hen the National Basketball Association’s players walked off the court en masse last week to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the move was so unprecedented that writers couldn’t decide on what to call it. Was it a “boycott”? A plain old “strike?” Or, more specifically, a “wildcat strike”?
The semantics are less important than the substance. As ESPN’s Domonique Foxworthy recently pointed out, “kneeling doesn’t make anybody uncomfortable anymore.” The NBA was already the league’s most overtly activist league, but the post-Kenosha climate forced its (predominantly Black) players beyond symbolic gestures to a standoff that’s rolled up corporate bottom lines, the largest social justice movement since the civil rights era, and a presidential election into a debate so hot-button it’s practically nuclear. The tense 48 hours that followed the beginning of the strike saw players threatening to end the already precarious playoffs, accosting the head of the players’ union, and consulting with former President Barack Obama on the uncomfortable realpolitik of social justice in Donald Trump’s America.
After all that, the players secured a series of concessions that include a new league-sponsored “social justice coalition,” an agreement that team and arena owners would work to convert their stadiums into “mass-voting locations” this November, and the production of new ads “promoting civic engagement in local and national elections and raising awareness about voter access and opportunity.”
Such measures aren’t just PR sops meant to placate the “shut up and dribble” crowd. The world of sports broadcasting is notoriously gun-shy when it comes to politics — even when those expressions of political belief are symbolic rather than electoral. All of which makes what NBA players have accomplished here unprecedented.
As the coronavirus pandemic and voter suppression tactics threaten to depress turnout in the very cities across America that have been rocked by the violence and injustice, the NBA will expand voting access and participation. The stadiums that will double as polling stations aren’t just in safely blue states, they’re in places with down-ballot and Electoral College ramifications—Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia.
In light of the strike’s shocking nature and its just-as-shockingly quick resolution, it’s easy to miss the elegant genius of what it accomplished. For all their carping about voter fraud, Trump and his Greek chorus in conservative media are hard-pressed to argue against measures to promote in-person voting. Or, now that players are back on the court, to complain about spoiled millionaires hypocritically shirking their duties while the poor, average fan suffers through quarantine with nothing to keep them company but Formula 1 on tape delay.
The NBA playoffs resumed seamlessly this week, but the decision wasn’t without its critics on the left—specifically with regard to the influence of Barack Obama, the Bernie-verse’s bugbear of perceived half-stepping. When the news broke that Obama counseled players to return to the court with concessions, responses ranged from “are you fucking kidding me” to jokes about Larry Summers and Richard Branson to the evergreen, sarcastic “thanks obama.”