Em­brace the boy­cotts – they are vi­tal in fight for change

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Oliver Brown

On a con­vul­sive evening in the African-Amer­i­can fight not to be shot or suf­fo­cated by white po­lice of­fi­cers, it was JR Smith, small for­ward for the Los Angeles Lak­ers, who put it best. “Oh, you don’t hear us?” he wrote. “Well, now you can’t see us.”

A de­bate has raged all year about whether anti-racism protests in sport needed to move be­yond tak­ing the knee, given that the ges­ture, for all its sym­bol­is­ing of sub­ju­ga­tion, could at best be mis­con­strued, or at worst trig­ger the Pres­i­dent of the United States into call­ing the pro­tag­o­nists “sons of bitches”. In the dark­ened are­nas of their Or­lando bub­ble, the coun­try’s basketball play­ers found a bet­ter way: they sim­ply with­drew their labour.

Within hours, this ath­letes’ strike – pro­voked by po­lice in Kenosha, Wis­con­sin, shoot­ing Ja­cob Blake, a young black man, in the back as he tried to open his car door – had gone na­tion­wide. In Mil­wau­kee, the largest city in Wis­con­sin and one fa­mously de­scribed by Peter Fei­gin, pres­i­dent of its Bucks basketball fran­chise, as “the most seg­re­gated and racist” place he had known, sport fell silent. The Bucks’ play-off game against the Or­lando Magic had to be called off af­ter play­ers re­fused to take the court, while in base­ball, the Brew­ers’ date with the Cincin­nati Reds was also aban­doned.

In the women’s NBA, play­ers wore T-shirts with seven bul­let holes drawn on the back to sig­nify how many times Blake was shot. In the al­ready dis­ori­en­tat­ing world of Flush­ing Mead­ows, where a tournament with Cincin­nati brand­ing is be­ing staged in New York, Naomi Osaka with­drew from her semi-fi­nal against Elise Mertens, ex­plain­ing that the shoot­ing had made her “sick to my stom­ach”. Col­lec­tively, it was a stand to in­vite par­al­lels with the Black Power salute by Tom­mie Smith and John Car­los at the Mex­ico City Olympics of 1968, where ath­letes were pre­pared to risk short-term vil­i­fi­ca­tion in pur­suit of the wider cause. Only this time, they made their point not through the rais­ing of a black-gloved fist, but through their ab­sence from view.

At the most crit­i­cal in­ter­sec­tion in US racial politics for half a cen­tury, it is im­pos­si­ble to over­state the res­o­nance of their ac­tions. This week, at the Repub­li­cans’ vir­tual con­ven­tion, Pres­i­dent Trump is set­ting out a fast-crum­bling bid for re-elec­tion, but in sport, it is African-Amer­i­cans who hold the trump card. They might con­sti­tute only six per cent of the US pop­u­la­tion, but in the NFL, where quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick led the push­back against po­lice bru­tal­ity, seven out of ev­ery 10 play­ers are black. In the NBA, the pro­por­tion rises to 74 per cent.

To be born black in the US is to con­front en­trenched in­equal­ity in ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­nity and so­cial mo­bil­ity, and to be dis­pro­por­tion­ately the vic­tims of over-zeal­ous law en­force­ment. And yet to make it as a black ath­lete in the same coun­try is to be­long to a po­ten­tially de­ci­sive ma­jor­ity. For­get the no­tion that sport has no place be­ing co-opted for po­lit­i­cal ends. Sport is the one sanc­tu­ary for many black play­ers, the one en­vi­ron­ment in which they can com­mand due re­spect, and the one plat­form where they have agency to ac­com­plish last­ing change.

The tim­ing of these events is dou­bly fas­ci­nat­ing in light of the pan­demic. The US ma­jor leagues, reel­ing from even longer shut­downs than were en­dured in Europe, are des­per­ate to wind up Covid-rav­aged sea­sons that have lasted for a year. The NBA’s di­vi­sional play-offs were sup­posed to be con­cluded in the fi­nal week of May, not the first week of

Septem­ber. Now, the ex­tra­or­di­nary boy­cott in­spired by the Bucks threat­ens an even longer sus­pen­sion. It is as if the eco­nomic rav­ages of coro­n­avirus – which, be in no doubt, have al­ready been felt in player salaries – are sec­ondary to the seis­mic so­cial shifts afoot. The ques­tion posed by play­ers, through their will­ing­ness to sac­ri­fice, is sim­ply: If not now, when?

“F--- this, man,” said LeBron James, the most in­flu­en­tial US ath­lete of his gen­er­a­tion. “We de­mand change. Sick of it.”

On the same night that they re­fused to play, Mike Pence, de­liv­er­ing his vice-pres­i­den­tial ad­dress at the con­ven­tion, was draw­ing on that fa­mil­iar Trumpian trope of fear, telling his au­di­ence: “You won’t be safe in Joe Bi­den’s Amer­ica.” It fell to Doc Rivers, coach of the LA Clip­pers, to pro­vide the ul­ti­mate re­buke, re­gard­less of po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sion. “We are the ones get­ting killed,” he said. “We are the ones get­ting shot. We are the ones de­nied the right to live in cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties. We have been hung, we have been shot. And you keep hear­ing about fear…” A black man in the US is 2½ times more likely to be killed by po­lice than a white man.

That is not a par­ti­san point, but a sta­tis­ti­cal truth, and the cen­tral rea­son why ath­letes are ris­ing up with such an un­prece­dented dis­play of unity. The loss of money from their boy­cott will be felt by the sta­tions, the league, the fran­chise own­ers. In turn, own­ers and com­mis­sion­ers can lean on politi­cians to en­act the leg­is­la­tion that just might cor­rect the in­jus­tices that gov­ern the lives of their black play­ers out­side the sport­ing sphere. These play­ers have, as never be­fore, a place at the nexus of power. Their re­solve to use it, it must be hoped, is just the start of the trans­for­ma­tion to come.

‘We are the ones get­ting killed. We are the ones get­ting shot. And you keep hear­ing about fear’

Mak­ing her stand: Naomi Osaka pulled out of her semi-fi­nal in protest at the shoot­ing

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