Sports on Strike

Don’t call it a boycott, and don’t underestimate the movement.

As historic protests occurred across American sports in late August, the media reacted as it always does when athletes speak out: entirely without nuance. Before you could say “organized labor,” the event was dubbed a “boycott,” much to the chagrin of sports-loving leftists. The message the players wanted to deliver—that the police must stop murdering people—is infinitely more important than the distinction between these two terms, but one must understand that difference in order to fully understand the strike. Calling the strike a “boycott” isn’t as egregious as Jared Kushner calling the players “fortunate” to be able to “take a night off,” but it requires the same fundamental misconception of pro athletes’ lives and place in the social hierarchy. It’s the same misconception that allows some of the laziest, most spoiled people in America to routinely criticize pro athletes as lazy and spoiled. To not challenge it is to cede a huge amount of territory in one of the prime theaters of the Great American Culture War.

First, let’s look at what happened. As the nation roiled with protests after police shot an unarmed Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to sit out their playoff game against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, August 26th. As news of their protest spread, the players of every other NBA team decided to join them, as did the players of the WNBA, every MLS team that had not yet taken the field, and even several teams in the more-conservative MLB. Within a few hours of the conversation in the Bucks’ locker room, player actions had called off nearly every professional sporting event in the country. 

At first, a significant number of players wanted to shut down the season. Eventually, they decided they would try to strike a deal with their bosses to let the playoffs continue. As the other leagues returned to play in the following days, the players’ union (the National Basketball Players Association) sent representatives to meet with NBA management. The result of the meeting was an agreement by NBA owners to institute several changes the players had requested, in exchange for the players’ assurance that they would return and finish the playoffs.

It’s true the NBA players’ protest didn’t start as a strike. It began with the Bucks’ George Hill quietly telling his coach that he didn’t feel he could play in the wake of yet another police shooting. Hill didn’t even intend to convince his teammates to join him, but he eventually participated in the team sitdown that set off similar discussions around the country. The first time NBA players gathered together to strategize appears to have been Wednesday night, and it wasn’t until Thursday that they reached the decision to bargain with the owners instead of unilaterally ending the season. 

It’s also entirely legitimate to argue, as I would, that the players’ strike could have accomplished more if they hadn’t gotten terrible advice from Barack Obama, who spoke with Lebron James, union president Chris Paul, and others after the Wednesday night meeting. Given the enormous spotlight they had earned and how desperate the league surely was to finish this already-abbreviated season, it’s a shame that the players settled for the formation of a committee and a league-wide “get out the vote” initiative. But one really can’t argue that the players’ action was anything other than a strike, even if its execution was a bit haphazard and the bargaining was bungled. It certainly wasn’t a boycott. So why did so many people, including most of the mainstream and sports media, use that term?

It might have something to do with Americans being far more familiar with boycotts, historic and recent, than strikes—strikes tend to be covered in history books as something that only happened in the Gilded Age, while we know boycotts both as a crucial part of the Civil Rights Movement and as the reason your uncle threw away his Goodyear tires. A big part of the equation is likely America’s innately consumerist mindset, which allows us, as Andrew McCarthy did in National Review, to refer to a strike as a boycott even while referring to players themselves as consumer products whose “saleable value lies in giving the rest of us a unifying escape from our personal struggles and social divisions.”

Of course, some people called the NBA protest a “boycott” because that’s what some of its most prominent participants called it. Lebron, a key powerbroker in the strike and one of the most influential people on Earth, used the term “boycott” on the day the strike began. In context, it’s obvious James’ point was that the games had been shut down by the players, not “postponed” by the league. When a group of people decides not to engage in something, Americans seem to reach for the word “boycott” first, and professional athletes are no exception.

James’ and other players’ hesitance to use the word “strike” might also have been motivated by the “No-Strike and No-Lockout” clause in their collective bargaining agreement. They are, after all, workers, with a union contract and bosses who are constantly looking for new ways to claim a larger chunk of the revenue they generate. Lebron’s status as one of the most famous human beings alive notwithstanding, it’s crucial to recognize that this dynamic is the one that governs NBA players and their fellow professional athletes. Yes, many of them make exorbitant, possibly infuriating amounts of money, but in terms of their relationships with their employers they are undeniably workers, not management.

As I’ve written before in Current Affairs, the history of labor negotiations in American professional sports is one of athletes slowly chipping away at a system designed to limit their freedom and drive down the price of their labor. Of course pro athletes’ wealth gives them power and puts them in the upper class, generally speaking, but they’re still subject to the whims of their bosses, commonly referred to as “their owners,” who almost uniformly come from immense generational wealth much greater than any one player could hope to achieve. 

It takes a singular figure like Lebron, a perfect storm of talent, longevity, and financial savvy, to come close to rivaling owners’ wealth and influence, and even he is bound by his contract. For every elite player, there are dozens of journeymen and hundreds more who will never find a foothold in the league at all. Nearly everyone in the NBA makes six figures, and a majority make seven or more, but as in all pro sports, the average career is short (4.5 years in the NBA, 3.3 for the NFL, 2.7 in professional baseball). Injuries are a constant and largely unpredictable threat—one study showed that every MLB player faces at least a one-in-ten chance of ending his career in any given season—and in many cases, players either skipped college or were made to take the academic path of least resistance, leaving them ill-equipped to embark upon another career once they’ve bowed out of the game. A famous Sports Illustrated article from 2009 found that over half of all retired NBA players went broke within five years of leaving the league, and that nearly 80 percent of former NFL players were in dire financial straits within two years of retirement. 

Faced with a window of just a few years to cash in on their lifetime of training, and with the constant threat of injury, most pros aren’t immune from financial concerns. That’s particularly true in this shortened season, where COVID-related losses have already forced players to take a pay cut. They may be making a whole lot of money, but their position is exponentially more precarious than that of the Kushners of the world, and they certainly do not take the prospect of shutting down the source of their income lightly. 

For Black players, a majority in the NBA, there’s also the fact that, as G’Ra Asim recently wrote, “the subordination and vulnerability to state violence that come with being Black is something most Black people expect to contend with from cradle to grave.” It may not have been a coincidence that the NBA’s strike began with the Bucks, whose roster includes a player who had the police called on him for entering a jewelry store in 2015 and another who was arrested, beaten, and tased for a parking violation in 2018. Fame and material wealth do nothing to stop players of color from suffering from the exact kind of profiling and abuse that they were protesting after the Kenosha police shooting.

“Boycott” doesn’t come close to describing what happened in the NBA—participants in a boycott suffer the inconvenience of using a different product, at worst, while participants in a strike risk losing their livelihoods, homes, and more. Although the NBA now presents itself as America’s most open-minded professional sport, it wasn’t so long ago that the Chicago Bulls’s Craig Hodges was frozen out of the league for having the audacity to write to President George H.W. Bush about racial justice. One need look no further than Colin Kaepernick for a reminder that “woke,” 21st century professional leagues are still perfectly capable of blacklisting a player for insubordination.

We’ll never know what might have been achieved if the players had organized more effectively, made more radical demands, or ignored the advice of the man who brought you such lose-lose solutions as warmed-over Romneycare and the Beer Summit. Creating more polling places is all well and good, but it’s obvious that increased voter turnout isn’t the panacea liberals imagine it to be. Same goes for a committee devoted to racial justice within the league, although similar groups like the Player’s Coalition and MLS’ Black Players for Change have done meaningful things like stage highly-visible demonstrations, lobby against qualified immunity, and force leagues to donate to underserved communities.

That being said, the players could have dreamed much bigger. Why not demand that Houston Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta donate to bail funds instead of cutting seven-figure checks to the Trump Victory PAC and the RNC? Or ask that Orlando Magic owner Dan DeVos call on his sister-in-law Betsy to stop gutting our nation’s public school system? The players could have simply demanded that Fertitta, DeVos, and other right-wing owners sell their teams, as the racist owner of MLS’ Real Salt Lake and the NWSL’s Utah Royals FC is currently being forced to do. If that sounds like a reach, recall how quickly the league pushed out former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling once his decades of racism became public knowledge.

Many on the left came away from the NBA players’ brief strike disappointed, and I sympathize. It wasn’t fun to watch, for the second time this year, as Obama’s intervention scuttled an exciting progressive project. For some, it may be tempting to dismiss what happened entirely, or to read it as proof that sports is nothing more than a distraction from “real” political issues. But there are two good reasons not to do that, the first of which is: that’s exactly what conservatives are saying. If there’s one thing that the outright sickos in the Proud Boys, the learned sickos at the National Review, and every conservative in between can agree upon, it’s that athletes are spoiled, ungrateful dullards who have no business injecting their opinions into the politics-free “oasis” that is sports. If you ever find yourself agreeing with these people, stop and think about what you’re doing.

Moreover, there’s absolutely nothing that says that the Obama-brokered “resolution” to NBA players’ political awakening is the end. In fact, there’s evidence it was a beginning. Athletes across the country realized the power of their collective action, and they clearly have some people scared of what they might do next. As the great Dave Zirin recently pointed out, the NFL is terrified that its players will follow in the footsteps of their NBA counterparts and derail football season. The players themselves seem fully aware that there’s much more to be done, and they’ve talked about striking again. The notion that pro athletes could “solve racism” is absurd, but it’s entirely within their power to make material gains for the antiracist cause—league owners are awash in money, and players are becoming more and more involved in determining how that money gets spent. And while there’s no accounting for intangibles like the strike’s effect on the national psyche, it’s undeniable that 72 hours of wall-to-wall coverage of a labor action counted for something. According to Zirin, it’s gotten labor talking about strikes again.

The sports strike did not happen in a vacuum. It was part of both a nationwide protest movement and an encouraging trend of athletes taking political risks. From Kaepernick to the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team to the WNBA players who campaigned against their anti-BLM boss in a Georgia senate race, recent events have dealt blow after blow to the notion that sports is, has ever been, or should be apolitical. This was the first time that the movement for racial and social justice in professional sports has operated as such a cohesive unit. It will not be the last. The next time players strike, they’ll be more confident, better organized, and more ambitious. This prospect has all the right people afraid. Even if it goes down in history as a “boycott,” the sports strike was an exciting and high-profile example of labor action, the closest thing we’ve seen to a general strike in 2020. So far.

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