By Nia Satterfield Brown ’21
Four years ago, former San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick gained fame and praise for kneeling during the national anthem during a game to protest police brutality and social injustice. Strikingly similar to Kaepernick’s actions, the Milwaukee Bucks made the decision to boycott Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Orlando Magic. Their decision was the first of many strikes that came in the coming hours and days with professional sports organizations including the NBA, WBNA, MLB and MLS participating in a historic protest. The Bucks’ decision to not play was in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old African-American man who was shot seven times in the back by officers in Kenosha, WI on August 23, 2020.
The players have emphasized that they are humans before they are players. Their Blackness can neither be ignored nor dismissed for the satisfaction of watching the game. In refusing to play, it is clear that Black Americans—in this case, NBA players—are tired. They are tired of seeing names turned into hashtags and tired of the lives of Black people being completely disregarded. Since the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, players have worn jerseys with statements and names of victims of police brutality in solidarity, written Black Lives Matter on the courts, have kneeled during the anthem. Despite these efforts, there had been no real acknowledgment around the importance of the issue, thus the players made the bold and critical move to halt play. It is painstakingly clear that all these players want is for America to have the human decency to put social justice, namely for Black lives, at the forefront of the conversation.
A quote from the statement the Bucks released on August 26 read: “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 protestors.”
The statement continued, “Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.” Importantly, this message was read by Sterling Brown, the Milwaukee forward who is also a victim of police brutality. In January 2018, Brown was tackled and tased by police officers over a parking violation.
Within hours, events across sports and around the world were boycotted, postponed, and canceled.
It was crucial for these players to take a stand because their actions are seen by millions. The return of basketball was joyful and served as a distraction from the saddening months and news of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, these players could not just play basketball and ignore what was occurring outside of the Walt Disney Bubble. They grasped the attention of their fans—the majority of them part of white America—and sent a powerful message that social justice is imperative. They demanded their white fans to see them not just as players, but as Black men—not just as tools for their entertainment, but as people who are mentally exhausted and determined to fight for change.
Athletes’ use of their large platforms to stand against injustice supports the point that all Black Americans want is equality. We want to be seen and heard by white America and not experience the constant pain of racism.
We don’t want to fear that stepping out of line in any way is a death sentence. Each incident of police brutality that is “resolved” with impunity only normalizes the idea that it is okay to brutalize African-Americans and reinforces the violence as a racial control mechanism to overpower us.
Though the halting of sports only lasted a few days, with NBA players and other members of professional sports agreeing to return, it is not without acknowledgment that should the intolerance continue, these athletes will do more to manifest their support for social justice.
These athletes have expanded the dialogue, and now it is time to take action. It is unclear if America will hear our calls for justice, but they will undoubtedly listen to the silence that is sure to come through sports if this country does prove that it values the lives of its Black citizens.