Embrace the boycotts – they are vital in fight for change
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