We should not be surprised.
Four years ago Wednesday, to the day, Colin Kaepernick first protested during the national anthem to bring attention to police brutality against minorities. Anyone taking an honest look will acknowledge that little has changed in those four years, except for the demonization of Kaepernick by segments of society that misinterpreted his action, in some cases willfully so.
So after Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by a Kenosha, Wis., policeman Sunday while his three children watched, and after two people protesting the shooting were killed and a third wounded Tuesday night, allegedly by a 17-year-old White man who opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, the basketball team that represents Milwaukee, 40 miles to the north, decided enough was enough.
“We are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable,” said a statement issued by the Bucks players after they had refused to leave the locker room for their game with Orlando on Wednesday. “We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment we are demanding the same from lawmakers and law enforcement.”
The Bucks’ action began a ripple effect that wiped out all three NBA playoff games (including Lakers-Blazers), three WNBA games (including Sparks-Lynx), five MLS matches (including LAFC-Real Salt Lake and Galaxy-Seattle) and three major league baseball games (starting with the Brewers game against Cincinnati and including Dodgers-Giants), with a number of individual baseball players including Matt Kemp, Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler also sitting out. Additionally, tennis’ Naomi Osaka tweeted that she would not play in her Thursday semifinals in the Western & Southern Open, after which tournament organizers postponed all play until Friday.
It created the most earthshaking day in sports since March 11, the night the NBA shut down in response to the coronavirus and every other sports entity in North America followed its lead. That led to a four-month stoppage. What happens now?
“This is not a political issue,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, flanked by Mookie Betts, Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen during a Zoom conference from San Francisco on Wednesday evening. “I understand there’s an election coming up. But it’s a human being issue.”
When you push a community long enough and hard enough, you have to expect that at some point that community pushes back.
“It almost feels like things are not changing. It feels like we’re not doing anything productive,” Toronto’s Pascal Siakam said earlier Wednesday, when it was revealed that Raptors and Celtics players had discussed not playing Thursday’s Eastern Conference semifinal Game 1 before the Bucks took their action. “It’s really a lot of things way bigger than basketball going on. I want to be able to play, because I know at the end of the day basketball brings some things to people. But at the same time, seeing that every day, it’s tough. It hurts.”
Before the NBA convened at the Disney resort at Orlando in July for what was supposed to be the post-pandemic conclusion to its season, some players – Kyrie Irving most notably, but also others including the Lakers’ Dwight Howard – questioned whether returning to play was the most productive thing they could be doing. Being sequestered in the bubble may have amplified that feeling of frustration at being unable to do anything to actively help in their communities.
“Things happen for a reason,” Siakam said. “But definitely things like that happening make me question if this was the right decision (to come into the bubble). Are we really making a change? Are we really doing something meaningful?”
Managements of the teams and leagues involved seemed solidly behind their players’ decisions. But how long will that support last if this turns into a long-term protest? Or could the pressure point be such that if, say, the NBA’s TV money suddenly is in jeopardy, the rich businessmen who own these teams might exert more active political pressure on behalf of the communities from where these players come?
Maybe Doc Rivers provided a tipping point with his emotional statements following the Clippers’ victory over Dallas on Tuesday night. He choked back tears at one point as he said: “We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. All you do is keep hearing about fear. It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad.”
Change is hard, and it is often slow. There’s more of a groundswell of support for racial justice and a better understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement than existed four years ago. If these protests increase the pressure to change, maybe we’ll be able to say walking is more effective than kneeling.
Then again, it’s good to be reminded of what Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle said earlier this year: “Sports are like the reward for a functioning society.”
You make the call as to whether we’re functioning well enough to deserve it.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter