Podcast • Opinion
“Broken Doors,” Episode 1
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Strike’? ‘Boycott’? When athletes stopped playing, the arguments over wording began.

NBA playoff games were postponed as players protested the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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The front page of the New York Times sports section Thursday commemorated a historic day in athletics, when three NBA playoff games, along with games in Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the WNBA, were postponed after athletes refused to play in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, in Kenosha, Wis.

The image was simple: an empty court in the NBA bubble in Florida. The headline was one word: “BOYCOTT.” And the backlash, after the Times tweeted an image of the page Wednesday night, came quickly.

“You need to change it to STRIKE,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter.

Ocasio-Cortez spread her frustration around the media, responding to a tweet by The Washington Post that also called the action a “boycott,” though the story itself used “strike.“

“NBA players are courageously on strike (withholding labor), NOT boycotting (withholding their $/purchase),” she wrote. “The diff is important bc it shows their power as *workers*.”

Others piled on. In New York magazine, Sarah Jones and Chas Danner offered their own critique of sportswriters who referred to the day’s events as a boycott. “The term,” they wrote, “is inaccurate, and dampens the political thrust” of the players’ protest.

“Boycott,” they wrote, refers to consumerism, not labor action. Using it undermines the fact that athletes are using the power of their labor to demand civic change. Instead, the writers argued, we should call it a “wildcat strike,” which refers to workers walking off the job without consent of their union and outside the terms of their collective bargaining agreement.

In a statement, a Times spokeswoman defended the headline. “The players are not on strike against their employers; they are protesting a shooting,” the spokeswoman wrote. She then referred to the dictionary definition of boycott: “a decision to not use or buy products or services in order to show support for a cause.”

Led by Chris Webber and Kenny Smith, ‘Inside the NBA’ went from pregame show to protest in real time

The certainty of New York lawmakers and periodicals aside, there’s no simple way to label what the players were doing. In interviews with eight labor lawyers and academics Thursday, one said “boycott” was the best description, and no one thought “wildcat strike” was accurate. The only consensus was that the players had done something unprecedented.

It’s not a traditional strike, said Wilma Liebman, a former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board, because workers weren’t withholding labor amid bargaining for concessions from their employer. It wasn’t a wildcat strike, either, she said: Because the players appeared to have the backing of both their union and their bosses — the NBA Players Association and several teams sent statements of support — it was neither type of strike, Liebman said.

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)

Instead, Liebman said, she would refer to what the players did as both a “boycott” and a “walkout.” The players were at work, having arrived at the arena, but then chose not to play.

“A boycott, I tend to think of as when you’re trying to enlist the public in a cause,” Liebman said, echoing the Times’s explanation. “The players were making a public statement that’s beyond the terms of their employment.”

Craig Becker, former general counsel for the AFL-CIO, agreed with Ocasio-Cortez. “Any time you withhold labor, it’s a strike,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s for non-economic reasons or a political cause.”

He cited the famous strike and boycott orchestrated by Filipino American grape workers in the 1960s. With help from César Chávez, the workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions, but they also urged consumers not to buy grapes in support of their cause.

“The boycott was a call for consumer action,” Becker said. By contrast, he said, “the NBA players are not saying to fans, ‘Don’t come to our games.’ ”

Gary Kohlman, a labor attorney and the former general counsel for the NBPA, said the players’ action had the appearance of a wildcat strike, but he agreed with Liebman. The action was ultimately blessed by the union and league, so “strike” didn’t fit. His vote: “walkout.”

Asked whether that undermined the power of the labor moment, Kohlman said he had a more precise term: “player-driven work stoppage.”

Three law professors agreed on another, more precise phrase: “political strike.” What the players were doing is reminiscent of the longshoremen, a group of unionized workers who unload ships at U.S. ports and, at various points in history, have stopped working for political reasons. They refused to handle any South African goods because of apartheid; they refused to unload cargo from the Soviet Union after it invaded Afghanistan in 1979; they stopped work for a day in opposition to the Iraq War; and they stopped for nine minutes after the police killing of George Floyd.

“I understand the spirit of wanting to call it a strike because it sounds more militant than boycott,” said Ileen DeVault, who teaches labor history at Cornell University. “It feels more in tune with the Black Lives Matter movement, which it is. But it’s difficult to define.”

Which is why, said Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School, labeling what happened may be less important than describing what happened — and why.

“We tend to think about strikes as about wages and benefits,” Sachs said. “Those are very important, but this was about something much bigger than that, something involving the character and future of the country. So you can call it whatever you want, but the name seems less important than the meaning of what happened.”

Read more:

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LeBron James, NBA players react with strong messages

Sports come to a halt: NBA, WNBA, MLB, MLS postpone games as players protest Jacob Blake shooting