Sports has always been perceived by some as a refuge from the real world. That impulse is what helped drive leagues to return amid the pandemic, so people may be working from home, or have lost their job, or even gotten sick or lost a loved one to COVID-19, but at least they’d have playoff basketball.
On Wednesday night, when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for Game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic, in protest of the police shooting unarmed 29-year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, it reminded everyone that athletes are people, too; they’re workers; and they would no longer stand by and be willing to divert the masses from the brutalities of real life.
From “Ohio” and ” A Change is Gonna Come,” to “Fight The Power” and “Fuck Tha Police,” the loudest pop cultural voice of protest has traditionally come from musicians through their art.
Athletes, though, have always been a close second, albeit more for what they’ve done with the spotlight on them rather than their actual play. Muhammad Ali transcended boxing to speak out against Vietnam and racial injustice. Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a black-gloved fist while on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics. Four years ago, Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem for the first time, starting a journey that would lead him from all-pro to exile to icon.
Still, beyond a few individuals, sports overall remained largely an escape from America’s problems.
For one night, though, the players’ wildcat strike–and yes, it was a strike—showcased their collective power to make people pay attention to a cause larger than who wins a playoff series. The Bucks’ collective decision had a rapid effect far beyond one NBA bubble court at DisneyWorld. First the Bucks’ opponents joined the strike in solidarity. Then the other scheduled NBA games fell like dominoes. Over in Major League Baseball, the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals decided to not take the field for their game. Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami and Atlanta United also canceled their game.
While NBA players have now agreed to continue to play, the one-day strike is a watershed and telling moment for all the brands and corporations that have expressed solidarity and support for anti-racism action with financial donations and all the right words. Because this isn’t about a vague umbrella term like “racism,” that makes it easy to support publicly. The players staged a wildcat strike demanding specific action on police brutality and racist practices, and brands that have long benefited from these athletes’ personalities and abilities will be forced to decide how far their support goes.
“I think brands are conflicted,” says Chuck Welch, chief strategy officer at Brooklyn-based Rupture Studio, a Black-owned brand strategy consultancy that works with such brands as Pepsi, Hennessy, LVMH, and Nike. “On one hand, they want to espouse and stand for the same values the players are standing for. If you’re Nike or Puma or Adidas or Pepsi or Coke or whomever, young audiences are waiting and watching to see what side of the fence brands will hop down on. Are you going to stand with them even if it costs you money? It’s really not a principle unless it impacts your bottom line.”
The question for both fans and brands is, what now?
Over the past decade or more, the NBA has become a player-led league. In operations, with players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis orchestrating team moves in ways that would’ve been impossible not long ago. In its marketing, it really leans into the personalities and lives of its stars beyond the court. This coincides with one of the most enthusiastic and engaged social media audiences, with NBA Twitter making memes, jokes, and more that have become as much a part of the fabric of being a basketball fan as cable TV.
Now all these factors are in play as players are exercising their leverage—within the league and in hoops culture—to bring attention to the profoundly urgent issue of police brutality, the disproportionate killing and shooting of Black Americans by law enforcement, and ultimately, the systemic racism that fuels it. Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving spoke out about it back in June, saying that returning to the court could be a distraction from the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. However, the collective action of an entire team, a team that’s a favorite to win the title, has really pushed this to yesterday’s move.
Until now, the most significant speaking out has been on social media, more recently combined with the league partnering to have messages around Black Lives Matter and anti-racism on the courts and on team jerseys during the bubbled restart to the season. But this is the first time players have refused to play an NBA game to protest racism, since Bill Russell and his Boston Celtics teammates did it for an exhibition game in Kentucky back in 1961. Fifty-nine years later, the NBA legend voiced his approval for last night’s move.
I’m moved by all the @NBA players for standing up for what is right. To my man @TheJetOnTNT I would like to say Thank you for what you did to show your support for the players. I am so proud of you. Keep getting in good trouble. @NBAonTNT @ESPNNBA @espn #NBAPlayoffs ✊????
— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) August 26, 2020
A strike is typically the use of work stoppage to expedite action. In this case, that action is to force both fans and corporations to use their own influence to impact government policy that will stop racist police violence and practices.
One day in, the league, player’s association, and corporate sponsors all have supported the players’ protest. Broadcasters were supportive, with TNT commentator and league vet Kenny Smith walking off set in solidarity, and former player Chris Webber emotionally talking about the issue on-air.
But there was a telling detail in the league’s support, when it said the games were being postponed, not canceled. It assumed the protest was temporary and normalcy will return as soon as this week. But what if it didn’t? It certainly wasn’t guaranteed, as reports emerged some players discussed cancelling the playoffs completely. What happens next time?
Every word Chris Webber says here should be listened to. pic.twitter.com/L2mKUqEHL1
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) August 26, 2020
Nandi Welch, Rupture’s cofounder and head of business strategy, says this protest will force specificity on brands who have been generally supportive of Black Lives Matter over the past few months.
“Companies and brands stepped in to say they stood with Black Lives Matter, and showed it by donating to organizations like the NAACP,” says Welch. “Then the ones who wanted to go a step further said they would work to take on structural racism. But one thing you haven’t heard many companies talk about is the police violence that triggered this wave. All these things are on the table, but you haven’t heard many (brands) say they’d pursue and support policy changes to make this kind of behavior illegal. And that’s what this is all about.”
The NBA’s annual sponsorship revenue alone is worth is more than $1 billion. The players have largely made it clear that they’re willing to sacrifice potential earnings for the cause, as any game cancellations will impact the league’s bottom line, which will certainly come up in the next collective bargaining agreement, set to be negotiated later this fall.
That type of support isn’t without precedent. Witness how quickly Meek Mill was released from prison after 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin and Patriots owner Robert Kraft got involved back in 2018.
Ultimately, the reaction of brands depends on the reaction of fans. All the best intentions aside, corporations are built to survive and grow.
“You hope corporations will find a way to be a cohesive bridge between the players and government and policy,” says Welch. “Corporations will do what’s best for their shareholders. They’ll measure it, they’ll do all the research, look at public sentiment, social listening, every indicator to tell them what to do and they’ll make a decision based on that public opinion and what will contribute most to their survival.”