The NBA playoffs, painstakingly constructed within a bubble on the Disney World campus, hung in the balance as players met Wednesday night and Thursday morning to determine whether they would play again this year in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting by police in Kenosha, Wis. Players agreed to continue the season, and the NBA announced it planned to resume the playoffs either Friday or Saturday.
The protests spread into politics as Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden praised players for “moral leadership” and the White House weighed in. Senior adviser Jared Kushner told CNBC that players should seek “actual action” to solve problems and cast athletes who short-circuited the peak of their professional career in pursuit of racial justice as lucky to get a break from work.
“Look, I think that the NBA players are very fortunate that they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off from work without having to have the consequences to themselves financially,” Kushner said. “So they have that luxury, which is great.”
The aftermath of Blake’s shooting revealed raw emotion among athletes, who have been prominent in demonstrations against police brutality since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in 2016. New England Patriots defensive back Jason McCourty described himself as “hopeless,” and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain said he saw the country on a “downward spiral.”
“This is not a boycott against basketball any more than Kaepernick was taking a knee against the flag,” Harry Edwards, a sociologist who in 1967 organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights, said Wednesday night in a phone conversation. “I just told a group of NBA players that. You’re not involved in a boycott against basketball. You’re involved in utilizing and leveraging the spotlight, the platform you have to make it crystal clear, not just to make a statement of protest but to send a message demanding change concerning these shootings. And what you’re essentially screaming is, ‘Stop killing us.’ ”
In the bubble, NBA teams had worn slogans promoting social justice on their jerseys and played on a court with the words “Black Lives Matter.” The power of not playing at all as opposed to demonstrating before or during a game, Edwards said, is that it places pressure on team owners and sponsors to pressure elected officials, to whom their status affords them access.
“The people that own the franchises, the sponsors, the people involved at the league level, they can literally pick up the phone and call the governor, and the governor will pick up the phone,” Edwards said. “There’s a tremendous amount that can be done to leverage sports for social change. We can use sports to leverage change here to stop the killing.”
The NBA held a Thursday afternoon meeting among players, the governors for the 13 teams remaining at Disney, National Basketball Players Association representatives and league officials to discuss next steps. Legendary Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan, now the Charlotte Hornets chairman and the NBA’s labor relations committee chairman, participated in the meeting. Jordan is the NBA’s only Black majority owner.
After the brief flirtation with an abrupt end to the bubble, life returned to some semblance of normal Thursday, with Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard puttering around on a golf cart and Toronto Raptors Coach Nick Nurse going for an afternoon jog.
Had the players chosen not to resume play, it probably would have plunged the NBA and the NBPA into a labor dispute. The two sides have yet to reach an agreement for the terms of next season, and it’s possible that a shutdown of this summer’s restart could have triggered a lockout, given the billions of lost revenue caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The NFL may soon confront the possibility of players’ strikes. Nine NFL teams did not practice Thursday, with coaches uniformly supporting players and in some cases making the choice to cancel workouts. Some players insisted they have not ruled out sitting out games once the season begins in September.
“I can’t really just go and speak on behalf of the whole league, but for us, that is something that we’re going to talk about within our groups, within our team,” New York Giants star running back Saquon Barkley said. “What’s talked about in players’ meetings stays in players’ meetings.”
On Thursday evening, the NFL and the NFL Players Association released a joint statement proclaiming unity.
“The NFL community is united more than ever to support one another in these challenging times,” the statement read. “We share anger and frustration, most recently as a result of the shooting of Jacob Blake. While our passions continue to run high, we are proud that our players and clubs, League and Union, are taking time to have the difficult conversations about these issues that affect the Black community and other communities of color in America. We are especially encouraged that these conversations are about how we can come together to make the necessary and long overdue changes in our country.”
MLB again played a partial schedule, with some teams playing and others — including the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies — opting not to. Seven games were postponed while the rest of MLB played on, a contrast to the wholesale stoppage of the NHL, NBA and WNBA. On Wednesday night, three games were postponed, starting with the Brewers, whose players said they had been inspired by the Bucks.
St. Louis Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty decried MLB’s lack of uniformity. “Why is it so hard to do something unified for 1 day?” Flaherty wrote on Twitter (he later deleted the tweet). “1 day.” He also noted in all caps that baseball was the only sport playing. (The PGA Tour staged the BMW Championship outside Chicago.)
“People don’t want to face the reality of the situation going on,” Flaherty said on a Zoom call with reporters.
Four Black players — the Rockers’ Matt Kemp, the Cardinals’ Dexter Fowler and Flaherty and the Cubs’ Jason Heyward — sat out in solidarity Wednesday with NBA and WNBA athletes while their teams played.
After playing Wednesday, the Rockies decided to sit against the Arizona Diamondbacks. “We had a chance to stand up with our guy last night, and we didn’t do it," Rockies shortstop Trevor Story told reporters.
The Players Alliance, a group of current and former Black players, announced Thursday its members will donate their salaries Thursday and Friday, when MLB is celebrating Jackie Robinson, to causes fighting racial inequality.
Baseball’s decision-making received a bizarre and surprising jolt when New York Mets General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen mistakenly criticized Commissioner Rob Manfred on live video he did not realize was recording for an idea Mets owner Jeff Wilpon came up with.
The mini-saga began when Van Wagenen revealed on video to two unidentified people — telling them the story would not leave the room -- that Manfred had called him with the idea of the Mets taking the field as scheduled at 7:10 p.m., then leaving to make a statement – only to retake the field an hour later to play the game, so as to not create scheduling headaches. To the people in the room, Van Wagenen expressed his distaste for the idea and for Manfred.
“Rob, at the leadership level, he doesn’t get it,” Van Wagenen said. “He just doesn’t get it.”
About an hour later, Van Wagenen clarified what had happened in a statement: Wilpon had called Manfred telling the commissioner Mets players did not want to play. Wilpon broached the idea of the Mets taking the field and then retaking it an hour later.
“I misunderstood that this was the Commissioner’s idea,” Van Wagenen wrote. “In actuality, this was Jeff’s suggestion. The players had already made their decision, so I felt the suggestion was not helpful. My frustration with the Commissioner was wrong and unfounded. I apologize to the Commissioner for my disrespectful comments and poor judgment in inaccurately describing the contents of his private conversation with Jeff Wilpon.”
The Mets took the field for their 7:10 p.m. game against the Marlins led by Black players Dominic Smith and Billy Hamilton. After Miami’s leadoff batter was announced, players in the dugouts emerged, and all players removed their caps for 42 seconds in honor of Jackie Robinson’s number.
“We showed tonight we’re not just going to shut up and dribble, shut up and play ball,” Smith said. “We stand up for what we believe in.”
WNBA players, who have frequently been leaders among athletes calling for racial equality, decided to resume their season Friday after sitting out Wednesday and Thursday.
“We took today to really consider organizing and mobilizing,” Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike said during a televised interview alongside the Social Justice Council. “We wanted to stand with our brethren yesterday, and we did. But we came here for a reason, and that was to amplify our voices. The only way that that happens is if we’re out here. That’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to recommit that passion that we have behind amplifying our voices for each other and for our communities moving forward.”
The NHL faced criticism for playing on Wednesday night, most prominently from Black star player Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks, who wrote on Twitter, “It’s incredibly insulting as a black man in hockey the lack of action and acknowledgment from the NHL.” The NHL reversed course Thursday by postponing its playoffs, which are taking place in Toronto and Edmonton, for two days.
“We understand the tragedies involving Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others require us to recognize this moment,” the NHL and the NHL Players Association said in a joint statement. “We pledge to work to use our sport to influence positive change in society.”
Kilgore reported from Washington. Kareem Copeland and Mark Maske in Washington contributed to this report.