You never know how much leverage you have until you use it. Sometimes you never know you’re about to make history until you’re part of it.
Turns out NBA players have plenty of leverage and will forever be remembered for using it.
When the Milwaukee Bucks arrived for the 4 p.m. tip of Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, they likely had no idea they were standing at the precipice of what could be a watershed moment for North American sports and – maybe? – the modern civil rights movement.
They just felt like something had to be done. That the police shooting of Jacob Blake in a small city not far from Milwaukee couldn’t come and go. That they had to turn his trauma and theirs into something that mattered.
So they didn’t play and the rest of sports followed suit, eventually.
Sports went dark to remind us that Black Lives Matter, as a spur to have us recognize that the slogan should prompt action.
By that measure, the athlete-driven action has worked spectacularly. Instead of pre-game shows and half-time panels, sports fans tuned into conversations that were vital and important, even if they might have been uncomfortable for some.
But here’s the thing when trying to exert maximum leverage, when conducting a physics experiment in real time with the world watching and some portion – some even in the highest office in the Western World – hoping you fail:
Load up that lever too much trying to move that metaphorical boulder, and it snaps.
The boulder remains as it ever was and you’re left with no leverage, trying to pick yourself up, having underestimated the task and over-played your hand.
Based on reports from Walt Disney World Resort, that seems to be the basis of some of the frustration within the player ranks about the ad hoc nature of the Bucks independently refusing to play their game on Wednesday.
The Bucks walked out spontaneously and seemingly without a plan, raising questions that have needed answers on the fly: On what basis does the league return to play? For what gains? And for what cause would you walk out again?
Now we know. As high profile as NBA players are, they were never going to do this without help. By halting play temporarily they got the owners to the table and emerged Friday afternoon with a workable three-point plan with potential to make change now and in the future.
They earned a commitment from the league and from owners to formalize their pursuit of social justice by way of a multi-party coalition; they secured a promise to have the owners back something as actionable as using team facilities for voter registration and polling; and an agreement to have social justice messages front-and-centre on playoff broadcasts.
It’s a win and it allows play to resume with a sense that committing to finishing the 2019-20 season will be about more than basketball-related revenue or personal glory.
Now, after the most tumultuous 48 hours we’ve arguably ever seen in sports, the NBA season is ready to resume (again) and the rest of sports will too.
There’s no doubt that they’ve achieved a ‘reset’ as one NBA veteran put it – a reminder that part of the purpose of playing through a pandemic was to keep front and centre the systemic inequality of which violent encounters with police are perhaps the most visible of many symptoms.
Making this bigger than the 200 or so players in the bubble was vital.
It was heart-wrenching to listen to Raptors Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam speak about the soul-searching they were forced to go through after the video of the Blake shooting began to circulate.
Listening to their stories also proved to be valuable because it spoke to some of the unfairness of the situation that they felt like they had to speak.
Trying to shift the weight of generations of inequality is not something the NBA or NBA players should have to shoulder alone.
The last two times NBA players raised the possibility of a boycott or – in the Bucks’ case – a strike, the problems they were trying to solve were finite; they existed within the league’s known universe. At the 1964 All-Star Game it was pension rights; in 2014 it was to demand the ouster of then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling. On both occasions, solutions were at hand and gains won.
This time it’s almost as if the players are on the dark side of the moon now trying to navigate a distant, uncharted solar system.
That they are trying means they have earned admiration and respect and very likely a place in history alongside athletic icons of the 1960s-era civil rights movement.
But eventually – and sooner is better than later – they need to be unburdened, or at least the burden needs to be shared.
The Bucks, after all, can ask for the Wisconsin state Republican-held legislature to reconvene to pass a police reform bill first tabled by Democratic governor Tony Evers in June, but they’ll have difficulty making it happen.
The unfortunate likely reality is – given the polarized political climate in some parts of the U.S., Wisconsin among them – the notion that a group of wealthy Black athletes trying to force the hand of Republican lawmakers might only embolden those legislators to hold firm to appeal to their voting base.
So in some ways the mountain remains Everest-like in scale in some corners of the league.
Owners of the Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs are all high-profile Republicans and have supported Donald Trump in the past.
The structures that have perpetuated systemic inequality – in the U.S. in particular – are deeply rooted and can almost certainly only be changed incrementally – likely over years and multiple election cycles.
So it’s not fair to expect only the players to use their platform for social justice.
Had players decided to walk away from the 2019-20 season, it would have severely damaged league revenues for this season and likely caused the current CBA to be torn up, most likely requiring players to negotiate a new one from a distinct disadvantage.
Striking against the league or owners hurts the players disproportionately given they share league revenues evenly with ownership, but the owners – all wealthy before they ever bought a team – split their half 30 ways while the players split theirs 450 ways, and have a brief window in their lives to do so.
And the issues prompting the walkout aren’t going away, sad as it is to say. The killing of George Floyd and maiming of Blake won’t be the last time police use lethal force against an unarmed Black person. Although data is incomplete, some estimates suggest there were 235 such instances in the U.S. in 2019.
When another video surfaces next week or next month or next year, what happens then?
Can play continue? Should it?
It’s not a choice the players should have to make by themselves.
This cohort of NBA players have done their share and seem determined to make their voice heard and their influence count.
But it’s not their job to reverse generations of history and certainly not theirs alone. They can’t be expected to stop working every time tragedy strikes or be the only source of leadership on the issues that give rise to them.
Using this walkout to earn promised support from the league is an important step, but there is more to be done and over a long horizon.
They deserve massive credit this time around for having leaned into the task, but they need a giant lever with many hands on it to move mountains.
When they return to play and we start watching again, that’s what needs to be remembered above all.