On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play basketball against the Orlando Magic in the NBA bubble, and in doing so may have set in motion a sea change in the social fabric of American sports. In the aftermath of the Bucks’ decision, news quickly arrived that the Thunder, Rockets, Lakers, and Trail Blazers would not be playing either. Around noon Thursday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the players will return to play, though as of this writing, no one knows when. Regardless, the force of this action will reverberate through professional sports for years to come. Once this is on the table, it doesn’t come off.
I have been watching sports for about as long as I have been watching anything and have never witnessed anything like what I saw Wednesday evening. We saw Kenny Smith walk off the set of TNT’s Inside the NBA in solidarity with players. We saw former player and current broadcaster Chris Webber ruminate with stunning emotion and eloquence on the congenital danger and terror of being a Black man in America. We saw Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown, all of 23 years old, speak with the precision of a veteran public intellectual about the structural and rhetorical forces that undergird and excuse anti-Black police violence. Most of all, we saw a labor action long anathema to American life—the wildcat strike—undertaken by some of the most famous athletes on the planet for political purposes, a refusal to perform their craft for a country so resistant to adequately addressing racism and anti-Black violence.
A defining feature of American sports is that a predominantly white management class and consumer base is dependent on the labor and talent of a workforce that is disproportionately Black. This is particularly pronounced in the NFL and NBA, where the players are roughly 70 percent and 80 percent Black, respectively. (Recent studies have found that the NBA’s audience is now majority nonwhite and plurality Black, although nowhere close to 80 percent.) College football and college basketball face a similar dynamic, with the crucial distinction that in those venues, players are not even paid. Commentators ranging from sports writer William C. Rhoden to historian Taylor Branch have likened the landscape of big-time sports, college and pro, to a plantation, and attitudes of white fans, media, and management have often reinforced this. One need only think back to the outrage of certain white NFL fans (most prominently the president) over the peaceful sideline protests of Colin Kaepernick and other players against police brutality. It’s a worldview that grants Black people the right to work and entertain, to “shut up and play,” but not to be full human beings or coequal members of the populace. It is not a stretch to say that this attitude is a bedrock of American racism.
What the Milwaukee Bucks did Wednesday is several orders of magnitude greater than any act of protest we have seen in major American team sports. With the simple act of refusing to work under present conditions, they brought an entire lucrative industry to a halt and have undoubtedly brought terror to some of the country’s powerful people. As many Wednesday were quick to point out, one of the Bucks’ owners, Marc Lasry, is a highest-echelon donor for the Democratic Party. The Orlando Magic, the team the Bucks were scheduled to play, are owned by the DeVos family. The NBA is a league run by billionaires, in a country in which billionaires wield obscene amounts of political influence. “But what do the players actually want?” people will ask, many of whom not remotely interested in the answer to that question. Well, for starters, they want more power in shaping the conditions of the country they live in. And now they unquestionably have that.
The fact that it was the Milwaukee Bucks who took this stand is crucial in several respects. The Bucks play in the same state where Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times; as Wojnarowski reported, in the wake of their decision the Bucks soon found themselves on a conference call with both the attorney general and lieutenant governor of Wisconsin. But the Bucks also have the best record in the NBA and are one of the two or three teams considered most likely to win this year’s bubble championship. They have the sport’s Defensive Player of the Year and presumptive repeat MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo. If the Bucks refuse to play, in other words, the general premise of this entire NBA playoffs is instantly invalidated. Along these same lines, on Wednesday night Shams Charania of the Athletic reported that, during a players meeting, both the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers—two other top contenders—voted to stop playing entirely, a stance apparently spearheaded by LeBron James. James, of course, is the league’s marquee star and was one of the most vocal advocates for the bubble in the spring and early summer. A LeBron-less bubble is the NBA’s nightmare scenario.
The bubble has thus far been a smashing success. The level of play has been terrific, the television presentation has deftly mitigated the absence of fans, and, most importantly, there have been no virus outbreaks. The bubble has functioned as a spectacular showcase for the league’s young talent, as burgeoning superstars like the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, the Nuggets’ Jamal Murray, the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, and the Mavs’ Luka Dončić have let fans and corporate sponsors know that the league is in good hands for years to come. For an extraordinary 20-ish hours, all of this was put in jeopardy, because the league’s players, a group of people to whom sports are more important than literally anyone else in America, collectively declared to all Americans that certain things are far more important than sports.
Most labor stoppages in major American sports have been the product of byzantine collective bargaining struggles that fans often don’t understand. Because of the fact that professional athletes generally make more money than the people who watch them, in these situations it’s been easy for management to demonize the players as greedy and lazy, narratives that certain corners of sports media are often all too willing to amplify. We have already seen Jared Kushner, a profoundly unaccomplished person, workshopping this take, but in this context it’s just incoherent, and if anything illustrates how unequipped so many are to even process what took place Wednesday: a labor action of enormous bravery and moral principle.
The British music critic Charles Shaar Murray once described American music history as defined by “the need to separate black music (which, by and large, white Americans love) from black people (who, by and large, they don’t).” I think about this quote a lot, and how sickly applicable it is to so many areas of American culture, sports perhaps most prominently. On Wednesday the Milwaukee Bucks made that need markedly more difficult to fulfill. No one knows where we go from here, but I expect it will be somewhere different than where we were.