If someone asks me what is going to happen with the election, or pretty much anything else, my stock answer is “I don’t know.” I answer “I don’t know,” because I am old enough to realize that there is a hell of a lot I don’t know, especially what the future holds. But I also answer “I don’t know” because these are very unpredictable times. For example:
Today, the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team decided that they were not going to play their playoff game against the Orlando Magic. They refused to play in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake and the situation in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the team’s home state. The players did not consult team owners or the NBA. They talked among themselves, voted not to play, and made an announcement. The Magic players responded by backing the Bucks. Two other playoff games were scheduled today. The players from all four of the other teams – Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Portland Trailblazers, and Los Angeles Lakers – decided to strike their games. The owners of all the teams backed their players’ actions, as did the NBA.
Later in the day, the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds baseball teams each took a players’ vote on whether they should cancel their game. The Brewers voted after holding a conference call with Wisconsin’s attorney general. Both teams voted unanimously not to play. Team owners and the MLB front office did not stand in their way. The San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers canceled their games after a player vote, as did the Seattle Mariner and the San Diego Padres. (Yesterday, the Detroit Lions did not practice in support of the Jacob Blake protests.)
Of all the pro sports leagues, the WNBA was on this issue earlier than the rest, their players taking action before those in other leagues. Because, the WNBA is “women’s sports,” it does not get the attention of the NBA, MLB, or NFL, nor does it have the reach of superstars like Lebron James. Still, even if the general public isn’t paying attention, other athletes are, and, because of this, the WNBA often serves as a vanguard in sports on a variety of political and social issues.
This is unlike anything that I have ever experienced in my many years as a sports fan. Yes, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw protests and boycotts from professional players – specifically Muhammed Ali, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, football’s Jim Brown, basketball’s Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as well as a few others, but these were individual players, not full teams striking for political reasons.
During the 1980s and 1990s, professional sports was oppressively apolitical. The NBA’s top player and perhaps the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan, famously avoided politics as not to “taint” his brand. That was fine with commissioner David Stern, a man who fought hard to suppress players’ free expression.
Things started to crack in the 2000s and especially the 2010s as NBA coaches such as Greg Popovich started speaking out. Lebron James made it very clear that he was not going to follow the path of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, the last two (apolitical) faces of the league. Instead, he looked to Russell and Abdul-Jabbar for guidance and inspiration.
Four years ago, to this day, at a preseason game, the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem in protest of police killing of Black people. After the game, Kaepernick told the press, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
The league was split on Kaepernick’s protest. When Kaepernick modified his protest to taking a knee, a few players joined him; however most didn’t. San Francisco 49ers’ ownership gave him qualified support, though his actions did piss off coach Jim Harbaugh. Black players around the NFL tended to support Kaepernick. White players were mostly against his protest. Few football fans supported Kaepernick: Most either were against his protest, against politics in sports, or didn’t care.
Although, the 49ers did not punish Kaepernick, when it came to re-signing him after his contract ran out, they passed, partially for football reasons, partially not to deal with the politics around the protest. Usually a player like Kaepernick would have gotten picked up quickly by another team, perhaps not as a starting quarterback but certainly as a back-up. Instead, NFL owners conspired to blackball Kaepernick and others who took a knee. Since he left the 49ers, Kaepernick has not played one down in an NFL game.
That whole teams are striking games in protest of police abuse/murder or for any political reason is radical. As I noted, I have never seen anything like it in the decades I’ve followed sports. I am surprised but not shocked that NBA players are taking a stand by not playing. That baseball teams are making a political statement on the side of social justice is not just astounding; it is a shocker. (Ball players are notoriously conservative.)
Now, I can understand the Brewers. Their home state is Wisconsin. Kenosha is in Wisconsin. But the Cincinnati Reds? Baseball fans know why I am shocked over the Reds, but for the rest of you:
From 1984 to 1999, the Reds were owned by a woman named Marge Schott. Marge Schott was a straight-up, unrepentant, without-a-doubt white supremacist. That is no exaggeration. In 1992, she was heard referring to Red’s players Eric Davis and Dave Parker as her “million-dollar niggers.” In the same year, before the start of an owners’ conference call she was heard saying, “I would never hire another nigger. I’d rather have a trained monkey working for me than a nigger.”
One former employee alleged that Schott wore a Nazi swastika armband around her home. He also said that her heard her say that “sneaky goddamn Jews are all alike.” Schott denied the accusations, but her denials were later questioned when she publicly stated that Adolf Hitler “was good in the beginning, but went too far.” That last crack got her suspended from the game for a couple years. She was eventually forced to sell her share of the team. (MLB was slow in going after Schott. It took five years for them to act on her racism, perhaps longer.) So, now that you know some of the history of the Cincinnati Reds, it should be obvious why the team refusing to play in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake is a big deal.
Also, because the political strikes are unprecedented, the players’ actions and the issues behind them are a major topic on sports talk radio. Driving through Sacramento, I turned on the radio. The strikes were part of a two hour long discussion on Brandon Tierney and Tiki Barber’s radio show.
Tierney is a White radio guy, Barber is a Black former football player now radio guy. Normally the closest Tiki and Tierney get to talking politics is a discussion about whether college players should get paid or the machinations of sports labor/economic strikes. But today they spent the better part of two hours not just talking about the NBA political strike, but also police abuse, killer cops, the lack of legal accountability for cops, Jim Crow, systemic racism, the role of the athlete in society. The discussion was more progressive than what I’ve heard from either of the Democratic presidential standard bearers and had more intelligence and depth than I hear from progressives on social media.
Switching to KNBR for the drive back to San Francisco, Tom Tolbert, Rod Brooks, and Larry Kruger were talking about the same subject. That Tolbert and Brooks were backing the players in their protest and speaking intelligently on the issue of police abuse was not a surprise. Larry Kruger, though, got out of his semi-conservative contrarian dust-ass state of mind and actually sounded like a real compassionate member of the human race.
Now, none of this changes the world, but all the attention to the issue of police abuse and all the talk around it changes hearts and minds, especially when the discussion jumps from activist and political circles to gen pop. When sports talk radio hosts emphatically state that killer cops need to be locked up and that police unions need to be abolished – something I heard on Tiki and Tierney – well, that means something. That sports show hosts talk police reform expands the idea of what is possible. Think of this as your parents saying, “Well, I guess that marijuana being at the store is a good idea.” Game. Set. Match…or at least an opening.
This morning, I was a bit depressed and frustrated, having watched too many clips of the Republican Convention – I know, I know, don’t watch. After today’s sports world shockers, I felt a bit of a lift. As I wrote at the top, I don’t know what happens next or how today will impact the future, but I do see society shifting. The protests that started with George Floyd’s murder are not going to stop, that is for damn sure, and if jocks on sports radio are talking about Jacob Blake and locking up killer cops, god damn, that is a huge step in the right direction. Play ball…or don’t!