Bucks’ Stand Ushers in a New Era of Sports Protest

As a junior in college in the fall of 2008 as a political science major, one of my fondest academic memories was getting absolutely encapsulated with a paper about the 1968 presidential election. The two main candidates in that election, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, weren't all too dissimilar to 2020s. But the main reason I couldn't stop reading about that election wasn't because of the politicians — it was because of all the cataclysmic events and social unrest that took place that year.

Even in the midst of nationwide financial collapse in those months of 2008, I wondered if I would possibly live through another civil rights era and year like that one. I thought it was pretty unlikely.

In reading about sports figures who took a stand on racial injustices in this country — Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, and the Black 14 of the Wyoming football team of 1969, among others — I also thought it was pretty unlikely we'd see that level of protest again in sports.

I knew by June that 2020 was a going to be a 1968-esque year. But it wasn't until Wednesday, when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court in an NBA playoff game — in a league-designed basketball bubble, no less — that I realized a new era of activism and protest in sports had truly arrived.

While I had expected actions in response to the Kenosha, Wisconsin, shootings to be like those of the Detroit Lions cancelling practice on Tuesday, I was floored on Wednesday afternoon when a team chose not to come out of the locker room for a scheduled game. And it was perhaps even more surprising than that when baseball and hockey — more historically conservative sports to say the least — ended up following suit and postponing games in the following 24 hours.

I often think of the best examples of courage as being things that a person or group stands up for or does when they know some harm is bound to result from the action and a safer choice exists, but they do it anyway. This can manifest itself in a lot of ways, large or small.

There's no question that what the Bucks did took courage in that regard. It's very possible that the Bucks may have cost the players money due to TV ratings and revenue drops if the CBA and TV deals are renegotiated. Reportedly, some players and owners were annoyed with the Bucks for the relatively sudden nature of the protest on Wednesday.

That didn't matter to them, and I commend their actions.

It also didn't matter to them that the NBA, as an organization of basketball teams, isn't Congress, a legislature or a city council who has the direct voting power to change practices of police brutality or systemic racism. They did it anyway because they knew it would get the country's attention and could force the league (and more importantly, its deep-pocketed owners) to commit even more resources than initially promised to fighting injustice.

(As a side note, it's on this point that I'm going to be a bit pedantic and not call this a strike. Yes, it was a work stoppage where players withheld their labor, but since the Bucks' ownership group and the league publicly supported the actions, it feels inaccurate for me to qualify this as a labor dispute and therefore a strike.)

As I'm writing this on a Friday afternoon, it's been announced that playoff games are to resume on Saturday. The continued success of the bubble from a health standpoint means we're a lot more confident a champion will be crowned in October than we were six weeks ago. By the time you read this, the series between the Raptors and Celtics that basketball nerds like myself have been waiting six months for will have finally started.

But those things don't feel as important as they did a week ago, because basketball games aren't as significant as human lives. And while NBA players don't live like the average citizen, the Bucks' own Sterling Brown shows us that, off the court, black skin can mean you're guilty until proven innocent to some in this country — and it's time the nation stopped accepting that.

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