It was a warm late summer afternoon in Bay Lake, Florida.
An Aug. 26 NBA playoff game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic is set to tipoff in the Hewlett-Packard Field House at 4:10 p.m. With the series at 3-1 in favor of Milkwaukee, Orlando had to pull off a major upset if they had any chance of keeping their postseason hopes alive.
Game time arrived, and the court was empty.
The Magic were already leaving the arena, while the Bucks remained in their locker room.
Less than an hour later, the NBA and National Basketball Player’s Association (NBPA) announced that the remaining two playoff games scheduled for that afternoon would be postponed. The Bucks had made the decision to not take the court in a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I’m happy that they did that because we are more than just entertainment,” said SUNY New Paltz Black Studies Professor Blair Proctor. “There is a historical context of Black folk just being entertainment.”
Three hours after the scheduled tipoff time, the Bucks came out of the locker room to face the media with a statement. All players wore shirts with messages advocating for racial equity and justice reform in light of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police five days earlier in Kenosha, WI. Point guard George Hill, wearing a black t-shirt with a Barack Obama quote about pushing for change, broke the silence with a pre-written statement.
“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,” Hill said. “We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment we are demanding the same from lawmakers and law enforcement. We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, it’s imperative for the Wisconsin state legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.”
The following day, the league announced once again that games scheduled for Aug. 27 would also be postponed until a later date. While many fans were supportive of the decision, some also questioned what more the league would do to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The players have a platform to make a huge impact, walking out caught a lot of attention,” said SUNY New Paltz men’s basketball third-year guard Brandon Scott. “Now how will they use that to make a difference?”
After the league’s second announcement, a conference call between league players, coaches and team ownership groups was held to discuss the NBA’s plans to support racial equity and the commitments the players want to see the league abide by going forward.
“I talked to my teammates, and we all said that the NBA should donate to causes, support Black Lives Matter and support Black businesses,” Scott said. “Also, with NBA players and their status as celebrities, they should talk to the people that govern their cities. The players are doing a great job about talking about these topics in interviews and what not.”
A press release by NBA Commissioner Adam Sterling and NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts detailed the resulting initiatives, such as creating a social justice coalition that focuses on topics such as criminal justice reform and civic engagement, allowing teams’ home arenas to be used as voting locations for the 2020 election and introducing advertisements to promote voting and community involvement.
The players agreed to resume games starting Aug. 29.
“If everyone gave up and said, ‘You know what? I’m not playing for the rest of the year,’ do you know how much change would occur?” Proctor said. “That’s a lot of money [lost].”
The actions and decisions led by the NBA’s players sent shockwaves throughout the sports world, inspiring other major American leagues to follow in their footsteps.
Three MLB games were postponed on Aug. 26 when players from all six teams involved chose not to play in light of Blake’s shooting, mirroring the NBA. The following day, seven more games were postponed for the same reason. WNBA players from six teams sat out their games on Aug. 26, with three more games postponed a day later. A poignant display by the Washington Mystics featured players wearing t-shirts that spelled out “JACOB BLAKE” with bullet hole designs on the back. Even in the predominantly white NHL, all eight remaining teams in the playoffs elected to sit out their games for two days straight in support of Black Lives Matter.
With walkouts and game postponements happening at the professional level in support of social justice, similar moves have the chance of trickling down into collegiate athletics.
“Walking out does seem realistic at the college level,” Scott said. “If it were to happen, Division One college football would make the biggest impact. It would be great if it was to happen in any sport.”
College athletics are no stranger to protests for racial justice either, especially in the late 1960s. One such incident in 1969 saw Black players on the Notre Dame men’s basketball team threaten to quit after being persistently booed by white students during a game. A year earlier, 14 Black players were kicked off of the University of Wyoming’s football team for wearing black armbands before a match against Brigham Young University, a Mormon university that supported the belief that perceived Black people to bear “the mark of the curse of the Ham.”
“White supremacy only understands the dollar,” Proctor said. “So if you hit them in the pocketbook, that’s the only way you’re going to get some type of change.”
With the Bucks paving the way in the fight for racial advocacy on a national stage, they inspired Black athletes in small communities across the country, including New Paltz.
“A couple of athletes of color, along with myself, are starting a group called New Paltz Athletes of Color,” Scott said. “There are many ideas that we want to put into motion, along with the Student Advisory Athletic Committee, that we plan on raising awareness for Black Lives Matter.”
Through open communication with players and league management, displays and initiatives advocating for social justice should no longer be taboo topics on any level of athletics.