Anti-racism, Labor, US Politics

The NBA strike was a testament to the power of strikes

Prithviraj Gandhi looks at the athletes’ strike earlier this month, arguing that this kind of action can win the justice we need. 

The Milwaukee Bucks NBA basketball team made history on earlier this month by deciding to not play a playoff game in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. This was the first time any team had decided not to play an NBA playoff game. This seemingly small action drove the entire world into a frenzy.

The move was only the first domino to fall. The rest of the league decided that they would not play that day. Then, the NBA decided to “postpone” every game that day. Other sports leagues followed suit, with the Women’s National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, and National Hockey League all not playing games. Major media called the move a “boycott,” and avoided calling it what it actually was: a strike.

“Why does it always have to get to the point where we see the guns firing?” LeBron James asked. The night before the strike, LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers, the son of a police officer, held back tears and said, “We keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”

Rivers spoke to a feeling of hopelessness that a lot of people in the United States share. Again, a Black man was shot by police officers, sparking outrage.

On August 26, the Milwaukee Bucks players decided they needed to take action. They declared they would not play the game scheduled for that day. After a Zoom call with the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin about different methods of reformist action through the existing political system, they knew much more needed to be done.

From an outsider’s perspective, the NBA may seem like a monument to pure capitalism, but it is a league with a history steeped in equity and social justice. Many players have taken advantage of highly competitive feeder leagues where the cream of the crop rises to the top. Scouts at every level are hungry to find the next star and the NBA scouts worldwide for talent. The result is something resembling a pure meritocracy. One of the outcomes is a sports league that is highly in tune with the social, political, and economic issues which face Americans of all social classes.

When the league was first integrated, Black legends like Bill Russell and Will Chamberlain emerged. While they were not initially welcomed with open arms, Black players from all walks of life became mainstays in the NBA. 

In the last decade, the NBA has been one of the most politically active sports leagues in America. In 2012, teams in the league wore hoodies to show solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen killed by George Zimmerman. In 2014, players protested the police murder of Eric Garner by wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts. That same year, players threatened to strike if Donald Sterling, an owner who had been caught making racist statements, was not disciplined. The result was that Donald Sterling was banned for life from the NBA and forced to give up his ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers. In 2017, the NBA moved their scheduled All-Star game from North Carolina to protest a controversial anti-trans bathroom bill. 

With their protest earlier this month, these athlete workers took matters into their own hands. They knew they had a platform to say something about the shooting of Jacob Blake and police violence against Black and brown people. While the league had previously allowed them to make political statements on their jerseys, the players knew this wasn’t enough. The Bucks, and then the rest of the players, decided to strike.

Without the players, there is no NBA. That is a dangerous message to send to the working class because it follows that, without the workers, there are no products or services at all. The players internally discussed how US workers could get together for a general strike and force political and social justice. A general strike brings an economy to its knees. It brings the working class to the bargaining table. The players knew this, and it made the ruling class nervous.

Unfortunately, for the time being, it seems that the NBA players have decided to resume the season. It was reported that a call from Jared Kushner was scheduled before the announcement, but there is no confirmation on whether this may have prompted the change of heart. Kushner, in his infinite callousness, had gone onto CNBC earlier in the morning to remind the common workers that they did not have enough money to survive a strike and implying that the NBA players were “privileged” to simply be able to take a day off of work. Clearly, he was sending a message to the rest of the working class that striking is not an option for them. Disappointingly, a call from Barack Obama pushed the NBA players to opt against the strike and decide in favor of electoral initiatives such as turning stadiums into voting locations.

Andre Igoudala, a Miami Heat player, said that he knew that social action would take a long time and could be quite tedious. He is right. The Montgomery Bus Boycott took more than a year. The Civil Rights movement spanned many years. Any progress will not come overnight. It will take a sustained effort.

Nonetheless, the NBA players showed the power of the strike. They are an example to working class people in every walk of life who want to take action for a better world.

Prithviraj Gandhi