This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.
From the window of their car, three Black babies watched a cop shoot their father seven times in the back. He survived, reportedly paralyzed and currently hospitalized in critical condition. Cops are the anonymous conductors of the victim to hashtag train. This involuntary passenger is Jacob Blake, raised in Evanston, Illinois, living in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
On Tuesday night, during demonstrations in honor of Blake, a 17-year-old white, self-declared militiaman named Kyle Rittenhouse shot protesters. Two people were killed and Rittenhouse has been charged with homicide. Cars are still hot from the rebellion fires. Wounds are still fresh from the bullets.
Hundreds of miles south, the NBA bubble was filled with Black Lives Matter confetti. The words decorated each Disneyworld court. After games, many players solely discussed Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other victims of police violence. League officials provided a pre approved list of social justice phrases, like “Equality” and “Say Her Name,” that most players accessorize across their jerseys. On any night, Doc Rivers, coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, and his colleagues sport “Coaches for Racial Justice” pins. Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving, who opposed the NBA bubble formation for social justice reasons, even donated $1.5 million to WNBA players who choose to rest or protest instead of play.
The Milwaukee Bucks raised the stakes on Wednesday night. Minutes before playing, they went on strike, stopping their playoff game to support protesters against police violence in Kenosha. The Washington Mystics and Atlanta Dream also refused to play games and kneeled instead. Strikes spread across sports and 14 major league games were postponed, including in Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball. Even tennis superstar Naomi Osaka also said that she would not play a semifinals match set for today:
…before I am a athlete, I am a black woman. And as a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis…. Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of police is honestly making me sick to my stomach. I’m exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I’m extremely tired of having this same conversation over and over again. When will it ever be enough?
Athletes, perhaps thousands, mostly unknown, have kneeled, marched, or taken Sharpies to their sneakers against state violence. But strikes are rare. Five years ago, the University of Missouri football team refused to play, acting in solidarity with Black student activists organizing for racial justice on campus. The year after, San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick started kneeling at football games during the national anthem. Kaepernick knew that America, land of the free, was also the home of the caged. In fact, we’re number one—for police killings and for mass incarceration. Cops have put more Black people in jail for protesting police murders than police who have murdered Black people.
Writer Mychal Denzel Smith applauded Kaepernick, yet queried, “What if pro athletes refused to play?” Maya Moore answered. The WNBA player skipped seasons to help overturn Jonathan Irons’s wrongful conviction. Thanks to Moore’s advocacy, he completed nearly half of a 50-year sentence for burglary and assault charges before finally leaving his Missouri prison this year.
As players decide whether to protest or play, they will be tempted to call for prosecutions and for voter registration. We are in the middle of an uprising, a pandemic, and an election season, so these two demands might feel almost natural. Yet Black organizers are demanding much more transformational change, and these players and teams can use their influence and resources to assist.
First, the players must continue to organize and refuse pressure from owners to resume the season. The owners will lose money, sure, but they are unlikely to lose their lives to police violence. The NBA cannot even control the racist police officers at games, including the treatment of their Black executive management. Just days ago, bodycam footage was released of a California sheriff’s deputy shoving Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri after the team’s victory in the NBA finals last year.
Professional athletes could also call on the cities they represent to endorse the most significant demand in the largest protests in America’s history: defund the police. At least 18 cities have pledged to shift resources from police departments and toward organizations and policies that undo the root causes of harm. At the federal level, Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley are championing the Breathe Act, legislation powered by the Movement for Black Lives to to divest from state violence and to protect and invest resources in Black communities. Athletes can endorse this act and support its implementation.
Furthermore, each team represents cities that have legacies of state-sanctioned or state-sponsored violence. Players could demand that their cities create reparations commissions for victims of police, prison, and vigilante violence. Organizers in Chicago, Illinois, have succeeded in pushing a reparation ordinance that offers education, counseling, physical space, and money to victims of police violence and their communities, and Asheville, North Carolina, approved home ownership and business program reparations for Black residents. These are good starts.
If professional athletes choose to demand prosecutions, I hope they understand that this demand is rarely met, and if it is, the cop, if convicted at all, faces little to no prison time. More perversely, the prosecution may not deter other cops from killing Black people. So all calls to put one person in prison does not make any other Black person more safe. The cops responsible should be fired and never allowed to work in public or private law enforcement again. Although this may feel dissatisfying, calling for this level of accountability undermines the idea that our only hope for justice is a tenuous conviction in the hands of the same systems responsible for our murders. It’s why we must defund the police who killed Breonna Taylor, not merely arrest the officers who killed her and other Black people. The criminal legal system is a guilty system responsible for our oppression. It cannot also be the guardian of our liberation.
The only way to stop police from shooting and killing Black people is to stop contact between them. The only way to do that is to shrink the size and scope of policing by reducing their resources.
NBA players have come a long way and should be proud. In 2012, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in Florida during the NBA playoffs. The Miami Heat raised awareness by taking pictures with hoodies on. In 2014, when Donald Sterling, a former Los Angeles Clippers owner, made racist comments to his girlfriend, warning her to stay away from Black men, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and their teammates entered their playoff game with their warm up jerseys inside-out in protest. Cleveland officer Michael Brelo was cleared of charges after he stood, Rambo-style, on top of a car, and fired bullets into the windshield, killing a Black couple. When Brelo was found not guilty of manslaughter in 2015, LeBron James told protesters that “violence is not the answer,” and urged them to instead turn their energy into excitement for the Eastern Conference playoff games. Yesterday, James tweeted “FUCK THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT.” And last night, the Los Angeles Clippers and James’s team, the Los Angeles Lakers, voted to boycott the NBA season.
NBA players realize racism is always in season. And they are fighting back.