arena 15 minutes before game time and took his seat eight rows above the court in a Plexiglass-enclosed platform as part of the league’s secondary arena bubble for executives.
Sitting next to Magic assistant GM Matt Lloyd while watching his team take part in its pregame warmup, Martins realized that the Bucks weren’t on the floor.
“Within minutes I got calls telling me the Bucks were considering boycotting,” Martins said. “In one sense, I was surprised because there was little to no communication with us and the league in advance of this. On the other hand, I wasn’t surprised in light of the continued social justice that was going on. I know that all of us, and our players in particular, are outraged and feel that nothing is being done.”
The Bucks’ boycott quickly cascaded across sports as other teams and leagues followed the protest and refused to play that day. First, the two other NBA playoff games were quickly postponed, then three WNBA games, three MLB games and five MLS matches all followed suit in what stands as the most powerful cross-sports display of social protest yet in this turbulent year.
By Thursday morning, following a meeting of the players and a separate meeting of the NBA’s board of governors, the players decided to continue playing the postseason, though the three additional playoff games that were set for last Thursday also were postponed.
Insiders said players initially considered canceling the rest of the season, but soon decided to stay with an alliance to further push their social justice platform.
“That was the emotional reaction,” said one NBA agent of the players’ consideration to leave Disney. “And then I think they started to talk about how do we do this? And whether we play or not. And if we don’t play, it could harm us more than help us in terms of what we are trying to do.”
Though the timing of the NBA’s boycott during its postseason was jarring, it should be little surprise that the other leagues and teams followed the NBA’s lead in dramatic protest. It’s part of the DNA for both the league and for Commissioner Adam Silver to move first and fast on social issues.
It was Silver who early in his tenure as commissioner in 2014 forced former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Silver to sell the team following his racist comments. The NBA was first to shut down due to the pandemic on March 11, and other leagues and sports followed their example soon after.
It was also the NBA that led the way in creating a bubble environment in order to restart the season in late July at Disney, while empowering players to speak out against racism and use the Orlando area restart as a massive social justice platform. Just weeks prior to the Blake shooting, the league created a $300 million foundation to spur economic growth in minority communities.
“This completely mirrors the platform of speech for the players and how progressive the league has been,” Feigin said of the boycott. “This is an inflection point where there is a global platform and that the players have a voice. It is bigger than basketball, and it is a giant step.”
Timeline of protests in sports
1936: At the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, U.S. track and field star Jesse Owens counters Adolf Hitler’s claim of white supremacy with four gold medals while teammate Mack Robinson, the older brother of future barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson, finishes second in the 200 meters behind Owens.
1961: Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell and his Black teammates boycott an exhibition game in Lexington, Ky., after they are refused service at a restaurant in that city.
1967 (March): 19-year-old Syracuse journalism student Kathy Switzer, known to the Boston Athletic Association officials as registrant “K.V. Switzer,” becomes the first woman to officially compete in the then-70-year-old Boston Marathon. She finishes the race in 4 hours and 20 minutes despite being physically attacked early in the race by a marathon official.
1967 (June): At the “Cleveland Summit,” Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (known later as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and other Black athletes gather to show support for Muhammad Ali, who had refused induction into the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector.
1968: At the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, U.S. track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos, wearing black socks and black gloves, raise their fists above their bowed heads to silently protest racial discrimination as they are presented with their respective gold and silver medals following the 200-meter finals.
1970: At Syracuse, the school where future Hall of Famers Jim Brown and John Mackey played, nine Black football players sit out the 1970 season in an effort to bring equal treatment for the school’s athletes and integration of the coaching staff.
1972: UCLA center Bill Walton protests President Richard Nixon’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam.
1973: Brown University’s all-Black cheerleading squad refuses to stand for the national anthem, saying the flag no longer represents them.
1976: Yale student and two-time Olympic rower Chris Ernst lobbies for equal gender rights by leading her teammates into the office of the school’s women’s athletic director, reading a statement and taking off to their tops to reveal “Title IX” written on their bodies.
1985: Arthur Ashe is arrested at the U.S. South African embassy for protesting apartheid.
1996: Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf stops standing for the national anthem. In a compromise with NBA Commissioner David Stern, he is permitted to close his eyes and look downward during the anthem.
2004: Toronto Blue Jays’ Carlos Delgado sits when the New York Yankees play “God Bless America,” saying “I don’t stand because I don’t believe in the [Iraq and Afghanistan] wars.”
2005: Venus Williams begins publicly protesting the gender inequality of pay among Grand Slam tennis participants. It isn’t until she publishes an op-ed in The Times of London one year later that Wimbledon relents and awards the same prize money to men and women.
2012: The Miami Heat, including Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, wear pregame hoodies to protest the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager who was shot to death in Florida.
2014: Cavaliers LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are among several NBA players who wear pregame “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, referring to the last words of Eric Garner, who died in the custody of New York City police officers in July.
2014: Cleveland Browns’ Andrew Hawkins wears a T-shirt that reads “Justice For Tamir Rice John Crawford,” two Ohioans who had recently been shot and killed by police.
2014: St. Louis Rams’ Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Stedman Bailey jog onto the field with their hands up (“don’t shoot”) after the police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, Mo.
2015: More than 30 Missouri football players announce that they are boycotting practices and games until university president Tim Wolfe resigns. Wolfe did resign after nationwide criticism for what was believed to be insufficient response to a spate of racial incidents on campus.
2016: Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury players begin wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts to WNBA games to protest recent police shootings.
2016: San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand for the national anthem. A few weeks later, U.S. national women’s soccer team’s Megan Rapinoe is the first white pro athlete to do the same.
2016: The NBA All-Star Game is pulled from Charlotte after the state passes House Bill 2, referred to as “bathroom bill,” which forced transgender people in public buildings to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender listed on their birth certificate.
2017: The Los Angeles Sparks stay in the locker room during the national anthem during the entire WNBA Finals.
2020: Milwaukee Bucks players refuse to play a postseason game vs. the Orlando Magic in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., leading to postponement of the NBA playoffs and action in other U.S. sports leagues.
— David Broughton
Leagues and team executives quickly voiced their support for athletes as last week’s boycotts played out. But it raised questions about how long that tolerance would last, considering the financial ramifications of such moves, and how much power players can and should wield.
One MLS C-level team executive said COVID-19 and the altered schedule cast aside the normal playbook for the season and left more room for tolerance for postponed games. The executive, who requested anonymity, said that level of acceptance is further enhanced by the current political landscape and lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, which has included some teams placing an emphasis on voting.
Another C-level executive from a different MLS club said it’s hard to gauge what the tolerance level would be moving forward for more postponed, or even worse, canceled matches. Still, the high-ranking source said that what’s transpiring in the U.S. from a cultural standpoint is much more important than the gate receipts of matches with limited fans.
Three MLB games were postponed Wednesday night. In such a situation, when decisions on playing were made just hours before games, Arizona Diamondbacks CEO and President Derrick Hall said that those moves should be player-driven or league-driven. He pointed out that several teams had one or two players who said they weren’t going to play, yet told teammates to go ahead and play.
“And they said, ‘We stand by you, we’re going to play,’” Hall told local radio station KMVP-FM. “In some cases, it may have been two or three players who said, ‘We’re not going to play.’ And the rest of the team said, ‘Well, we’re with you, we’re not going to play.’ I don’t fault either approach, and I’m not sure where we would have landed in that.”
While the NFL has yet to start its season, insiders think it would be considerably less likely for players to sit out regular-season games. The short careers, mostly non-guaranteed contracts and seasonal pay schedules give NFL players far less leverage than NBA players.
Nine NFL teams didn’t practice on Thursday, but it’s a mistake to view this as a one-day story, said one team executive, considering that teams and players have been discussing racial and social justice issues all summer. “I think every team has had a ton of conversations over the past few months, and they continue, and the end result is going to be up to each individual team,” this executive said.
It’s impossible to predict how this movement will evolve by the NFL’s start on Sept. 10, insiders said, noting how quickly things can change in two weeks.
The NBA players’ decision to continue the postseason avoids what would have been drastic economic damage to the league and individual teams that already have been battered by the pandemic.
“Some of the players felt, ‘We don’t need to play.’ … It was kind of the same sentiment before deciding to go into the bubble,” said the NBA agent. “And then the prevailing notion was, ‘Why are we going to hurt our own economics for something that isn’t going to create a tangible solution by virtue of us not playing? So we have to stay together, but the only solution is for us to align with our owners who have the money, the resources and the expertise to deal with political issues whether it’s police reform or voter rights.’ What happened is they got verbal assurances from the owners that they will be united to work with the players.”
Those assurances and the league’s strong relationship between its players and the union allows for the players to have an active and unified voice.
“In many ways, this is bridging a better relationship between [NBA] owners and the players because they are forced to work on issues that have nothing to do with basketball,” the agent said. “So that is going to forge relationships and forge some bonding, and I think quite frankly this will probably help the spirit of the collective bargaining negotiations moving forward because it’s not just about business anymore, it’s about a co-existence.”
Staff writers Liz Mullen, Mark J. Burns, Eric Prisbell and Ben Fischer contributed to this report.