When the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play their playoff game against the Orlando Magic in outrage over the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Wednesday, the NBA — already maligned by some as being too political — took a giant step to the forefront on one of America’s most pressing social issues.
Fellow players and athletes from other American sports quickly hailed the historic action, forcing the NBA and other leagues to postpone games over multiple days.
But the crowd that already had ire for the league, including President Trump and his allies, mocked the NBA players, suggesting that their activism was hollow.
“I think the NBA players are very fortunate that they have the financial position where they're able to take a night off from work without having to have the consequences for themselves financially,” senior White House adviser Jared Kushner said Thursday. “So they have that luxury, which is great.”
While talking to the press later about Hurricane Laura, President Trump called the NBA a “political organization.”
“They’ve become like a political organization, and that’s not a good thing,” Trump said of the NBA, a league where the players are nearly 75 percent Black. “I don’t think that’s a good thing for sports or for the country.”
Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who controversially told NBA front man LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” in 2018, tweeted: “Good. Make it permanent.”
The NBA and its players had already shown strong support for the Black Lives Matter movement since it returned to action from its coronavirus pandemic-induced hiatus at the end of July.
Black Lives Matter is emblazoned on NBA courts in the Orlando “bubble” on the DisneyWorld campus where teams are playing, and players have put messages on their jerseys such as “Say her name,” “Education reform” and “Enough.”
The messages are intended to send a message about racial justice and ensure the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others Black people killed by police are not forgotten.
Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police when a white office knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville police while in her own home in March as officers enforced a controversial “no-knock” warrant. In June, Brooks was shot and killed by a white Atlanta police officer in Wendy’s parking lot.
The boycott Wednesday initially appeared like it might end the NBA season, but the decision to resume play appears to signal the NBA player interest in continuing to use their platform to push for change.
“We had a candid, impassioned and productive conversation yesterday between NBA players, coaches and team governors regarding next steps to further our collective efforts and actions in support of social justice and racial equality,” NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a joint statement.
The duo stated that teams within the playoff bubble were returning to play “with the understanding that” the league would work with teams to focus on a slate of civil and voting rights programs.
Scott Rochelle, president and CEO of National Basketball Retired Players Association, said that former players were “shocked” by the ability of current players to “effectuate that type of change.”
“Our players have been on the frontline on many social justice issues and they have been vocal their entire lives, but never have they been able to witness this type of immediate impact on the game of basketball.”
Rochelle added: “The player’s passion hasn’t changed, the access to power is what really is at the forefront right now.”
Former NBA player Kenny Smith — who in solidarity with the players walked off the set of TNT’s NBA pregame show which he co-hosts — pushed back against the idea that the players’ actions on Wednesday were political in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
“No. It shows you have power,” Smith told Blitzer, adding that players were citizens with voices. “Sometimes you have to wake people up with a cold glass of water.”
One of the new initiatives being put in place after the boycotts this week will see NBA arenas, currently sitting empty because of the pandemic, become polling sites in November.
Another by-product of talks is the establishment of a “social justice coalition” that will include players, coaches and state governors. The coalition will focus on issues like “increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform,” the statement from Silver and Roberts states.