First, let's accept that no NBA executive, team, player could have prevented Jacob Blake's shooting at the hands of Kenosha, Wis. police officer Rusten Sheskey last Sunday.
Painting "Black Lives Matter" on courts when the season restarted in late July wouldn't have stopped cops from approaching Blake on a Kenosha street after the 29-year-old Black man tried to break up a fight between two women.
Taking a knee and raising a fist during the pre-game anthems couldn't have compelled Sheskey to engage Blake non-violently, instead of firing seven rounds into his back from point-blank range, while Blake's three children watched.
And Wednesday's wildcat strike — which started when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for a playoff game against the Orlando Magic — won't end racial profiling and police brutality. A police officer committed to seeing a Black person as a threat — see: Strickland, Alan — probably won't pause and ponder what LeBron James would do before they reach for a night stick or a gun.
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Within hours, players from every NBA team slated to play Wednesday and Thursday opted out of their scheduled games. Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer, and WNBA players sat out in solidarity, and by Thursday the NHL had elected to suspend its playoff games for a day. By then, NBA players had already voted to return to work and finish the post-season.
The moves were a stark reminder of the players' awesome collective power. Teams write the cheques but the players draw the audiences that make the whole industry work. They have the clout to disrupt a multibillion-dollar business by simply staying home.
But NBA players don't have the power to stop the next police shooting of an unarmed Black person. Or to end the school-to-prison pipeline that flattens the trajectories of Black kids' lives. Or to interrupt the way racist housing policy and real estate practices combine to cost Black homeowners money.
A call to non-Black allies
That doesn't mean this week's protests weren't timely or effective. The biggest audience-draws in North American sports TV this summer went dark for two nights, forcing fans and broadcasters to confront the reasons players withheld their labour.
But rather than ask whether kneeling or raising fists or walking out of work is enough, we should ask why anyone expected Black NBA players to dismantle deep-seated systemic racism by themselves, and why non-Black allies aren't more invested in helping solve a problem that runs generations deep.
After several NFL teams cancelled Thursday practices to protest Blake's shooting, Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians told reporters that protest was insufficient.
"I don't know that protest is an action," he said. "I would beg [players] to… find a cause and either support it financially, or do something to change the situation… protesting doesn't do crap in my opinion."
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Thankfully, the Civil Rights Movement flowered before Arians could dissuade people with his weighty opinions. Otherwise, Freedom Riders might have stayed home, and the North Carolina A&T students who staged their famous sit-in to integrate the lunch counter at Woolworths in downtown Greensboro would have spent their time elsewhere. And protests are futile, so why March on Washington?
Protest is a form of action. Financial support is another. Valuing one at the expense of the other is like signing 12 quarterbacks and cutting all your defensive linemen. Great way to demonstrate what you value, but a crappy way to win in a team sport.
A good coach wants a balanced roster and lets people play to their strengths. This summer, the ability of NBA players to attract attention via pre-game demonstrations is still a strong point. Pressing pause on a large swath of the sports-industrial complex by walking off the job is a super power.
So the question isn't why they're leveraging that privilege to combat police brutality against Black people. It's why more non-Black people won't use theirs to help solve the same problem.
"We're the ones with the microphones in our face, we're the ones who have to make a stand," Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet told reporters on Tuesday. "The responsibility falls on us to make a change to stop being oppressed."
And it shouldn't.
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Canadians don't get to ship plastic garbage to Malaysia — 10,000 tonnes a year according to a Marketplace report — then chastise Malaysians for not doing enough to stop Canadians from being so wasteful. And Canadians can't grumble at Malaysians for sending the trash back rather than letting it clog their waterways. Canadians either need to deal with their own waste, or stop producing it.
Instead, Canada keeps sending its waste to other countries, where locals are sick of it.
And we keep expecting NBA players to process America's trash even though many of them are already triple-booked.
When VanVleet's not playing basketball, he's a husband, a father to two young children, and the owner of one of the first Black-owned businesses to open in downtown Rockford, Ill.
The Celtics' Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta in late May to march alongside demonstrators protesting George Floyd, another unarmed Black man, who was slain by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
When the Bucks refused to play Wednesday night, James tweeted his approval of NBA players escalating their protests.
"F*** THIS MAN," he tweeted. "WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT."
James also combines his talk with protest and deeds that even Arians would recognize as action. He has committed $42 million US to university scholarships for students in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and four years ago he campaigned for Hilary Clinton in 2016.
James is also spending the run-up to the 2020 election fighting for Black voters on two fronts. He's partnering with the Los Angeles Dodgers to make Dodger Stadium a polling station for the Nov. 3 election, providing an option for voters wary of enclosed spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic, and for people concerned president Donald Trump's gutting of the U.S. postal service budget will imperil mail-in votes.
And James is also helping fund a multi-state push to recruit poll workers in Black communities in the U.S. south, where local residents often have to fight to keep polling sites open.
Which is to say plenty of Black NBA players are already doing more than enough to put dents in systemic racism. So the question isn't whether they can, or should, do more than demonstrate during the anthem, wear "Black Lives Matter" t-shirts or walk off the job. All of those actions address and combat racism after it has already affected, diminished, or prematurely ended Black people's lives.
The key question is the one VanVleet brought up on Tuesday.
When will allies do more to stop racism at its source?