In March 2018, the horror had a different face. A different name. A Sacramento man, barely grown from a boy, stolen from his family just as the flowers were blooming in springtime. He was Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old Black man killed by police officers in his grandmother’s backyard in the Meadowview neighborhood on the south side of town. The officers shot at him 20 times; an independent autopsy found that eight bullets pierced his body. Officers said they thought Clark had a gun, but only his cellphone was found underneath his body, which was so desecrated his family could not wash it, as is customary in Islamic tradition.
Since Clark could no longer speak for himself, his city spoke for him. Sacramento’s Black residents marched and raged, shaking the city with every step. They blocked the entrance to the Golden 1 Center, delaying the start of a Kings home game. It was a gesture of defiance declaring that this wouldn’t—this couldn’t—happen again. It was a draining experience to be in Sacramento that week. Many of the protesters I spoke to were not seeking reform. They did not think justice was attainable. They wanted to abolish a racist and corrupt system of policing that inflicted pain upon them with impunity.
On March 30, almost two weeks after Clark’s death, community organizers and locals gathered at South Sacramento Christian Center off Stockton Boulevard. They were joined by two active Kings players, Vince Carter and Garrett Temple, and a former player, Doug Christie, who played for the team in its heyday in the early aughts.
The evening was a testament to Black joy, resilience, and hope. Children recited poems. Neighbors offered action items. The players’ presence was meant to be a salve, a way of mending the broken parts of an ailing community. Before the meeting ended, a 17-year-old Sacramento resident named Keishay Swygert approached a nearby microphone, her gray locs swaying as she walked. She had a question for the athletes in attendance, something that had been on the minds of many of the city’s residents in the days following Clark’s death.
“Why didn’t you guys come out to the protest when we were encountering ignorance outside of the Golden 1 Center?” Swygert asked. The players seemed puzzled by the question. Temple said he wanted to protest, but that the NBA was his platform. “There are certain ways to change things. You can’t just react,” Temple said. Carter responded by citing the team’s and the league’s responses. On the night protestors barricaded themselves in front of the Golden 1 Center, the Kings’ owner, Vivek Ranadivé, addressed the sparse crowd from the court, flanked by team personnel and players, and offered his assurances that the organization would do its part to prevent another tragedy like Clark’s death from happening again. Kings players wore T-shirts commemorating Clark in the arena, and league-issued PSAs were played that week to honor him. Carter felt they had done plenty.
“How many cameras were there? How many times have you seen that PSA on social media? The Sacramento Kings are the biggest thing in the community,” Carter said. He thought they were supporting the movement in the best way possible. “We’ve set the tone for how this is supposed to be done.”
The NBA prides itself as a leader on issues related to dismantling racism. When the league resumed its season this summer, sequestering its players in Walt Disney World amid nationwide protests against police killings of Black citizens, it echoed the messaging from the Movement for Black Lives. Players wear slogans like “Say Their Names” on the backs of their jerseys, and “Black Lives Matter” is emblazoned on the courts for the television-viewing audience to see. While many players felt uneasy about playing games in a bubble while the dual crises of a pandemic and racism impacted their families and communities back home, they felt their platform would allow them to amplify messages of racial equity. But conflating exposure and visibility with action, particularly radical action during moments that demand it, has long been a source of concern and criticism among organizers in the Movement for Black Lives.
That’s why, when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for Game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic last week, resulting in a suspension of all of the games scheduled that day, I thought back to Swygert’s question in that Sacramento church. Even two years later, I hadn’t forgotten her justified rage, the fire in her belly.
That night, I had asked her what made her so angry with the players. “When it comes to it, deep down, they’re not really with it,” Swygert told me in 2018. She thought players failed to recognize why organizers wanted to shut down the arena that night. She didn’t understand why it was so important to play another meaningless basketball game while the sounds of protest reverberated throughout her city. “We know what we are doing,” she said. “You can’t say we are doing this because we don’t have anything to lose. I’m 17. I have everything to lose. We are doing this because we are willing to die for this revolution. If you think your job in the NBA is more important than this revolution, then that’s a major problem.”
In 2020, it was Jacob Blake. Another name. Another Black life upended. A police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Blake seven times in the back in front of his children after he attempted to break up a neighborhood scuffle. Blake, 29, survived but is paralyzed from the waist down. His life will be forever changed. Even as he recovered at a local hospital, he was treated as a criminal, as an animal. He’s paralyzed, yet authorities at one time handcuffed him to his bed.
Seeing the continuous ravaging of the Black body by police officers is exhausting for Black citizens. It should be for anyone. Day after day, hour after hour, week after week, there remains an unending expedition to keep Blackness indentured, imprisoned, and attacked by the state and its paid actors. Law enforcement posits that it serves as our protectors when, in reality, it operates as our reaper, the extension of a system with nearly unchecked authority from the state.
The day before Blake, police killed Trayford Pellerin, a 31-year-old Black man, at a gas station in Lafayette, Louisiana. At the start of this summer of nationwide protest, it was Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, killed by white vigilantes in Brunswick, Georgia; Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was killed by police in her home in Louisville; George Floyd, 46, died after a Minneapolis police officer stuck his knee on Floyd’s neck until he suffocated; Tony McDade, a 38-year-old transgender Black man, was shot and killed by Tallahassee police. It’s as if once people begin protesting for one of the fallen, another hits the hot asphalt.
This fatigue leaked into the NBA. After Blake was shot, Bucks players refused to take the floor, and their colleagues followed suit. Their actions halted not only the NBA playoffs but much of the country’s sporting events that day. For a brief period, there was a collective, restless spirit in American athletics. These gestures are partly motivated by the insistence from Black athletes that they will not provide a respite for audiences, or serve as a balm for the harm and danger happening in society, especially if that harm disproportionately affects Black people. The adulation and worship of Black entertainers’ talent—athletes, musicians, writers, actors—results in a fetishization of their labor. To watch the NBA in a time of national crisis is an implicit way for white audiences to feign allyship. A viewer can feel close to a Black American while watching them perform their craft, even if they would not replicate that same closeness in their everyday life. There is power in Black athletes refusing to offer that proximity, even if it is only for a brief moment. Whether they intended to or not, NBA players declared that if we want the Black body, we must also want the Black brain.
The NBA’s wildcat strike was a forceful act for its inherent provocation, its raucous indignation to say that Black lives are important, that they matter, and that the extrajudicial killings of Black folks by law enforcement perpetuate a campaign of racist terror. It stands in contrast to the NBA’s relationship to protest in previous years, which was defanged, sanitized, corporatized, gentrified, co-opted into something else. Here, the power belonged to the players.
For those directly involved with the movement for Black liberation, the actions were a welcome sight, even if many of these organizers are still trying to find a more concrete connection between their efforts and the players and the league.
“In a 21st-century context, these athletes, particularly those of African descent, are making connections between what’s happening in their everyday lives off the court and using their platforms to say ‘enough is enough’ with respect to what’s happening to Black people across this country and the world,” says Ash-Lee Henderson, who leads the Movement for Black Lives’ partnerships and who’s advised NBA personnel, coaches, and players. “I feel proud of them. I’m excited for what their bravery makes possible. This is a strike and they’re doing it in defense of Black life.” But Henderson did offer a caveat. “The flip side of that coin is I do feel angry,” she said. “That it’s taken this much cumulative death to get folks to see what’s happening.”
The NBA players’ strike was a powerful signal that follows almost a decade of work from organizing groups. Black radicalism in athletics has felt a bit aimless in recent years, shunned by the power brokers at the top of the sports ecosystem, and contained within rare occurrences on the field of play. Colin Kaepernick, the catalyst of this modern generation of athletic activism, first took a knee in protest of racism and police brutality four years ago. WNBA players have continually taken a leadership role on these issues, but their efforts are too often ignored and erased. Last week was a sign of what it looks like when that energy coalesces in a significant way. We saw a glimpse of the immovable power that Black athletic labor can impose on their workplaces; when Black talent withholds its labor, so many capitalistic structures that profit on their bodies come to a grinding halt. That is mighty. That is momentous. That has been a long time coming. These athletes are history in real time.
For too long, the NBA’s relationship to protest—the signs, the PSAs, the T-shirts, the commercialization of every utterance of Black lives mattering, the memification of Breonna Taylor’s visage—was its way to express solidarity with an international, decentralized movement. The issue with this is that it often lacked the feel and zeal of true dissent. It was non-radical on purpose. It was never meant to offend. It was placed in prime time without conflict. Thus, it wasn’t a protest at all. It was marketing, branding, an attempt to assuage the criticism that the league and its players were too late to a movement that had been rowdy and rebellious for years. Here is a league that has positioned itself as a progressive entity in athletics, but too often comes across as no better than any other billion-dollar corporation. When the players’ right to protest is league-approved, it ceases to be the chaotic disruption powerful enough to bring society to its knees.
“The NBA for so long has engaged in woke branding,” Amira Rose Davis, a professor who focuses on race, gender, sports, and politics at Penn State, told me. There was a major difference to their sister league, she said. “Those performative gestures were all fine before. But this is what happens when you engage in labor resistance in a collective manner. That’s uncharted history for them. This is the moment when you ask if their recent little steps will continue or if it’ll be more of the big steps they just took.”
In the frenzied moments after the strike, the players demanded that the league enact certain action items. They wanted assurances that this wasn’t all for nothing. The athletes were always likely to return to play, even if some felt their focus and efforts would be better served elsewhere. The league announced a “social justice plan” and “social justice coalition.” Several arenas will be turned into voting centers, the league will work with their network partners to create advertising spots during the playoffs around civic engagement in upcoming elections.
So the action will come later, and the league will continue to commercialize Black liberation efforts with their own spin. Almost a decade after this generation’s protest efforts began, and several years after the height of athlete activism in this country, the NBA has received the message. The players want a strike. The league wants us to vote.
The efficacy and impact of these efforts remain to be seen. There are those in the NBA who are at least willing to acknowledge that the league’s initiatives are lacking. But, as Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce told me, the focus should be on how the league responds moving forward.
“If you’re gonna get caught up on ‘I told you so’ or ‘We told you,’ well, we’re not all on the same page. We’re not always going to know or agree or be as passionate about it,” Pierce said. “That shouldn’t be the point. It shouldn’t be a reminder of ‘I told you this before.’ Well, we’re here now.” Pierce thinks the league and the players are doing their best. “If there’s any critique that we are too late, that also strays from the mission. We may be late, but we’re here. And we want to focus on what we can do moving forward to celebrate, enhance, or partner with those that’ve been doing the work in the past,” he said. “We apologize if we are late. But what can we do moving forward and let’s focus on that.”
The NBA has had its share of player protest and labor stoppages. Players staged a strike before the 1964 All-Star Game, and they stopped play after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in 1968, and again in 1992 after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King the year prior. In 1959, Elgin Baylor refused to play games in the Jim Crow South, forcing the league to change its racist policies about segregated seating. Baylor told the Lakers if they respected him as a man, they wouldn’t schedule games in the South. “I’m a human being,” Baylor told one teammate. “Not an animal put in a cage and let out for the show. They won’t treat me like an animal.” Other players followed Baylor’s example: In 1961, Hawks and Celtics players refused to play in Lexington, Kentucky. Bill Russell later told Ed Linn of Sport magazine that “for a great number of years, colored athletes and entertainers put up with those conditions because we figured they’d see we were nice people mostly and, in some cases, gentlemen, and they’d say, ‘Those people aren’t so bad.’” Russell soon noticed how wrong he was. “But it was the greatest mistake we ever made, because as long as you go along with it, everybody assumes it’s the status quo. I couldn’t look my kids or myself in the face if I had played there. A man without integrity, belief, or self-respect is not a man. And a man who won’t express his convictions has no convictions. I feel the best way to express my convictions is not to play. If I can’t eat, I can’t entertain.”
Of course, the onus should not be on the players, past or present, to change this world. That doesn’t mean, however, that their actions aren’t necessary—and more are welcome. The body politic of the modern Black athlete, at least within the NBA, is shifting. They are beginning to understand how to wield and weaponize their power effectively.
Yet, the same energy is not expected of those actually in power. The gatekeepers of the sport, the overseers of the athletic ecosystem are not tasked with the same commitments as the Black labor underneath them. That labor is considered uppity, rendered childish for questioning the power keeping them paid and privileged. Yet, if one is to understand racism, both the multi-lifetime fight toward Black liberation and freedom, one must understand that the onus is not on the Black athlete or the Black citizen or the Black coach to defeat racism. It is not our burden to fix this country; it is the job of those in control. That is where the true anger should be levied.
What is the role of the Black athlete at times of political crisis? When a pandemic infects our land and racism is the tool that inflicts pain on our bodies? The answer depends on which American you’re asking. The strike was a rebuke to the notion that sports can offer us an oasis at times of political peril. That assumption has always been a myth. American athletics were born on the plantation and thus, from their inception to their current incarnation, have never been normal.
We ask so much of these athletes yet do not hear their very basic chants, their very simple calls for equality, their very real cries that mirror a movement insisting that Black life be honored, cherished, and protected. Black hands helped build this nation, the same nation that denies our ask that freedom truly ring for every one of us. Acts of dissent are necessary to shock the system, to force the country to live up to the ideals its founders originally espoused. What John Carlos said in 1968 after his Olympic protests rings even truer now: “Tell the white people of America and all over the world that if they don’t seem to care for the things Black people do, they should not go see Black people perform.”
The simplest way to understand the NBA strike is as a reminder that the games do not have to go on. Without a social contract ensuring the safety and vitality of Black Americans, our athletic entertainment can cease to exist. All of this can be gone. We do not have to die for you, play for you, or owe you anything as long as the Black body is hunted, seen as a tool, denied the same freedoms and glories owed to us when the founders created this grand, American experiment to show the rest of the world that a republic was worth fighting and dying for. The moment has come to find out what will break first, America or her people.