Sports Are on Strike—Here’s Why That’s a Big Deal

After the shooting of Jacob Blake, athletes across leagues are fed up

Nelson Mandela famously said “sport has the power to change the world,” and that’s never been more clear than as of late. On August 26, the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team refused to take the court for Game 5 against the Orlando Magic. ICYMI (or are just not Raptors bandwagon fan, which, fair), the NBA is currently in the middle of their playoff series, which are taking place in Orlando, Florida and have required all players, coaches, training staff and necessary employees to quarantine and remain in the NBA Bubble for the duration of the season. Within the bubble—which is meant to ensure that all those involved in the league can play and participate without the risk of contracting COVID-19—the NBA was able to restart its 2019/2020 season, with games resuming on July 30 and intended to run until finals in October.

But that may be about to change. In protest of racial injustice and specifically the August 23 shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin—a Black man who was reportedly breaking up a domestic dispute—the Bucks chose to not take the court, effectively ending the game before it started.

After news of their decision spread, the NBA postponed the three remaining games for the day. And then other sports organizations followed suit, with the MLB, MLS and WNBA (who have been politically engaged for *a long* time), choosing to do the same. Individually, players across the sports world chose to also withdraw from major matches. For now, many leagues in the sports world are at a standstill, and for an incredibly important reason.

So what happens next? Will the NBA resume their season? Will the NHL join the boycott and do more than their BS “moment of reflection?” Here’s everything you need to know about the current sports strike, what it means and where it could go.

Why did the Milwaukee Bucks decide to strike?

For anyone who’s been following along with sports over the past week—and the world at large over the past four months—the decision by the Milwaukee Bucks to strike didn’t come out of nowhere. The strike came on the heels of 29-year-old Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by police on August 23. According to Wisconsin Attorney-General Josh Kaul, officers were called to an address after a woman reported “her boyfriend was present and was not supposed to be on the premises,” per the BBC. After arriving, officers tried to arrest Blake, tasering and assaulting him. In video taken by a bystander, Blake is seen opening his car door, before a police officer grabs at his shirt and fires seven shots into his back. There are conflicting reports about whether or not Blake had a knife in his hand, but bystanders said they didn’t see one. Blake’s three children were in the car with him and according to reps for his family, Blake is now paralyzed from the waist down. In addition to this, on August 25, three people were shot by a 17-year-old white man while protesting Blake’s shooting.

It’s a horrific incident and, as we all know, a tragically common one. Blake joins an increasingly long list of Black men and women who have been killed or assaulted by law enforcement in the United States and North America. (The Bucks’ own Sterling Brown was also a victim of police brutality in 2018.) And despite the worldwide protests, nothing is changing.

In response to this latest brutality, on August 25, the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics players met to discuss potentially boycotting Game 1 of the series, with Raptors head coach Nick Nurse saying that some players had even considered leaving the NBA bubble. In the days prior to the strike, several players within the bubble refused to answer any basketball-related questions in press conferences, instead only speaking to Blake’s shooting. Responding to a question from journalist Taylor Rook, Raptors guard Fred VanVleet spoke about the mental and emotional toll the recent shooting and ongoing violence was having on him and other players, saying: ”It’s a lot to take in. I think we can’t underestimate the trauma that we take in on a daily basis from our phones and watching these videos. You watch a guy get shot in front of his entire family, and then right underneath that video is somebody saying, ‘Well, hey, he should have just listened to the police.’ You take all that in, whether you register it or not, whether you realize what you’re looking at or not. You’re taking that in.”

In a statement to the media on August 26, after the announcement that they would be sitting out Game 5, the Milwaukee Bucks said: “Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protesters. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.

“When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement. We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable.”

What happened after their announcement?

A few hours after the Bucks’ announcement, the NBA and their players association announced that they were postponing  and rescheduling the remaining games originally planned for August 26. Shortly after that, several Major League Baseball, teams including the Milwaukee Brewers and Seattle Mariners, chose to sit out their games in solidarity. This was followed by Major League Soccer, which announced they’d be postponing five matches the same day.

At the individual level, tennis star Naomi Osaka announced that she would not be taking part in an August 27 semi-finale match at the Western & Southern Open in New York. (On August 27, Osaka announced that she would in fact take part in the match, which had been rescheduled to August 28—alongside all other matches in the tournament.)

Initially, the National Hockey League—in keeping with their history of being actually terrible—only held a “moment of reflection.” On August 27, the NHL announced they’d be postponing games in solidarity with the NBA and in support of Jacob Blake.

What are the players asking for?

It’s simple: Just justice. In their statement to the media, the Milwaukee Bucks outlined that just as they are asked to go on the court and play to their highest selves and hold each other accountable, they’re asking lawmakers and law enforcement to do the same thing. “For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform,” they stated. The players also encouraged all American citizens to “educate themselves, take peaceful and responsible action and remember to vote on November 3.”

What does striking accomplish?

While many online and IRL are proud of these NBA, WNBA and additional players for taking a stand, a quick glance at the comments on Twitter shows that—as with anything—there are those who love to troll and say that sports shouldn’t be political (FYI, sports are and have been *incredibly* political for a long time), with certain people stating that striking won’t accomplish anything. But, with everyone talking about it online and on TV—on some of the biggest platforms in North America—it already *is* accomplishing something: conversation. As many people online pointed out, the strike was prompting necessary and unprecedented conversations on-air between news and sports casters about race relations in North America—and that’s only going to continue. “I think what was really cool is that a lot of those outlets that would have been showing the MLB games, NBA games, WNBA games and the tennis tournament really had to flip their script and focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, focus on Jacob Blake and focus on what all of these players were doing,” says Ellen Hyslop, co-founder of The Gist, a female-led sports media startup. “The players’ protest forced more airtime to be on the movement and Black Lives Matter,” she continues, “and hopefully got the message out to a lot of people who needed to hear that and realize what was going on.”

And she thinks it’ll only be more effective in the long run—although only time will tell. “A strike like this is definitely effective,” she says. ”I’m sure that we’ll see some of the social numbers and the ratings numbers come out over the next few days and weeks in terms of what different types of hashtags were trending, how often people were speaking about Jacob Blake, how often people were talking about Black Lives Matter, how often people were talking about the NBA and all their initiatives. There’s certainly an impact.”

Why is this a big deal?

Whether or not the strike will ultimately be effective in eliciting IRL change remains to be seen, but regardless what’s happening in sports right now is a pretty big freakin’ deal—for one, because it’s completely unprecedented in terms of its scale. “This is something that I’ve never seen in sports in my lifetime,” Hyslop says, noting how several leagues are participating. “You’ve never seen something that’s united so many leagues and so many players to be a part of it.”

Which isn’t to say that political movements are an anomaly in sport; far from it. Activism and politics in sport dates back into the 1950s and ’60s. In 1986, African-American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously performed the Black Power salute while on the podium at the Mexico City Olympic Games, protesting the treatment of Black people in America. In 2010, The Phoenix Suns wore “Los Suns” jerseys to protest harsh immigration laws and show solidarity with Mexican migrants, and in August 2016 San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem. Sports have always been political, but this is the first time a movement has been so widespread across full teams and leagues.

Another reason this is such a big deal? It hits big organizations and networks where it hurts: the bottom line—which means that they’re probably much more likely to listen. According to a July 1 article by Reuters, setting up the NBA Bubble and re-starting the season was no small (or inexpensive) feat, costing the league over $150 million. This includes—among other costs—daily COVID tests, treatment and quarantine associated with positive tests, meals, security, transportation, sanitation of facilities including practice gyms, and staging of games at multiple stadium sites. Per Reuters, by playing games without fans present, the NBA projected a loss exceeding $1 billion in revenue related to ticket sales. In this scenario, the NBA, advertisers and TV stations need money—and basketball players and games are their capital. As the New York Times points out, the playoffs are “disproportionately valuable” for TV stations compared with regular season games, and cancelling the playoffs would have a huge financial effect.

As Jack Hamilton so powerfully wrote in an August 27 article for Slate, this is a labour 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.”

And what should we call it?

Which brings us to the next question: Is this actually a labour strike or a boycott?

While initially, NBA players were referring to their decision as a “boycott,” several people—including U.S Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez–have noted that it’s indeed a strike, as the players are withholding their labour without asking for money.

Per the LA Times, what’s happening right now is technically coined a “wildcat strike,” because “despite [LeBron] James and other players referring to the actions as boycotts, the traditional definition of the term revolves around an organized effort to hurt an entity financially in order to drive change or attract attention. That doesn’t fit this situation. The players aren’t trying to damage their employers—or affiliated entities like sponsors or television networks—but instead want to draw attention to the Blake shooting and social injustice.”

It’s an important distinction, because as AOC tweeted, it not only shows the player’s power as workers, but also emphasizes the fact that this movement is purely in service of justice—and not for any other agenda or attention.

So, why did this start with basketball players?

While the strike and call for accountability is now spreading throughout the sports world, there’s no overlooking the fact that it began with professional basketball players who chose to not just “shut up and dribble,” like they’ve been told, but rather not dribble and speak out. As Refinery29 Canada writer Kathleen Newman-Bremang pointed out in a tweet thread, it’s the players themselves that have initiated this, not the NBA.

So we should give them credit, especially because players in the NBA and WNBA have been speaking out on these issues for a long time now, a factor that makes the strike stemming from this organization—and specific sport—not so surprising. “The NBA and the WNBA, and I think basketball as just a sport, is so much more in tune with culture and what’s happening and what’s happening at its roots,” Hyslop says. “When you look at both the NBA as well as the WNBA, they have the largest Black population of athletes in comparison to other major leagues, which I think is very important in something like this and why they’re leading the charge.” And while this movement is on the shoulders of the players themselves, another reason they are able to do this work is in part due to the support of the leagues in them speaking out. Hyslop points to the NFL and their blackballing of football player Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem (something he did four years to the day of the Bucks’ strike). “It’s completely different with the NBA and the WNBA,” she says. “The commissioners are completely supportive of having ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the court, having ‘Black Lives Matter’ on their jerseys [and] having messages of support on the backs of their jerseys. So I think it’s the combination of the players doing all these amazing things and speaking out and being so tied to culture and representing the Black community and population; but then it’s also feeling so safe and secure and supported by the league.”

Will the NBA and other organizations resume play?

When the NBA and other leagues resume—or whether or not they decide to resume at all—still remains to be seen. On August 26, NBA players held a meeting to decide whether or not to continue with the season. Interestingly, the LA Lakers and Clippers were the only teams who voted to not resume the season.

On August 27, the NBA released a statement saying they are hopeful games will resume on the following day and the Toronto Raptor’s announced that Game 1 against the Boston Celtics—scheduled for later that day—was postponed.

Regardless of what happens next, there’s no denying that change is needed, and athletes (along with many in the rest of the world) are fed up. “I think it signifies that change is needed, and I think that it signifies that all of these teams and players are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Hyslop says of the strike, referring to similar comments made by TSN journalist Kayla Grey. “And I think that the timing of what they’re doing is also really important, especially considering that there’s some major votes coming up that are statewide and local, and then there’s also a major national election coming up. And so everything that’s happening now is also encouraging a lot of people to vote at the local and regional levels as well as at the national levels. And, I think that everything that they’re doing is just trying to spark change and change in the right direction—and saying that enough is enough.”

So, let’s get justice for Jacob Blake and let’s get justice for Breonna Taylor—because it’s long overdue.