The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Black athletes, social unrest is not a game, and this historic action is an urgent plea

The Field House on the Disney campus in Kissimmee, Fla., sits empty and quiet Wednesday after the NBA's slate of three playoff games was postponed following a protest of racial injustice and police brutality. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)
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For all its stealthy might, the novel coronavirus didn’t burst the NBA bubble. Police brutality did. Racism did. Heartless disregard for Black lives did. This is not a game; this is our reality. Our fear. Our pain. Our helplessness. And so there can be no games.

Basketball players — and all sports figures — are not toy entertainers, America. They do not exist in some imaginary world that can be turned on and off. There is no place for them to be stored away when inconvenient. They are people — part athlete, all human. To be Black and human is to know society can separate the former and dismiss the latter.

On Wednesday, professional sports in the United States — led by the NBA and including the WNBA, Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball — experienced a historic protest. It was not because rich players are the angry and ungrateful people that some unconcerned Americans portray them to be. Starting with the Milwaukee Bucks, six NBA teams stopped dribbling because too many fellow citizens would rather they shut up and watch a man get shot in the back without feeling a sense of desperation.

NBA playoffs come to halt: Games postponed after players protest social injustice

Black people — in this case, NBA players — have tried restraint. They have pleaded for justice. They have made appeals to the logic, morality and decency of others. Following the example of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, they have gotten on one knee, as prayerful as they are defiant, and made themselves vulnerable before a scrutinizing nation and its flag. They do it not for trouble but for the attention of an otherwise unresponsive cluster of White America.

In the aftermath of Jacob Blake's shooting by police in Kenosha, Wis., teams in the WNBA, NBA, MLB and other sports decided not to play games in protest. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ashley Landis/AP Photo via Pool/The Washington Post)

Still, they wake up and see video of police in Kenosha, Wis., shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back while his children were present.

Blake is paralyzed and still fighting for his life. In some twisted way, that makes him luckier than George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and every other Black person that police across the country have killed so coldly.

Celtics, Raptors discussed not playing before Bucks’ refusal to play led to NBA postponement

NBA players made a bold move Wednesday, and we’ll see what it means for the rest of the postseason and for the continuation of all sports. It is a tenuous time, and it should be. It seems you can use science and bubbles and pricey health measures to ward off the coronavirus, at least for a while. You cannot make Black people feel safe. It is impossible to do so without reinventing various American systems and approaches to policing.

Ponder how demoralizing that feels. Imagine the anguish. From that perspective, you should understand the NBA is not coming from a place of pure audacity. The players see no other way to make people feel this pain and this urgency.

“We’re tired of the killings and the injustice,” Milwaukee guard George Hill told Marc Spears of ESPN’s the Undefeated.

As NBA players weighed a boycott, Doc Rivers talks about being here before

They stopped playing because it is the most powerful thing they can do to express the seriousness of the problem. It should not be their burden. They have no power to change laws. Not many Black people do. There are not enough compassionate lawmakers of any race, apparently. But they do have the ability to get the attention of millions. Even if it means hurting the game they love and possibly triggering a catastrophe of financial and public support, they are willing to assume the risks.

Why? Because human ingenuity can insulate them from a virus that has killed nearly 180,000 Americans. But there is not enough human decency to create a bubble effective against racism.

Before restarting the season in late July, players grew worried that their return would be a distraction from the Black Lives Matter movement and all efforts to fight racial inequality. They felt it was wrong of them to leave behind the protesters in the streets and travel to a Disney campus to focus on basketball and help viewers escape from the grief and depression of 2020. They decided to come and compete with a caveat: Social justice must be at the center of the discussion.

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But they have encountered a heartbreaking reality: They can put messages on jerseys, write Black Lives Matter on the courts and articulate the most incisive comments about race, sports and equality. Still, despite their determination and popularity, their impact is limited.

“It’s amazing why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back,” Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said, trying to hold back tears. “It’s really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. We got to do better. But we got to demand better.”

I’ve known Rivers, the son of a police officer, for almost 20 years. He is a paragon of professionalism, reason and restraint. An arsonist once burned down his house in San Antonio in what was believed to be an act of racial hatred. He had to guide the Clippers through Donald Sterling’s bigotry. But he has always lived by the demand of his late father, Grady Rivers: “You’re never going to be a victim. I’m not going to let you be.”

I remember just two times when sadness has brought Rivers to tears. Both came this year: In reaction to Kobe Bryant’s death and as he tried to make sense of another police shooting.

“It’s funny,” he said. “We protest. They send riot guards. They send people in riot outfits. They go up to Michigan with guns. They’re spitting on cops. Nothing happens.”

He continued, eyes welling with tears: “That video, if you watch that video, you don’t need to be Black to be outraged. You need to be American and outraged. How dare the Republicans talk about fear. We’re the ones that need to be scared. We’re the ones having to talk to every Black child. What White father has to give his son a talk about being careful if you get pulled over? It’s just ridiculous. It just keeps going. There’s no charges. Breonna Taylor, no charges, nothing. All we’re asking is you live up to the Constitution. That’s all we’re asking for everybody, for everyone.”

Many will focus on the defiance of refusing to work, as if the players are children protesting bedtime. I see sorrow, spiritual poverty and an inability to separate profession and skin color.

This is a plea using more vulnerability than kneeling. And this is the last method of restraint that players — raging yet exhausted on the inside — have in their arsenal of civil disobedience.

If you find these cries unpleasant, you are really going to dislike what remains after restraint.

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