Don’t Call It a Boycott: NBA Players Are Inspiring a Strike Wave

What began with the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team deciding to refuse to play their game on August 26, became a rapidly spreading wildcat strike wave that halted the entire NBA playoffs, the WNBA, then professional baseball, beginning, but not stopping with the Milwaukee Brewers, and on to major league soccer and even to the PGA tour and tennis star Naomi Osaka, who explained her refusal to play in her semifinal match, “Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman . . . if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport, I consider that a step in the right direction.”

The team is calling for the Wisconsin state legislature—which has not met since April—to reconvene to seek justice for Jacob Blake.

The Bucks’ statement, which they presented as a team to cameras, many wearing T-shirts reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Black All The Time,” says in part, “When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort, and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.” 

The team is calling for the Wisconsin state legislature—which has not met since April—to reconvene to seek justice for Jacob Blake. The WNBA’s Washington Mystics, in an arresting image that also nods to still-unsigned quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s famous action, all took a knee while wearing white T-shirts with seven bullet wounds drawn on the back. 

Commentator Kenny Smith joined the strike, appearing on the set of “Inside the NBA” before walking off, saying that, “As a Black man, as a former player, I think it’s best for me to support the players and just not be here tonight.” 

Their solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters on the streets, grieving and organizing in the wake of still more white supremacist and police violence, is inspiring. But these athletes are also aware of the way that white supremacy shapes their working conditions as athletes, and that this has been the case for as long as there have been professional sports. The players might be well paid, but the owners are part of the capitalist class. 

The Milwaukee Bucks are owned by billionaire hedge fund traders; the Brewers’ owner is a founder of an “alternative investment” firm that specializes in what some call “junk bonds.” Pro athletes are just another part of the portfolio for the mega-wealthy, another piece of property to show off. 

Black players who speak out, whether about their working conditions or the conditions of the world, have long been told to just shut up and play. To be grateful for the opportunity to work at a job that pays so well, playing a sport they love (that is, if they are willing to discipline their bodies to take the pain and grind and risk that shortens their lifespan). 

They will disrupt the easy amusements that allow us to turn off our own stress at the end of the day, and they will make us think about the price paid for our ease. 

But they know that it is still too easy for many people to ignore the protests in the streets, and they understand that their actions reach into the living rooms of the comfortable middle class, as well as the Black working class in solidarity with whom they act. 

They will disrupt the easy amusements that allow us to turn off our own stress at the end of the day, and they will make us think about the price paid for our ease. 


Job actions by professional athletes are often referred to as “boycotts” in the press because it remains difficult for many people to see elite athletes as workers doing a job. 

Boycotting is something that people do outside of their capacity as workers; they do it as shoppers, as consumers. But the NBA players and everyone who joined them were acting as workers, halting the process of the game which cannot continue without them. And in doing so, even if the cause of the strike was not explicitly their working conditions, they have also called attention to the labor of athletes.

The NBA stars, in order to play during a pandemic, have had to be in a “bubble” literally on the campus of the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, where they are isolated from the rest of the world and undergo daily testing for COVID-19, just so there can be some semblance of a season. 

These are bizarre, deeply restrictive working conditions to say the least; they are also invasive of the players’ personal lives. Former player and commentator Chris Webber connected the dots on camera on Wednesday night, saying, “If not now, when? If not during a pandemic and countless lives being lost? If not now, when?”  

The pandemic, after all, has upended everyone’s lives. We have all accepted changes to our lifestyles, our work; many of us have lost loved ones, and those killed by the disease, as with police violence, have disproportionately been Black. 

The players are demonstrating solidarity, collective leadership, and the power that they have as Black workers and those who stand beside them. They have refused to let us be comfortable in the semblance of normalcy that the resumption of sports was supposed to give us. 

The Bucks, in noting the expectations placed on them, turn the way we talk about athletes back on us. To those who say “shut up and play, what do you know,” they have said, we are holding you to the expectations you place on us. We are asking you to do your jobs, to respect one another, to be accountable. 

The players are demonstrating solidarity, collective leadership, and the power that they have as Black workers and those who stand beside them. They have refused to let us be comfortable in the semblance of normalcy that the resumption of sports was supposed to give us. 

They have refused to stay in a bubble, and in doing so, issued a challenge to the rest of us: Which side are we on?

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» Don’t Call It a Boycott: NBA Players Are Inspiring a Strike Wave | Sarah Jaffe | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/08/27/dont-call-it-a-boycott-nba-players-are-inspiring-a-strike-wave/ | 2021-09-27T10:53:15+00:00
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