Sports

The NBA Is the Opposition Party

A wildcat playoff strike demonstrates there’s more to politics than voting.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ empty courtside chairs
The Milwaukee Bucks’ empty bench is seen on Wednesday. Pool/Getty Images

California and the West are on fire, and have been on fire for a while now. It was possible (if you weren’t personally smelling the smoke) to lose sight of that fact Wednesday afternoon, with the news that the person accused of killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday night was a teenage loyalist of the president; and with the reports that, with 178,000 Americans dead of the coronavirus, the CDC had evidently pushed out new guidance discouraging people from getting tested in harmony with the president’s belief that less testing means less bad news; and with the forecasts predicting that a strengthening hurricane with an “unsurvivable” storm surge was going to slam into the Gulf Coast, under the watch of the president who has no interest in responding to disasters and no ability to do it.

And then the NBA, led by the Milwaukee Bucks and with LeBron James quickly joining in, went on strike. The players were walking out of their carefully rescheduled pandemic bubble playoff games to protest Kenosha, and to protest the months and years of police brutality and impunity that had led up to Kenosha, but their message was something even larger: This can’t go on. This won’t go on. We won’t go on with it.

“FUCK THIS MAN!!!!” James tweeted. “WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT.”

This is simple, compelling logic: Unprecedented times demand unprecedented actions. Outside the NBA bubble, the logic is just as simple, and a lot more simple-minded. The political world and the media that cover politics are driven by habit and lack of imagination to act as if the processes and outcomes of the American system basically make sense. You could wake up Wednesday morning to this tweet from Politico assessing the Republican National Convention:

And you could find that tweet alongside a flood of videos of a white teenager killing people in the street in Kenosha with an assault rifle, asynchronously interlaced with video of that teen or his fellow Facebook paramilitaries bantering with the Kenosha cops, accepting bottled water tossed out of a hulking police war truck as the Kenosha cops ordered Black Lives Matter protesters out of the street. Or video from after the killings of the shooter walking unrestrained through police lines and off into the night.

Or you could look at an Axios post assuring readers that “Trump could pull off another upset” and that “people in Trump’s orbit … feel the operation is becoming more disciplined, and is more centered around a message—that Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris embrace leftist policies, and won’t stand up to the violent excesses of the far left.”

By the time the convention’s third evening of programming got underway, it was no longer the main political event in the country. The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds had refused to take the field for their baseball game; so had the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners, and the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. Naomi Osaka announced she would not play tennis. The WNBA players refused to play. James was reportedly pushing the NBA to end the playoffs—one of his best, now-limited chances to add another championship to his long career—entirely.

The Democratic Party, having nominated the safest presidential candidate it could possibly think of, has been focused on fretfully running out the clock till the election, hoping its near-certain anti-Trump popular majority will be large enough to overcome the structural and tactical obstacles the Republicans are benefiting from or deploying. Yet here, in professional sports, was a political action that fit the scale and urgency of the crisis—a declaration that waiting was not good enough, that an election would not be good enough.

“If not now, when?” the All-Star turned broadcaster Chris Webber said, sitting beside an empty basketball court. “If not during a pandemic and countless lives being lost—if not now, when?”

This was the same league that effectively brought on the national pandemic shutdown, canceling games in March at the first sign of positive player tests while federal, state, and local officials were still dithering. Now the players themselves are taking command, risking their contracts and opportunities and a huge pot of playoff money. NBA stars have been fed up with the insults and misery of the Trump era from the beginning, when Stephen Curry and the then-champion Golden State Warriors refused to take the usual White House victory lap and, as the president tried to have a Twitter fight about it, James dismissed him as “U bum.”

But rejecting the insults and the violence was never enough. With the whole world spinning out of control, the NBA players recognized they had the power to bring their own part of the globe to a halt, and they did.

“We know it won’t end tomorrow,” Webber said. “We know that there’s been a million marches and nothing’ll change tomorrow. We know ‘Vote,’ we keep hearing ‘Vote,’ ‘Everybody vote.’ ”

He went on:

We get it. If Martin Luther King got shot and risked his life. Medgar Evers. If we’ve seen this, and all of our heroes constantly taken down, we understand it’s not going to end. But that does not mean, young men, that you don’t do anything. Don’t listen to these people telling you, “Don’t do anything, because it’s not going to end right away.” You are starting something for the next generation, and the next generation, to take over.

On Wednesday night, basketball players did something. On Thursday, the country will still be burning. Who will keep going along with it? Who will follow the NBA?

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