The NBA Players Go on Strike Edition

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S1: The following podcast includes explicit language not restricted to words, beginning with F. S, B and Q.

S2: Hi, I’m Josh Levine, Slate’s national editor, and I’m recording this at two minutes before midnight. It’s about to be Thursday, August the 27th is a special edition of Hang Up and Listen with me in D.C., Stefan Fatsis and Stefan Hajaj. And from Palo Alto. Joel Anderson, good evening. So we’re doing this tonight, the special edition, because it feels like a night that we’re going to be talking about for a very long time. And we wanted to very quickly kind of tell you guys what we’re thinking and what we kind of feel is the important stuff that we wanted to memorialize about this night that’s unprecedented in our lifetimes. I think as far as, you know, sports league potentially shutting down, multiple sports leagues, potentially shutting down after the police shooting of Jacob Lake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. We understand that by the time you guys listen to this, what we’re describing as far as the facts on the ground might be out of date. But what we’re looking at right now is that there was a players meeting in the NBA. There was no resolution, but there’s discussion about ending the playoffs, ending the season. And this seems like it’s possibly going to get resolved on Thursday when there’s going to be another meeting for players and also a board of governors meeting for the NBA owners. So dull. Why don’t you start us off? Is there anything that I left out, obviously there that, you know, the WNBA called off games, baseball called off games, and this is happening throughout the entire sports world. But it’s kind of what are you thinking? What do you think is the place where we should be starting this conversation off?

S3: Well, there’s just so many directions to take it. And 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 and pretty much almost everything. And in twenty twenty. And that’s from its handling of the coronavirus, because I think we all remember another night when the world stopped, you know, March 11th when the NBA suspended its play. And I think it signal to the rest of the country that this is really serious. And so here we are several months later and the NBA has said, you know, 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, you know, 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’s it should be important to you at a really basic level. You know, for myself, I’m really tickled that people who don’t care at all about Brianna 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. You know, even if it’s just basketball, you know, for a few nights that they have to think about it and don’t get to enjoy a night of basketball. So that’s kind of why I met with it the night. You know, I don’t know if that’s like where you guys are with it this evening, but that’s sort of what came to my mind. I think it’s good that things stopped for a minute.

S4: I think it’s good that things stop for a minute and that what 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 use 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 the Black Lives Matter movement and this sort of continued focus on social justice. And 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 and other sports. And I think the really, Josh, like the significance here from a sports perspective, is this sort of this unity, this 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 Soccer, 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.

S5: And so 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.

S6: This the postponements are spreading. But in this meeting, based on the reporting we’re seeing, there’s a healthy, it seems like, differences of opinion around should the Milwaukee Bucks, who didn’t come out on the court for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, that’s how this all started. Should they have clued in the other teams? The magic were out there warming up. There was clearly no advance warning given to them. There’s reporting that Jaylen Brown of the Celtics said no, the Bucs did know anything, didn’t know 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 a definitive vote or more of a poll.

S2: I think we’ll find out more about that on Thursday. But, Joel, it seems like they’re kind of 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 these NBA teams and calling on the league to do more than what the league has been doing so far.

S3: Yeah, and I mean, who knows what that will look like, right? Because what what might that look like? That’s a fantastic question. And I I’m sure they’ve come up with ideas for, you know, all of these. I mean, the divorce family, they own the magic, right. Betsy, divorce is our secretary, education secretary. There’s an assumption that probably these owners have connections, political connections that even these players don’t have and that maybe they can press them for some sort of action. And that’s actually what sort of really fascinating about this, because I think a lot of people think that, you know, Blim think of it as is 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, you know, 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 or 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, like let’s say that they decide not to play, it is going to have significant financial implications for them. This is not just a, quote, virtue signalling or whatever the parlance of the Internet would be like this. This could have significant financial stakes for everybody involved.

S4: So I think that’s a really important message that there is this isn’t just some token protest that there’s, you know, 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 about police security, about the way you say things publicly, about how you message to the public. Right. 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.

S5: Yeah. And I think another thing to call out here is that even more so than the NFL players and the league kind of became a target when when Colin Kaepernick, Nield, the NBA players are making a conscious decision to make themselves kind of 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, you know, 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, you know, this is what it looks like. And Joel, you mentioned the demographics of the league. Like this is what happens when you have a lot of incredibly, you know, powerful but also angry black men who are kind of setting the agenda and deciding what message they want to deliver. And a lot of, you know, 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 they’re, you know, obviously going to be repercussions for it.

S7: Don’t you all wonder to like what this might mean for the NFL? Because, I mean, just earlier this week we had, you know, Jerry Jones saying that he didn’t want players, you know, kneeling during the national anthem, that maybe they were going there was going to be a compromise. And, you know, one of the players on the team, a defensive tackle on Dontari Poe, you know, said that what he planned to protest. And so they’re at a loggerheads there. So, I mean, it’s got me wondering, you know, all of these guys are having backchannel discussions tonight, you know. Right. Like these tax groups. And Zoome calls it just all over the place, man. And, you know, the NFL is involved in this. And I would. Do you all think it would mean if the NFL said, you know what, if a significant number of NFL players said, I don’t think we want to do this anymore, we’ve been having this conversation for six months.

S6: It’s like the NFL has been like in this cryogenic chamber, like it’s been in suspended animation where like we’re like, man, I wonder what would happen if the NFL was in season out. And it’s like, I guess the NFL is about to start. And, well, we’ll finally have answers to all of these questions.

S1: I mean, NFL players were tweeting today in support of what the NBA players are doing. One interesting to me point from today that also will spill into the NFL is that, look, what the NBA players did today was in violation of their collective bargaining agreement. They don’t have the right to do this. They don’t have the right to strike. They have put pressure on their owners to not oppose what they’re doing. They know that ownership can’t come out and penalize them, you know, call off the season and tear up the collective bargaining agreement. They’ve got the owners over a barrel here. And it’s not like it’s a labor fight here, but it is an awkward position for ownership to be in where they they are. They’ve been neutered in a way.

S6: And bet what’s going to happen is that the. That the owners are going to say all the right things this week and next week, no matter what the players do, they’re going to support them. And then three months from now, six months from now, a year from now, more quiet. I mean, I don’t know if how you can keep it quiet, but more quietly and in a moment when it would be, you know, a little bit easier to say it, they’re going to try to get their vengeance and get everything back and say everything that they would want to say.

S1: I don’t know how I can say. I don’t know. What do you think, Joe? I don’t see that happening.

S6: I think that this is a sign that they’re just going to let the players kind of cost the league a billion dollars.

S3: I think I think they’re going to they’ll have a legitimate reason to cry poor. You know, a guy like Tilman Fertitta, who, you know, probably is the only NBA owner that can qualify for a subprime mortgage. Right.

S8: So, yeah, all we did to get this bubble ready for you guys, this is how you repay us, right?

S3: Yeah. I mean, they’re going to I mean, they are going to suffer some severe financial consequence already. Right. And so so you could easily see them not necessarily saying we’re mad at you for costing us money for activism, but saying, well, hey, man, you guys knew what was at stake when this happened. And now we’re all going to have to pay the price and and drive a hard deal for those guys. I absolutely think that will happen like that is probably if they go through with this, that is probably the thing I’m most if they go through with canceling the rest of the season. Yes. Yes, absolutely.

S2: So so we’re all living in this moment right now and we don’t know what’s going to happen. And I guess that’s my question. What’s going to happen? Are they going to play it?

S3: I can’t imagine them not. Does that make sense? Yes, because even though they say that the Lakers and the Clippers don’t want to, I I mean, who just knows what sort of like back backroom discussions are going on? But there’s no there’s already a sort of perception out here that LeBron was the person that forced everybody down to Orlando in the first place so he can not be the guy.

S6: That’s what makes this so fascinating, though, because you know that some of the tweets coming out of the meeting were Lakers Clippers vote. They don’t want to play. And LeBron like exits the meeting and knowing what we know about why they’re in the bubble in the first place. You know, Patrick Beverley said it months ago. If LeBron didn’t want there to be a bubble, there wouldn’t be a bubble.

S3: Great. I right.

S1: 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 sort of 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, you know, we shouldn’t have come here in the first place?

S6: Well, 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 and in this weird and inhospitable environment for two months. And then the shooting happens and it’s just kind of collectively, what the fuck are we doing here? Like, why are we doing this?

S2: And that’s the kind of instant gut response. And the the boycott, it wasn’t like, you know, you get the sense that the Bucs were talking to each other and it was a conversation.

S6: It wasn’t like a spur of the moment decision. So they 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 about this and how we’re going to approach it and what the what makes the most sense.

S3: Just to be a cynic here for a second or to, you know, maybe be the pessimists, maybe that’s the better thing. The thing is, is that the NBA can call off its games tomorrow. You know, 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 for, you know, going forward. Because, you know, unfortunately, you know, 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, like that sort of change that they’re talking about is prosecution or maybe reform, working with police departments, sheriffs, 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 what is 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 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. And so I guess, you know what? I would like to if I were in the room with them, I was like, what? Can you live with yourself? If you if can you live with yourself under these circumstances? What do you like? 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 like trying to diminish the stand that they’ve made here. But, you know, just being a realist in this country, like there’s nothing that they do in Orlando that is going to affect what happens in Kenosha, Wisconsin, going, you know, like three months from now, something else is going to happen. Police 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 is this something that has occurred to me as I’ve looked at the news reports all day long, this has been it’s you know, you look at all these these grown men in Nassau, Doc Rivers, you know, almost breaking down last night. And this is like, man, you know you know, I feel, you know, I feel the same way. I feel the same sort of helplessness. 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 with for the rest of my life. And, you know, 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. And, you know, NBA athletes, WNBA athletes, Naomi Osaka and tennis, like I mean, to imagine to do with the Williams sisters went through in their life. And for a player of her stature to say, I don’t want to do this, knowing the sort of abuse she might face going forward, it’s just incredible to me.

S4: And I think it’s important to Joel to put this into some historical context. And if players feel helpless, they also are going to understand that they’re exercising power here. They’re exercising bigger power than they have to this date. You know, four years ago to the day on Wednesday was the first time Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem during a preseason game. And it has taken those four years to go from there to WNBA players wearing I can’t breathe t shirts to LeBron in the Miami Heat wearing hoodies. Howard Bryant on Twitter pointed out that after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, the police union in St. Louis called for the NFL to suspend St. Louis Rams players for making some sort of protest gesture when they come out onto the field.

S3: Stefan, for four years, four years later, Roger Goodell admits I should listened. Right.

S1: And now and now you’ve got an entire group of of of teams. All the teams still playing in the NBA during the playoffs, when the most people care about this sport saying we’re not going to play and the league being powerless to stop it and the world paying attention to it, that’s some genuine power. And even if it if it cannot stop what goes on in society, and it obviously can’t, as you so eloquently put it, Joel, it is a reflection of what athletes can do.

S4: And it’s going to be a message to athletes in other sports, including the NFL, which has been the most controlled sport of the professional leagues to college players who have been trying to assess what sort of power they have in covid and in in their amateurism status. Olympians who have been fighting for the right to protest during the games, athletes as of Wednesday, August twenty six, twenty twenty have more power than they ever did.

S2: You know the cliche about, you know, God, family and football or whatever, insert whatever sport you want to insert. I think we just can’t overstate the importance of the bubble here and how that’s affected players thinking. And you have to give up your family for this sport. And it’s a, you know, basketball. If we want to take that example, it’s a game. Yeah, but for these players, it’s their life. It’s what they have. It’s what they love to do. It’s what they’ve trained to do their whole lives. It’s also entertainment for people that like and respect them and people that don’t like and respect them. And so it’s not like you’re just going into the bubble just to. To entertain, you’re also doing it because it’s why you like to do and it’s because it is what you do, but it’s just so must be so emotionally complex to think about why am I here? And there’s no, like, one good answer to that question. Like, it makes some amount of sense that they’re there. In some ways it makes no sense that they’re there. But what they had to give up not being with their children and their parents and their spouses, not being in their communities, not being able to go to Kenosha or go to, you know, Atlanta or go to Minneapolis. And so this decision to not play either temporarily or to cut off the whole season. It’s just all kind of converging right now, and it’s like on the one hand and like I hope that I say this in a way that that comes out correctly because it’s it’s a complicated thing to say. It’s like. Obviously, you could not have expected there not to be another shooting of a of a black man, like it’s just going to happen. This is America. And so for the four players to be like, you know, how could this how could this happen again? We can’t play now. Like on the one hand, it sounds kind of naive. On the other hand, you’re like, OK, I totally understand where you’re coming from because this is happening while you’re in this bubble, when you’ve given up everything and then this happens. And why am I why am I here and and what can we do?

S3: Well, just think about it. I mean, last night, Doc Rivers, actually there was a whole arc last night where Paul George has this sort of redemptive game and then admits that he was struggling, mentally struggling, and he had to speak with a therapist, which made just made me feel so small. It made. And I think it should make a lot of other people feel so small because a lot of times we’re critical of athletes. And I mean, it’s it’s fair to critique an athlete’s performance, but a lot of times we don’t think of them as humans. And and the criticism of Paul George gets exactly at that, that it never probably occurred to anybody else that Paul George may have been struggling with something that didn’t have to do with basketball. Right. And he admitted that. And maybe, you know, there are probably a lot of people that say, oh, that’s an excuse or whatever. But it’s it made me feel small in the moment because even I had made jokes about playoff. But anyway. So you had that you had Doc Rivers give that emotional press conference speech to the media last night. We talked about being scared and being scared for his family members, and within that hour, you had that shooting in Kenosha, Bachao Rittenhouse, the 17 year old kid that killed a couple of protesters in Kenosha that night. And I could just imagine waking up the next day and it feeling of feeling different because not you’ve seen the shooting of Jacob Blake, but then you come up to that and you’re like, where the hell are we headed? Because like today, like from even for myself, I was like, man, where are we going? And I could understand them wanting to take a step back and reassessing whether this is all worth it and whether being away from their family is worth it and whether if playing basketball is enough of a platform, if that’s if that is if that is really meaningful in any sort of way, and if there needed to be something else to exasperate to to exacerbate, you know, the issues that they’re talking about. So, yeah, man, I don’t know. Stefan, I you know, I love basketball. Like we talked about it on Monday. I was like, I’m so glad that we had basketball back. But I’m like, right now I’ve gone from that to like, I’m glad we don’t have basketball right now.

S1: Yeah. I mean, the thought that I had on Wednesday afternoon was as this was sort of building through the course of the the late afternoon and evening. Was that. These guys just must be pissed, they’re tired, they’re isolated, they feel helpless, they probably don’t feel as if the everything they talked about going into the bubble was coming true. And there were more stories about fishing in a in the pond at Disney World than about social justice. And I think a lot of them probably just feel like we can’t perform and we shouldn’t perform, and and I think you’re right, John, we need to accept that. And I think that’s as important a message as almost anything that these are human beings. They’re not just entertainers and they’re frustrated.

S6: That’s a really good distinction to make. And this will be my idol. I’ll end with with these thoughts and then go around to you guys to get your your last words.

S8: But that the thing you just articulated there is something I hadn’t thought about, which is from a purely tactical standpoint, if the goal is to get the message out to as many people as possible, I think what they should do and they should not listen to me, far be it for me to tell anybody what to do. But I would say don’t play for a while and then play again. And then you’ll have everybody’s attention and you’ll have more people’s attention than if you just stopped playing at all. People move. You know, it would be maybe the biggest or one of the biggest sports stories in my lifetime. But you know what? People move on. Other horrible, crazy shit’s going to happen because it’s America 20, 20. But what you just said about not being able to perform and linking that up to what Joe was saying about Paul George, maybe it’s not just about how do we get the most people to hear this message right now? I think it’s partly that, but it’s also partly like we can’t do this right now. Like, we just physically, mentally and emotionally can’t do this. And why are we doing this? And it’s it’s also just to expand. It’s it’s not like what are we doing in this bubble? It’s like, what are we doing on Earth right now? It’s just like here it feels like too much to do this high pressure. It sometimes feels frivolous, sometimes feels like the most important thing in the world is job. And so, yeah, that’s kind of where I’m at. Just being caught between amplify the message and how can we do this right now just as people.

S1: And I think that that what you suggest, Josh, makes a lot of sense because it it it it neutralizes the criticism that. There they think there’s something more than just athletes if they walk away entirely. Yeah, it sends a powerful message. And like you said, it’s one of the biggest sports stories of our lifetimes, but it also delegitimizes their platform in some ways. They are basketball players. And, you know, Joe, we had a great time talking about what they do on Monday because it does make us all feel good and it makes them feel good. We talked about how it looked like they were having fun playing pickup basketball in Orlando. So the strongest message might be, we’re going to take a break. We are going to put some pressure on our owners. Maybe they break the bubble and come back in two weeks, you know, and re quarantine, I don’t know. But maybe it really does make sense to take a pause and figure out what you want to say, figure out what you want ownership and management to do, and then say we’re ready to come back and do what we are great at. And I also want to say that it’s we should not overlook the fact that how remarkable it is, how this spread so quickly to other sports. I mean, baseball. We had a conversation a few weeks ago about a black baseball player effectively being ostracized because he chose to kneel when no one else in the sport would support him. And now black players on the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday evening were the ones that led a decision for that team, not the Brewers, which Milwaukee. There’s a reason for them to stand up, to take action, but to walk out and not play tennis. I mean, unified action about, you know, about racism and from tennis players. That’s kind of remarkable, too. So this is a huge, powerful moment.

S3: I do want to just make sure that we acknowledge the sacrifices that WNBA players made as well, because they’ve been out front on this for a very long time and the NBA is actually catching up. But the NBA, you know, for all sorts of reasons that we already know, has the larger platform. Right. But the WNBA has been right there. But I think, you know, to kind of put a pin in it, we all started out talking about over the last few months whether or not we should even be having sports right now. You know, and that was because our country is a failure. You know, our country is is is is an absolute failure. And it’s in collapse right now because of a pandemic. But there are there other reasons why our country is a failure, too. And the last week has really highlighted that, you know, what’s in what’s happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin. And so I think that the NBA players are right to think about do we even deserve this? Does the country deserve entertainment, does it deserve frivolity right now? What have we done? And I think that’s something that we should all sit with. And I know that the NBA players are going to be. But if we get basketball back, just remember, we’re lucky. You know, we don’t really deserve it as a country right now. And if we get it back, it’s a gift. But I hope it doesn’t take our eyes off the reason why we didn’t have it for a little while in the first place.

S2: Thank you, Jill. Thank you, Stefan. Thanks, everybody out there for listening to us. And thank you to our producer, Melissa Kaplan, to listen to Pasha’s and subscribe. Or if you want to reach out, tell us what you think, go to Slate dot com slash, hang up emails and hang up at Slate Dotcom for Joel and Stefan. I’m Josh Levine, remembers Elmo and thanks for listening.