On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks shook the NBA when they refused to participate in a playoff game in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In an official statement released not long after the strike began, the team called for Wisconsin’s state legislature to implement policies to combat police brutality.
“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,” they said in the statement. “We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.”
The walkout rippled throughout the NBA — several other games were canceled Thursday in solidarity — and ultimately across the sports world. Players for the WNBA also backed out of their Wednesday night games. Three Major League Baseball games were canceled. Tennis star Naomi Osaka shared an impassioned post on Instagram where she declared that she would not participate in an upcoming semifinals match.
“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,” Osaka wrote.
It all felt unprecedented and historic, and in many respects it is. But we’ve been here before, and not just four years ago, when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in a peaceful protest against police brutality (a protest that ultimately led to his ousting from the NFL). There is a long history of protest in sports from athletes of all races. And in America, there is a rich history of Black athletes using their positions and platforms to critique and call out racism.
To see some people clinging to this idea that “politics have no place” in entertainment, and especially the sports world, is absurd at best and delusional at worst. On Twitter alone, there are countless screeds about how annoying and unnecessary this all is, how politics is “ruining” sports. First, call a thing for what it is. Be specific. “Politics” is a purposefully vague catchall term designed to obscure what we’re actually talking about here. It’s not just “politics” that these players are trying to call our attention to. It’s racism. It’s race. And race has always been inextricably linked with sports in America.
Race was present in sports when Jackie Robinson integrated the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and received antagonism and abuse at the hands of fans, rival teams and his own white teammates, who initially threatened to sit out games rather than play alongside him. Race was present when Muhammad Ali was vilified for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, especially after he famously said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. ... They never called me nigger.”
Race was present at the Olympic stadium in Mexico City in 1968, when track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists in solidarity with the Black Power movement during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And race was present in 1910, when controversial Black boxer Jack Johnson fought and defeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries, the “Great White Hope,” a win that sparked violent protests across the nation. I could go on.
There’s a Jack Johnson quote I heard once, in the documentary “Unforgivable Blackness,” which came to mind immediately this week as the flurry of outrage at Black athletes began: “It might seem that I, who have devoted nearly all the years of my life to boxing, am stepping out of my role when I presume to turn my attention to subjects far removed from the stern business of pugilism. But even a boxer must come into contact with life, and its many problems. He sees the high and low.”
And here’s another Johnson quote, in which he tells a newspaper reporter that no matter what else he may write about him, “just remember — that I was a man.”
These Black players are men. They are human beings. That’s what the “race problem” always boils down to, doesn’t it? Humanity. In everything that’s happened over the last several months since the death of George Floyd — indeed, in everything that’s happened over the last several decades — there’s been a constant need and desire for Black people to assert that they exist in the face of a system that denies, denies, denies.
What does it mean that a sports fan can root for a Black player, can recoil when a Black player is injured while playing, can invest in and admire their talent and their bodies, but lack empathy for those bodies outside the context of a game? Black athletes are not automatons whose only purpose is to entertain and offer an “escape” from the realities of racism in America.
Sports have often been used as a tactic for obscuring these realities. Larger-than-life figures such as LeBron James and Michael Jordan become emblematic for some kind of American promise — that if you work hard enough, you can achieve your way out of the trauma of white supremacy. Be grateful for the money and the fame. Entertain us. Shut up and play. It’s a comforting myth, one that breeds complacency.
It remains to be seen, as always, what will come of any of these recent gestures of protest. It’s been reported that NBA playoffs will resume on Saturday, with an agreement made between the league and players to convert certain arenas into polling locations come November. But there also needs to be room for Black athletes, artists and entertainers to be political, to be critical, to grow, to mess up, to educate, to organize, to withhold their talents in the name of their beliefs without immediate dismissal. Becoming a rich and famous athlete or entertainer does not mean signing away your right to feel angry or frustrated and to demand change.
People who disagree with these players’ actions because they ultimately do not believe that racism is a problem — or because they don’t care about Black lives — should just say that. But suggesting that these conversations are irrelevant or do not concern the athletes who choose to speak up and speak out? No. As long as Black players and Black entertainers exist, and as long as violence against Black life is normalized and even encouraged, sports will always be “political.”