The Los Angeles Clippers stopped warming up just minutes before tip-off of Game 5 of the 2014 conference semifinals. With the glossy spotlights of the Staples Center spilling down upon them, they huddled around the ball rack. All at once, they unbuttoned their blue warm-up jackets which they tossed into a heap on the ground, revealing red long-sleeves flipped inside out to mask the Clippers name and insignia. They then finished warming up and played ball.
The act of protest was directed towards team owner Donald Sterling, although obliquely so. Days prior, a now infamous phone call revealed Sterling’s racist outburst against his girlfriend for appearing in a picture with Laker great Magic Johnson.
A half decade later, the Sterling affair triggers a small blip on the things-to-be-outraged-at radar. Every other week another tenet of democracy falls, another 10,000 succumb to COVID-19, another video of a Black man’s murder is tumbled carelessly across the 24-hour news cycle.
It was under this national duress that the NBA formed a quarantine bubble in Orlando, where all of this season’s games would be held. But even from inside the bubble, the league wanted to call attention to the movement unfolding across the rest of the country. Black Lives Matter was inscribed on the floor of every arena in Disney World. Players could also choose to print a slogan related to civil rights on their jerseys. “We can be very vocal and use our platform to help this movement,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel.
When Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer, in a strange turn of events, the league was at the whim of the players. Sure the players want to fight for a championship, and sure, they stand to lose major salary cap if they don’t finish the season, but the owners were the ones who had the league airlifted to Orlando to save their massive TV deals. These empowered players were in their literal display case at Disney with the outside world looking in on them saying, “won’t you do something?”
When reading about the actions taken by the NBA, I thought back to a protest I attended in high school—one that faced considerably less resistance. After the shooting at Marjory-Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, students at my school staged a walkout alongside students everywhere in America. The day of, I was lost in a statistics worksheet when my teacher caught my attention. Her eyes gestured toward the door, urging me to walk out of class. I did. At the demonstration, our principal commended us for our actions. We knew no one was going to penalize us for skipping class. The school’s institutional endorsement of our protest felt to me like our message was disempowered. I’ve always wondered since, if my classmates and I had pushed harder, gone outside the lines, maybe we would’ve accomplished something more than a pat on the back.
The NBA’s protest begs the same question. Of the 29 slogans players could choose from, not one mentioned police brutality by name. NBA players could write “equality,” “freedom” or “peace” on the back of their jerseys. The word “equality” is not remotely controversial, which makes it a perfectly empty place to start a conversation about police brutality, racism or any form of systemic oppression. This is why words like it were picked for the players to wear. Disagree with “equality” or “freedom” and you tell on yourself for being racist, which no one in America thinks they are because no one wants to have an honest conversation about race and why people actually have unequal opportunities in the first place. The cycle continues.
Even when players and the NBA display phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe,” the full significance of the protest is conveniently distilled—the phrases are only signifiers of the whole conversation. The special power of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is that it doesn’t feed into notions of formal equality—it highlights the Black experience. The slogan is an ostensibly obvious statement that begins, not ends, a conversation because its connotations are curiously controversial. The impact of powerful Black men using their platform to tell Black people they matter should not be discounted. But despite the fact that it succeeds in bringing visibility, the moment I saw the bolded black letters of “Black Lives Matter” in plain sight of TV cameras, neatly filling space between advertisements for multinational corporations, I thought back to my school’s lukewarm protest. Networks that air games from the bubble aren’t interested in having a discussion on civil rights, so they pat the league on the back. The cycle continues.
Every year on Martin Luther King day, the NBA schedules a set of marquee matchups — prime time. During pauses in the game and commercial breaks, players deliver reflections on the civil rights leader’s legacy and hopes for “equality” in the “future.” Teams get customizable MLK jerseys to rock, which they boast on social media. The stars in the league wear specialty MLK editions of their signature shoes. The excess and profiteering seen here is a very American way to commemorate a man, a self-professed Democratic Socialist, who was once the most hated person in the country.
But of course it’s this way. Wouldn’t it be off if instead, they replayed some of his anti-war speeches or highlighted the Poor People’s Campaign? Like the rest of the country, we remember him for his mercurial dream—the idealized thing that dances just out of arm’s reach. As long as the players co-signed their well-manicured press statement, the league’s progressive bonafides wouldn’t be critically interrogated. And we learn that dismantling racism only happens in dreams. The cycle continues.
In the most recent iteration of “in an unprecedented move,” The Milwaukee Bucks decided to boycott their game last Wednesday night against the Orlando Magic. The shooting was especially important to the Bucks because it took place locally. “We shouldn’t have even come to this damn place to be honest,” said Bucks guard George Hill. The next day, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Clippers—who once shrank from the moment and made a Quibi movie about it six years later—voted to vacate the playoffs entirely. The bubble popped.
What I take from Hill’s quote is an assessment of the bubble that is the very physical realization of the limitations of protest and sports. A player’s agency is usually inversely entrenched in their pocketbook. The NBA is a league, like all other leagues, where players are expected to be everything and nothing to fans: Be their heroes. Be their entertainers. Fight for something as long as that thing is a perfectly inoffensive platitude. Hill and others realized that they couldn’t protest and play ball, so they chose to sit out.
Then, after two days of heated debate in a ballroom on the Disney campus, in which LeBron James stormed out, Patrick Beverly screamed at someone, unsurprisingly, and Dwight Howard did more or less, nothing, the players emerged with a plan to turn arenas into voting sites, an idea that James apparently got from Obama, and a promise from the owners to invest $300 million dollars over ten years in economic growth in the Black community—mind you the least valuable team in the league, the Grizzlies, is worth $1.3 billion alone. And like nothing had happened, the bubble resumed once more.
Should we have expected anything more? You only need to look at the coverage of the boycott to get that answer. I know I got notifications celebrating the return to play like it was the main issue. Sports media didn’t think we could handle a pause to talk about police brutality for more than two days. Like a lot of protests in sports, the boycott was the fleeting subject. It’s will Kaepernick stand, it’s will Rapinoe visit the White House, it’s “I agree that black lives matter but why do they loot, wait what were they protesting again?” In recent memory, protest in sport hasn’t amounted to significant change. Whether that is because of the opioid-like escapist nature of sports, or due to limitations players face as employees for a league that looks for any reason to cut them, for now the cycle will continue. Empty praise for dulled protest. The Clippers turned their jerseys inside out, the Bucks took them off. What would happen if the players decided to burn them next time?