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Colliding Contradictions Crack the NBA’s Political Facade

The league tried to make protest part of the entertainment product. Its players reminded us why that is not enough in times of crisis.

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When it happened, it happened fast. After hours of rumors, after weeks of unease, after months of conversations about how the NBA could come back, whether it should come back, whether it would be doing more harm than good by staging a basketball competition in the midst of both a devastating pandemic and an international wave of protest against the killing of Black people by police—after all that, the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision not to take the court Wednesday night for the fifth game of their first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic still seemed to arrive with astounding speed. The Bucks themselves planned to play when they arrived at the arena, according to members of the team. One minute the Magic were going through warm-ups, the next minute NBA officials were having urgent conversations outside the Milwaukee locker room, and the minute after that, everything about the current state of affairs governing sports, politics, and protest had changed.

The Bucks chose not to play Game 5 after Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, was shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday. Blake was trying to get into his car, where his three small children were waiting. The Bucks assumed they would be made to forfeit their game against the Magic; instead, their impromptu strike set a row of dominoes falling that almost halted American sports. The Rockets and Thunder agreed to sit out their playoff game, which had been scheduled to follow the Bucks’. Then the whole night’s slate of games was postponed. The WNBA postponed its full slate as well. In Major League Baseball, the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds called off their game. Naomi Osaka, the two-time Grand Slam winner who has become one of the biggest celebrities in women’s tennis, announced that she was withdrawing from her semifinal match in the Western & Southern Open. Then the entire tournament paused play. Major League Soccer players across the league refused to play. Five games ended up being postponed.

Suddenly, it seemed as though the tentative new normal that had held since sports resumed after the coronavirus lockdown was being rejected by the players themselves. NBA players held a meeting in which some of the league’s most powerful people argued they should abandon the season altogether. The Lakers and Clippers both voted to stop play, then reportedly left the meeting, led by LeBron James. How can we pretend everything is normal when it isn’t? the argument ran. How can we spend our time entertaining people when the emergency in our communities shows no signs of being solved?

Much of California was on fire. An awesome hurricane was ravaging the Louisiana coast. The coronavirus, which has killed 180,000 people in the United States, was not contained. The streets seemed overrun with armed militiamen. The police were still targeting Black people. In North Carolina, at the Republican National Convention, the president and his supporters—whose job is to take these crises seriously—were instead playing a kind of game, trying to frighten people with fake emergencies while running away from the real ones. In Florida, a group of professional basketball players—whose job is to play a game—looked at the state of the country and responded seriously. If they couldn’t solve the real emergency, they could do more than the country’s leaders seem willing to do: They could ask you to see it.

For several years now, the NBA has modeled a political approach that is admirable, at least from some angles, but also deeply strange. At least since its 2014 expulsion of Donald Sterling, the flagrantly racist former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA—I’m talking about the corporation here, not the players—has worked to turn a certain kind of progressive politics into a brand strength. While the league has faced legitimate criticism for its apparent indifference to the human rights abuses of the Chinese government—a vital business partner and the source of an increasing share of NBA revenue—it has projected, at home, a commitment to justice unique among the major men’s sports leagues. At the same time, of course, the NBA remains a for-profit entertainment product, and this inevitably influences its standing as a vector for change.

When the league encourages players to play rather than to sit out the season in protest, as it did before the post-quarantine restart in Orlando, is it motivated more by its stated belief that a basketball telecast can be used to draw attention to police brutality, or is it motivated by a desire to keep its labor force happy so it can continue raking in ad revenue? When it emblazons BLACK LIVES MATTER on its courts, as it has done in Orlando, does it think about what font will be most palatable to its TV audience? And how much does it matter if it does? The contradiction implied by these questions is not unusual in the era of corporate hashtag activism, but it’s particularly acute in the NBA. How do you stand up against the injustices faced by Black Americans while also selling your viewership a carefree night of TV?

The collision of the coronavirus pandemic, the quarantine bubble, and the summer of police violence and mass protest took the contradictions inherent in the league’s political stance to a breaking point. Even before players entered the bubble, there were some who thought it would be better not to play. As life inside the bubble ground on week after week, the solutions that enabled the restart—the social-justice messages on the backs of jerseys, the coordinated kneeling during the national anthem—no longer seemed as powerful as had been hoped, because they were so clearly enfolded within the triangulations of the league’s profit logic: How much can we do without seeming to do too much? Where is the line that will make the largest number of players happy while alienating the fewest fans? They seemed focus-grouped. They seemed a little safe. Conservatives who already hated the NBA used the justice branding to drum up rage clicks, but eventually the emphasis of the season drifted away from protest and back to the games. (The games have been fantastic because NBA players are very, very good at their jobs.) Players complained that telecasts weren’t even showing them kneeling during the anthem; the cameras were cutting away.

In contrast to the official protest imagery the NBA allowed within the bubble, what was most stunning about the Bucks’ wildcat strike was its abruptness, its unsanctioned immediacy. The Bucks weren’t consulting with PR experts. They weren’t asking for permission or building consensus. They were just people who were hurting, and George Hill started talking about not playing, and as a team, they decided to take a stand.

In one stroke, the Bucks’ action clarified the limits of the NBA’s official-corporate-messaging approach to supporting Black Lives Matter. What the Bucks did felt powerful because they were breaking a rule: They were putting something on the line and were prepared to sacrifice something. The gesture wasn’t careful or planned; it was disruptive. Instead of being massaged to align with a corporation’s business priorities, it forced everyone who confronted it to face an uncomfortable choice: Do I support this violation of the accepted routine, and if not, what does that say about me? This meant it drew louder howls from the mobs of very sincere Twitter men who very sincerely want to keep all politics out of sports—and not only politics they dislike, how dare you. But that was itself a sign of its power. It forced you to think about the status quo you were supporting by expecting the players to entertain you; if you didn’t want to think about that, of course, you felt threatened.

On Thursday, the day after the Bucks’ strike, the players reportedly agreed to continue the playoffs after a short delay. The missed baseball and soccer games will be rescheduled; Osaka has agreed to play her semifinal in New York. What briefly looked like a widespread shutdown of sports will turn out, at least for now, to be short-lived. The disruption of what passes for normal life these days will be short-lived, too, and that’s fine; athletes deserve to do their jobs and live their lives like anyone else.

Within the NBA, players are meeting to discuss how to refocus activity within the bubble on the crisis raging outside. In the meantime, at least the Bucks’ protest clarified something essential. Sports are so deeply embedded in the everyday life of American culture that even a sports league operating under conditions of protest is bound, to some extent, to reinforce a sense of normalcy. And this is a moment when LeBron James can say, as he did after the Blake shooting:

We are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified. Because you don’t know, you have no idea. You have no idea how that cop that day left the house. You don’t know if he woke up on the good side of the bed, you don’t know if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed.

This is a moment when Doc Rivers, the son of a cop, can say this, through tears, about the plight of Black Americans:

We keep loving this country, and this country doesn’t love us back.

This is a moment when some of the best basketball players on earth would consider abandoning their season rather than letting themselves be used as a distraction. Too great a sense of normalcy, at this moment, is a luxury none of us can afford.