Danny O’Neil: Athletes didn’t want to be our diversion on Wednesday
Sports stopped for the second time in 2020, and this time, it was a matter of conscience.
On Sunday, a 29-year-old Black man was shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis. On Tuesday night, amid a second night of unrest in that town, four people were shot, two fatally.
On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks did not take the floor for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, which was supposed to start at 1 p.m. That prompted the NBA and its players union to postpone the three games scheduled on Wednesday. The Milwaukee Brewers canceled their game against the Reds, and the Seattle Mariners voted not to play their game that was scheduled against the San Diego Padres.
The moves were initially described as a boycott, but that’s really not the best term. A boycott indicates a withdrawal of support, most often in a commercial or monetary sense. These were strikes. Players chose to withhold their labor, risking money and personal gain because they want something specific. They want changes to address the racial injustices that have been highlighted in the three months since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. Bucks players spelled this out in a statement: “Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”
The Milwaukee Bucks decided they didn’t want to be our diversion. Neither did the Seattle Mariners, whose roster includes the most Black players of any team in the league. They voted unanimously not to play, according to the statement Dee Gordon posted on Twitter:
“There are serious issues in this country. For me, and for many of my teammates, the injustices, violence, death and systemic racism is deeply personal. This is impacting not only my community, but very directly my family and friends. Our team voted unanimously not to play tonight. Instead of watching us, we hope people will focus on the things more important than sports that are happening.”
So what are they going to do now? Well, that might very well depend upon what we are going to do now.
The players who decided not to work on Wednesday night didn’t build the system that is producing the injustice that they’re objecting to. In sitting out on Wednesday, they were saying that they don’t want to provide us with entertainment while that system sits unchanged. How long they plan to sit out is up to them. How long it takes to change the system is up to us.
Professional athletes in our country enjoy some incredible benefits. The best football players have a pick of which colleges they want to go to. Baseball players can be minted millionaires straight out of high school, and the very best basketball players gain national notoriety early in their teen years. But for Black athletes in this country, this leads to a kind of dual existence in which they are wealthy and famous in the context of their sport yet off the field can be subject to the exact type of racial injustices that are at the center of the protests.
These players are taking a stand and sitting out over precisely the same issue that prompted Colin Kaepernick to take a knee, and cost him his career.
What do they want to accomplish? I think they’ve made that point very clearly. They want to see actual, actionable steps to change the way our country is policed. Specifically, they want a change to the way our communities police their Black members.
Is the fact that so many of America’s best athletes decided they weren’t going to play on Wednesday night going to change that? I don’t know. But continuing to play as if nothing had happened this week certainly wasn’t going to help spur that change, and I have both respect and admiration for the players who took a personal risk by withholding their labor because they didn’t want to carry on like it was business as usual.
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