LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.—NBA players will be back on the floor, perhaps as soon as this weekend, with the rank and file, after an emotionally charged 24 hours, deciding that staying in the bubble and using their platforms to push the social justice message was stronger than any statement they could make by going home.
It’s what they can do.
At this point, it’s all they can do.
What happened Wednesday was powerful. It was a statement. The NBA has not had a playoff game postponed since 1992, when the Rodney King riots raged through Los Angeles. Before that, 1968, when the nation mourned the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For 24 hours, the eyes of the country were on the NBA. On the players. On the issues they were fighting for.
Yet in the hours after the league shut down, more than 100 bleary-eyed and emotionally drained players gathered in a ballroom and asked: What’s next? Did they want to go home? Jaylen Brown, a union vice president, asked why they wanted to go home. To Brown, sources familiar with the meeting said, leaving because they wanted to continue the fight elsewhere was acceptable. Leaving to escape the bubble was not.
Did they want to stay? And if they did, what needs to happen to make the decision to sit out Thursday’s games anything but symbolic? The Bucks' decision to sit backed players into a corner. Play Thursday, and what was accomplished? Play Friday, and was the attention gained from two days without basketball worth it?
For hours on Wednesday, players demanded action. But what? And from whom? The Bucks got a spotty cell phone call from Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul. They wanted information on how Kaul would proceed with prosecution of the officer who shot Jacob Blake, the 29-year-old black man who was shot seven times by a Kenosha, Wis., police officer on Sunday. Kaul proceeded to politically weaponize the conversation, blaming a pair of state legislators for not doing enough. Players spoke of the need to do more for voting rights and police reform, though to several people in the room it was unclear how.
Players want more from owners, but owners are doing more. They signed off on social justice messages on the backs of jerseys and kneeling during the national anthem. They are committing $300 million over the next decade to boost economic growth in the black community. They have publicly stood by players every step of the way.
Could they give more money? Possibly, but is there a dollar figure that would be enough? On social media, there are calls for team owners to stop supporting police unions. To stop contracting with police departments for arena security. To commit to fight against Donald Trump, a symbol of racial division to many NBA players.
But what if owners think differently? On some issues, I do. I cringe at some of the antipolice rhetoric. There are awful officers out there, many, too many, and Rusten Sheskey, the Kenosha officer who determined firing seven times into the back of an unarmed man was an appropriate use of force, is one. But to me this is about training, not defunding, about weeding out unqualified officers before they get to carry a gun and not demonize the countless others who do it for the right reasons.
I shudder at the behavior of President Donald Trump, and often struggle to understand the people who support him. I share a popular opinion that the country will be better off when he’s gone. But does every NBA owner need to? Is there a questionnaire that must be answered before investing billions in a franchise? It would be tremendous if each owner committed a sizable percentage of their income to fight racism, to support Black communities. If they denounced Trump and what he stands for. If they banded together to lobby politicians for change.
But making it a requirement for NBA ownership? Mandating it to finish the season?
That’s a slippery slope.
The Toyota Center will become a voting center in October, and this, this is something NBA owners should be getting behind. The Hawks have turned State Farm Arena into a polling place, the Pistons have done the same with their practice center. There’s no reason others can’t follow suit. LeBron James is among the leaders in the push for voter turnout, and NBA teams can advance that cause by turning cavernous arenas into climate controlled voting booths.
Players are hurting. Any good feelings felt after a month-plus spent advocating for social justice have washed away. Players wants answers, but there aren’t any. Players want help, but change comes in only small increments, and there is only so much NBA owners can do to alter that.
Right now, NBA players' power is in their voices. The cameras are rolling. The world is listening. They want justice for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT who was shot and killed by police in her own home last March. But what is justice? The officers involved with Taylor’s shooting have not been charged, and, chances are, they won’t be. Legal analysts like The Marshall Project have suggested any criminal prosecution of the officers involved will go nowhere. They had a no-knock warrant, which, while controversial, was legal. They were fired upon. They didn’t need to spray the apartment with bullets, eight of which caught Taylor. But it would be difficult, if not impossible, to convict them for doing it.
Justice is getting officers like this off the street, permanently, which means busting the powerful police unions that blindly protect them. Justice is going after no-knock warrants, lobbying for them to be banned nationwide. Justice is demanding police departments commit more time and money to training. NBA players can demand accountability from politicians and commitments that, if elected, they will be agents of change.
NBA players exercised their influence this week, and we quickly saw how strong it is. The WNBA shut down. The NHL playoffs, too. Nine baseball games were postponed, with more on the way. There is enormous power in players' voices. It’s up to them how to use them.