Where Do NBA Players Go From Here?

A conversation about how the athletes might continue their activism after striking.

Bucks and Celtics kneel on the bubble court by the Black Lives Matter logo.
Members of the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics kneel before their game on July 31, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Ashley Landis/Pool Photo via USA Today Sports

Late Wednesday afternoon, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and police brutality against Black Americans. The rest of the league soon followed the Bucks strike, canceling the night’s slate of playoff games, as did teams in the WNBA, MLB, and MLS, and professional tennis players like Naomi Osaka. The NBA’s players—confined in their Orlando coronavirus bubble—called an emergency meeting Wednesday night to decide next steps. In that meeting, LeBron James, along with his Los Angeles Lakers teammates and the Los Angeles Clippers, reportedly favored canceling the postseason entirely to continue the protest. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported late Thursday morning, though, that the players decided to resume the playoffs. At the time of this writing, it’s not clear when games will restart.

Twelve hours before Wojnarowski’s report, the panelists for Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen convened to memorialize a night that was unprecedented in our lifetimes. The ensuing discussion about this fast-moving story reflects what was known around midnight Thursday, when the conversation was recorded. A portion of that conversation is transcribed below; it has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Joel Anderson: I don’t want to be one of those, “I love this league,” guys, because I think it’s really easy to oversell the NBA’s bona fides when it comes to social activism or whatever. But I do think it says something that the WNBA and the NBA—which had the Blackest labor forces in professional sports—have been so much further ahead on these issues than the rest of our country’s institutions on pretty much almost everything in 2020. And that’s [including] its handling of the coronavirus, because I think we all remember another night when the world stopped, March 11, when the NBA suspended its play. And I think it signaled to the rest of the country that this is really serious.

And so here we are several months later and the NBA has said, “Things can’t go on the way that it is right now.” And I should be more precise: It’s not the NBA, it’s the NBA players that have said, “Things can’t go on the way that they are,” and so we want to draw attention to this. And I know that people probably are cynical, maybe skeptical that this might have any real effect on what’s going on in our world. But I think that there is value in gestures and saying that, “Hey, this is really important to us, and it should be important to you.”

At a really basic level, for myself, I’m really tickled that people who don’t care at all about Breonna Taylor or George Floyd or Jacob Blake—or worse, people who derive some sort of sadistic pleasure from their plight—have had something taken from them, even if it’s just basketball for a few nights, [and] that they have to think about it and don’t get to enjoy a night of basketball. I think it’s good that things stopped for a minute.

Stefan Fatsis: I think it was good that things stopped for a minute and that when the NBA went into this weird season, this resumption of play in the bubble in Florida, a lot of the conversation initially was, “How do we keep momentum going? How do we continue to draw attention to social justice issues?” Kyrie Irving, who was not playing in the bubble, actually, suggested a boycott. That was the word that he used and the media used then. This is really a strike or a walkout, what happened on Wednesday. This started in the bubble with the desire to draw attention after the death of George Floyd and [to] the Black Lives Matter movement, and this continued focus on social justice.

This obviously isn’t what anyone wanted, another Black man shot by police. And yet, this is what is propelling the NBA players forward and the WNBA players and players in other sports. And I think really, Josh, the significance here from a sports perspective is this unity, this snowballing effect where what these basketball players are doing is affecting other players too, and other athletes.

And you mentioned the WNBA and baseball, which called off some games. Naomi Osaka, the tennis player, said she would not play on Thursday and that’s turning into a full day off, it seems like, from the tennis event that’s taking place in New York right now. There were Major League Soccer games also canceled. This is demonstrating the power of athletes to draw attention to an issue that’s larger than all of them.

Josh Levin: What’s happening now among the NBA players in the bubble is, I think, a search for unanimity. There is a form of unanimity happening in sports right now where the boycott is spreading, the postponements are spreading. But in this meeting, based on the reporting we’re seeing, it seems like there are healthy differences of opinion around whether the Milwaukee Bucks—who didn’t come out on the court for their playoff game against Orlando Magic on Wednesday—should have clued in the other teams. The Magic were out there warming up. There was clearly no advanced warning given to them. There’s reporting that Jaylen Brown of the Celtics said, “No, the Bucks didn’t owe us anything, didn’t owe us any kind of explanation.” Other people, I think, had a different opinion there.

There’s reporting on the Lakers and the Clippers, apparently, being the teams that voiced the most interest in just canceling outright and leaving the bubble and not finishing out the season. There’s some question about whether that was the definitive vote or more of a poll. I think we’ll find out more about that on Thursday.

But Joel, it seems like they’re just going to be circling back on Thursday to come out with a single voice and a single message. And it seems like a lot of that will be calling on the owners of these NBA teams and calling on the league to do more than what the league has been doing so far.

Anderson: Yeah. And I mean, who knows what that will look like, right?

Levin: Yeah, what might that look like?

Anderson: That’s a fantastic question. I’m sure they’ve come up with ideas. I mean, the DeVos family, they own the Magic, right? Betsy DeVos is our education secretary. There’s an assumption that probably these owners have political connections that even these players don’t have, and then maybe they can press them for some sort of action. And that’s actually what’s really fascinating about this, because I think a lot of people think that BLM as one movement. But it’s sort of an umbrella organization, and it encompasses a lot of different people with a lot of different aspirations and goals for what the movement should look like.

And so you see some people that think that just using your platform, so to speak—just playing and being there and seeing Black Lives Matter on the floor is sufficient. And there are other people that think direct action things, like participating in protest and funding voter registration efforts like LeBron has been doing, or going on strike are appropriate ways to express your activism, right? So, it could obviously go a lot of different ways. And I think that’s sort of the fascinating thing because we’re seeing it evolve in real time.

And also, I mean, tomorrow, they’re also going to hit up against the realization that if they go through with this, let’s say that they decide not to play, it is going to have significant financial implications for them. This is not just “virtue signaling” or whatever the parlance of the internet would be. This could have significant financial stakes for everybody involved.

Fatsis: I think that’s a really important message, that this isn’t just some token protest. The things that we criticize athletes for: “Oh, they make too much money. Oh, they’re coddled. Oh, they get everything.” They’re actually risking something here. And you can put that down and say they’re already millionaires, but that’s not fair. This is tangible. And in terms of what they want or might do, well look, the Milwaukee Bucks got on a conference call today with the attorney general of Wisconsin and the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, according to reporting by ESPN. That is a flexing of power. That’s actually making a direct connection with people who make decisions about police security, about the way you say things publicly, about how you message to the public. I mean, those are actual things. So this isn’t just standing in front of a microphone and saying Black lives matter; the players clearly have something bigger on their minds.

Levin: I think another thing to call out here is that, even moreso than the NFL players and the league became a target, when Colin Kaepernick kneeled, the NBA players are making a conscious decision to make themselves the locus of energy and attention, both positive and negative. Because there are a lot of conversations going on about this tonight, that don’t sound like the conversation that we’re having. And I think the NBA players, I’m sure they’d be happier if everyone in America supported what they’re doing and what they’re saying. But they ultimately have decided that they don’t care. And that this is what it looks like. And Joel, you mentioned the demographics of the league. This is what happens when you have a lot of incredibly powerful, but also angry Black men who are setting the agenda and deciding what message they want to deliver. And a lot of America, white America, doesn’t like what that looks like and sounds like. And so it’s brave for the players to do that, but there are obviously going to be repercussions for it.

Anderson: Who just knows what sort of like backroom discussions are going on, but there’s already a sort of perception out here that LeBron was the person that forced everybody down to Orlando in the first place.

Levin: That’s what makes this so fascinating though, because you know that some of the tweets coming out of the meeting were, “Lakers and Clippers vote they don’t want to play and LeBron exits the meeting.” And knowing what we know about why they’re in the bubble in the first place, Patrick Beverly said it months ago: If LeBron didn’t want there to be a bubble, there wouldn’t be a bubble.

Anderson: Right.

Fatsis: I mean, LeBron tweeted, “Fuck this man!!!! We demand change. Sick of it.” You know, you could read that two ways. I mean, yeah, “demand change, sick of what’s happening in society, but fuck this, being here and playing basketball while all this is going on too.” But I find it hard to believe that LeBron would sabotage it for the rest of the season. I could see them negotiating a pause in the playoffs. On the other hand, how much longer do these guys want to be trapped in the bubble? Was it George Hill that said that we shouldn’t have come here in the first place?

Levin: Well, Paul George is talking about suffering from depression and anxiety. I mean, I think what we saw here was, players were kind of already on a knife’s edge, at their breaking point, being away from their families, being in this weird and inhospitable environment for two months. And then the shooting happens, and it’s just collectively, “What the fuck are we doing here? Like, why are we doing this?” And that’s the kind of instant gut response.

You get the sense that the Bucks were talking to each other and it was a conversation. I wasn’t like a spur of the moment decision. So it was contemplated and was thought about. But they’re going to keep thinking about it. And it seemed like in this meeting, the one decision that was made was like, we need to keep thinking about this and how we’re going to approach it and what makes the most sense.

Anderson: Just to be a cynic here for a second, or to maybe be the pessimist. The thing is, is that the NBA can call off its games tomorrow. They can shut down the league and unfortunately, there’s nothing that they can do to prevent another Jacob Blake from happening. And so that’s something that they’re going to have to reconcile within themselves about how they want to approach their life and their career going forward. Because unfortunately, there are a lot of people that like the criminal justice system the way that it is, and they’re fighting really hard to keep it the way that it is. And as long as you have law enforcement agencies, and as long as they’re empowered to do what they want to do, these sorts of things are going to happen.

So what you’re talking about, the sort of change that they’re talking about is prosecution, or maybe reform. Working with police departments, sheriff’s departments, whatever. But ultimately the dynamics at play—largely white law enforcement agents policing Black people and Black communities—that is here. That is a foundational part of our country. That’s not going to change. And I admire them for standing up and making this stand and wanting to risk their careers and risk their public standing and everything else. But unfortunately, we’re going to have another one of these, and we’re going to have many of these before the year is over.

If I were in the room with them, I was like, “Can you live with yourself under these circumstances? What are you prepared to do? What are you prepared to give up? And what do you think the end game is going to be?”

Which is not at all trying to diminish the stand that they’ve made here, but just being a realist in this country: There’s nothing that they do in Orlando that is going to affect what happens in Kenosha, Wisconsin, three months from now. Something else is going to happen. Police officers have had this sort of discretion, and prosecutors have given them this sort of leeway to do this, and it’s just not going to change. So I don’t know why I said it like that, but it’s just something that has occurred to me as I’ve looked at the news reports all day long. You looked at all these grown men, and I saw Doc Rivers almost breaking down last night. And I was just like, man, I feel the same way. I feel the same sort of helplessness. And I’m like, man, this is really painful. And it’s just something that I know that I’m going to have to live with and that my family is going to have to live for the rest of my life. And you just kind of have to figure out how you’re going to navigate your life around that and just do the best that you can.

But I’m really proud of those guys, man. I never thought that I would ever see anything like this in the course of my life.

Listen to this special episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen in its entirety below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.