We are all George Hill – exhausted, dejected and mad as hell, quite frankly. Whether a white ally who has committed to the fight for racial justice or a black American whose very existence, it seems, is an act of unlawful protest in this country or somewhere in between, you could identify with the searing frustration that seeped from the Milwaukee Bucks guard after yet another unarmed black man being gunned down by the boys in blue.
On Monday, Hill expressed his anger at the shooting of Jacob Blake, saying: “We shouldn’t have even came to this damn place, to be honest. [It] just took the focus off what the issues are.”
By Wednesday, the Bucks had boycotted their playoff game, and other NBA teams – and leagues such as the WNBA, NHL, MLS and MLB – as well as tennis players, had followed suit.
Even the NBA refs staged a march through the bubble in solidarity. Surely somewhere the former NBA sharpshooter Craig Hodges, who had tried and failed to lead a boycott during the 1991 NBA finals in response to Rodney King’s police beating, was smiling.
As defiant acts in sports go, the Bucks’ bold stand – just the second boycott in NBA history – sits just below Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objection, the definitive proof of the tremendous power athletes can wield when they come together. What’s more, Bucks players went from rallying behind their Greek superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, during his on-camera acceptance of the league’s defensive player of the year award to standing shoulder to shoulder behind Hill as their team statement was read by swingman Sterling Brown – himself a victim of police brutality barely two years ago. To be sure, it’s a dichotomy that should not be easily forgotten.
One locker room. That was all it took to throw the spotlight back on the social justice fight, to force the NBA to reconsider its restarted season – apparently saved at the ninth hour by who else but His Airness, Michael Jordan. One locker room was all it took to steal focus from a Republican national convention that can only hallucinate about the existential threats that black people in this country experience as a matter of fact.
Meanwhile, the teenager suspected of fatally shooting two men at a protest over the shooting of Blake is depicted as a hero to large parts of America, as Blake himself is branded a hoodlum as he lays shackled to his hospital bed, paralyzed fighting for his life. And after Hill vented his frustration with this double standard, well, a most unusual thing happened: The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers backed up Hill. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo weighed in.
Even hard-hearted company men like NFL executive Troy Vincent were suddenly overcome. Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, in an interview with NBC News, suggested Rusten Sheskey, the officer who repeatedly shot Blake in the back, “should be charged.” The Department of Justice is investigating. Finally, on Friday, the players agreed to resume play on Saturday after compelling their NBA partners to agree to more social justice reforms, not least converting team arenas and other properties into polling places. What a difference three months’ worth of pressure on ownership, lawmakers and league stakeholders make.
But of course no good deed goes unscrutinized. In an appearance on CNN, Charles Barkley was hung up on the Bucks for wrongfooting the Magic with their work stoppage plan. (Beg pardon, but the time for etiquette passed 400 years ago. Also: didn’t you throw a guy through a plate-glass window once?). Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix tweeted for the “many” for whom “it’s unclear exactly what more NBA owners can do” to support their players who, on supposes, should be happy to be pros.
Here’s a thought: they could cancel contracts with police departments, stop donating to and raising money for politicians whose agendas subvert the interests of their black players and who plot their way to power through voter suppression. They could make more use of their massive influence and make direct appeals to their mayors, governors, senators and president on their players’ behalf. They could challenge Facebook and Google to stop reinforcing racism through their algorithms.
NBA owners could threaten to pull their teams out of municipalities that are as hostile and potentially lethal to their black citizens as Milwaukee is, the “the epitome of a 21st century racial regime”, according to one study. (Lord knows, teams move for far pettier reasons.) And given the success of the bubble, the billions at their disposal and the delocalization of sports fandom over the past decade, the owners could conceivably take their ball and build an NBA city and place every one of its teams inside that bubble, Olympic-style.
The NBA players, too, should let their imaginations run free. Just as they have a union to represent their financial interests, they should form a lobby group that elaborates their oft-stated demands into stacks of legislation that they can hand off to state and federal reps to put up for vote. They could staff that shop with a mix of ex-players association reps, legal eagles from the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and put it all under the charge of someone like Angela Rye, a social justice-minded Washington insider who well knows the dirty truth about the politicians in town: they don’t actually write the bills they sponsor. Mostly, their interest groups do that job for them.
More to the point: NBA players should pool their money with their fellow sports stars again and fund their own super-PAC so they can handpick the lawmakers to represent their interests at the local level and beyond. Imagine Chris Paul campaigning for a Tulsa city councilor or even Rodgers stumping for school board candidates in Kenosha. If anything, this Bucks-led boycott shows athletes have only scratched the surface of their fantastic power. And to those who still wonder what the endgame is here, be clear: this game has only just tipped off.