For nearly a month, the WNBA and NBA have been holding games in a protected bubble without any coronavirus infections, leading the way as sports ever so slowly start to come back—hoping to give some sort of normalcy and respite for the country. But right now, as Black people continue to be shot, brutalized, and killed by police in America, it is not the time for respite or normalcy.
Last night, the Milwaukee Bucks were the first to announce they would not be playing in their fifth playoff game against the Orlando Magic, a game that could have ended their playoff series and advanced them to the next round had they won. Guard George Hill told the media the simple reason why the Bucks weren’t on the court: “We’re tired of the killings and the injustice.”
Protests have continued all summer across the country, following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and while these protests have led to widespread awareness of systemic racism and some reforms, police are still shooting and brutalizing Black people. On Sunday, Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back while unarmed, while his children watched from the car he was trying to enter. Blake is paralyzed from the waist down and faces multiple surgeries and other injuries.
Mystics players. Seven shots in the back. All WNBA games are canceled tonight. pic.twitter.com/mxrdbZ3Phj
— Matt Blitz (@WhyBlitz) August 26, 2020
The women of the WNBA made a stand as well, as members of the Washington Mystics appeared wearing shirts spelling the name Jacob Blake, with seven bullet holes drawn on the back, before taking a knee and then leaving their game in protest. They walked out of their game with Atlanta and subsequently all WNBA games were canceled. It quickly became clear that no teams would be playing.
It’s fitting that the Bucks, who are based in Wisconsin, the same state where Jacob Blake was shot, and where protests continue in Kenosha, were at the vanguard of refusing to play. Other teams quickly followed, with all playoff games for Wednesday night canceled. LeBron James, inarguably the most influential and famous player in the NBA, tweeted a succinct rallying cry:
FUCK THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT
— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 26, 2020
What the players made clear is that this wasn’t the time for games, quite literally. The wisdom of proceeding with the playoffs in a protected “bubble” has dogged players since this experiment began, as they worried that playing would remove the focus from the protests of systemic racism and the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on communities of color. Again, the Bucks’ Hill explained to reporters: “First of all we shouldn’t even came to this damn place, to be honest. I think coming here just took all the focal points off of what the issues are.”
All NBA and WNBA games were canceled in the wake of the Bucks and the Mystics’ protests. Then all the scheduled Major Leauge baseball games were canceled. The NBA players in the Orlando playoff bubble met with the players association to discuss if they would finish the playoffs, with the LA Clippers and Lakers (James’ Team) voting not to complete the season. Today the NBA board of Governors is set to meet to discuss if and how the remainder of the season should proceed.
And it should not proceed.
I understand that watching sports makes people happy and is a fun distraction from the absolute shit show that is the world and particularly the United States right now. But we don’t deserve a distraction. The country is literally on fire and drowning at the same time. Black people are living in fear of a deadly virus that disproportionally affects their communities and police brutality, all in a society that refuses to give them the simple understanding that their lives matter from the President on down.
The Trump-supporting teenager who fancied himself a patriot killed two people protesting Jacob Blake’s shooting and now the right and the white supremacist establishment are protecting and venerating him. That is screwed up in ways that are almost incomprehensible. And so yes, it is warranted and valid and needed for athletes, especially Black athletes, to take this moment to say “no, we won’t distract or entertain you while to refuse to treat us as human beings.” And it’s vital that everyone stand by them.
What’s going on in this country right now is bigger than playoffs, or movies, or vacations. We have to stop pretending that we can be normal. There is too much happening and too much at stake to go on playing games. If this leads to a general strike: good. And if this leads to reform, enlightenment, and change: even better.
These athletes are doing something extraordinary and incredibly brave by turning the attention where it needs to be. We owe it to them to listen.
Update: In a disappointing decision, 13 teams will resume play in the Disney Bubble to complete the playoffs.
(via The Washington Post, image: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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