Choking back tears, Webber delivered an impassioned monologue supporting the players’ historic actions. He spoke plainly of the pain in the Black community and the importance of protest in the face of change that eluded generations.
“I have a godson who has autism,” Webber said. “I just had to explain to him why we aren’t playing. I have young nephews who I’ve had to talk to about death before they’ve ever seen it in the movies. If not now, when? If not during the pandemic and countless lives being lost? If not now, when?”
Webber’s words came just a few minutes after the opening moments of the show, during which Kenny Smith, a former NBA player and host, walked off the set in solidarity with the players.
“For me, I think the biggest thing now — as a Black man and a former player — I think it’s best for me to support the players and just not be here tonight,” Smith said before taking off his microphone and leaving his chair.
TNT’s NBA show was the nightcap to a frantic day of sports TV personalities reacting in real time to a remarkable story, as players across all sports — including the WNBA, Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball and women’s tennis — chose not to play, in an effort to highlight Blake’s shooting and police violence against Black people.
The walkout happened four years to the day after 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem. Over those four years, as players have spoken out in larger numbers and more forcefully, sports media has been forced to address the issues raised by Kaepernick, LeBron James and, lately, the entire NBA and WNBA.
Journalists and analysts have done this with varying degrees of precision and dexterity, including Wednesday night. On NBA TV, the network interspersed commentary with contact information for local law enforcement in Kenosha so viewers, if they chose, could seek action in the wake of Blake’s shooting. Sam Mitchell, a former NBA coach turned commentator, mentioned an anti-lynching bill that is currently tied up in the U.S. Senate.
Baseball, a sport where players have spoken far less about social issues, had its own postponements. On Wednesday’s nightly whip-around show on MLB TV, host Matt Vasgersian read an Instagram post from Colorado Rockies DH Matt Kemp, which said in part, “Tonight I stand with my fellow professional athletes in protest of the injustices my people continue to suffer."
Vasgersian then chimed in: “I think there needs to be an important distinction made here, however,” he said. “The law enforcement community is under attack right now. And Matt Kemp’s statement was well-written and I think everybody empathizes with the point of view, but not every member of the law enforcement community is guilty of some of the atrocities that have been committed in the last few months. I feel like it’s important to make that statement, as well, along with supporting those who are not playing, along with the cries for social reform, which are so needed right now.”
Analyst and former player Harold Reynolds responded: “I agree with that, but also it comes down to one bad apple leads to a bunch, right? It spoils a whole bunch. That’s what’s been happening here. There are great police officers. I have great police officers who are friends of mine. But there’s been far too many things like this happening. That’s the point guys are saying.”
Nothing, though, was as pronounced as what happened on “Inside the NBA,” a show that stars several former players whose careers spanned a different era of sports and politics, best defined by Michael Jordan’s insistence that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Charles Barkley, who once infamously declared he was no role model, said he supported the players. Shaquille O’Neal did, too. “November is coming up,” O’Neal said. “Make sure you get a new D.A. Make sure you get a new chief of police. Make sure you get a new mayor. Make sure you get a new president. Make sure you get a new sheriff. It’s in our hands. It’s always been in our hands.”
O’Neal, though, also wanted to know what comes next, pointing to some of the labor tensions between players and owners — what players want, what the league will do, whether the two sides will remain aligned.
“Are we canceling or postponing? What’s the next plan?” O’Neal asked. “I’m not sure a racist person is going to say, ‘Oh, they canceled the game, I’m not going to be racist anymore.’”
Webber appeared most at ease making his call for action, which makes sense: He’s a former member of the Fab Five, the group of 1990s University of Michigan freshmen who, with their baggy shorts and embrace of black culture, changed the direction of the sport. They were the first college team in which the players were a bigger brand than the school. Sonny Vaccaro, a former Nike executive who became an activist against the NCAA’s amateurism rules, recalled seeing Webber on a panel in the late 1990s, talking about the dichotomy of not getting paid but seeing Michigan sell his jersey. “He was the first NBA player to talk about it,” Vaccaro said. “I think these thoughts have been percolating for a long time.”
Decades later, as a new era of players took a step few athletes have, these thoughts boiled over on TNT.
“Don’t listen to these people telling you don’t do anything because it’s not going to end right away,” Webber said. “You are starting something for the next generation and the next generation to take over.”