Three days after the attempted extrajudicial killing of Jacob Blake, and in the wake of the George Floyd murder, Breonna Taylor murder and countless other needless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of those meant to protect them – NBA players had enough.
The players of the Milwaukee Bucks were the first group that refused to come on court. The Toronto Raptors would have been next, but the league and the players union took the pre-emptive step of postponing the playoffs. Later that night the Los Angeles Lakers and the Clippers voted to abandon the rest of the season.
The NBA was on the precipice of something not seen in the modern age – a wildcat strike. For those unfamiliar, a wildcat strike is one that occurs spontaneously and not within agreed upon timeframes.
That’s right, you even have to negotiate with your boss for when you are allowed to strike. The players were in breach of their contracts when they refused to play, and yet, there was nothing the league could do about it. What could they say?
They weren’t striking for pay rises, or luxury change rooms or whatever – it was for racial justice. I’m sure this decision didn’t come lightly to the players. Colin Kaepernick, a star player of the San Francisco NFL team only a few years ago, was shunned from professional sports indefinitely for protesting police brutality and systemic racism.
To be clear, the NBA aren’t averse to using strong-arm tactics when negotiating with the players union. In 2011 the league locked out players from their contracts (i.e. stopped paying them) when talks between the two parties fell through.
By withholding their labour, the players understood the power they held in the league and in wider society. No players equal no game. No game equals no money for the owners.
I don’t know about you, but many people, including and especially wealthy professional sport owners, don’t like missing out on approximately $2.6billion per year. Let’s also not forget the fact that these aren’t regular guys getting a weekly salary – they are some of the most famous names on Earth. LeBron, Steph, Kawhi; they’re first name only famous. When these guys take a stand, people notice.
Strikes force action, and in this case, not just from the owners. There are multiple stakeholders in the NBA – the fans, sponsors, TV broadcasters, sports journalist, even entire cities and states. Portland would be nothing but hipsters without the Trailblazers; Oklahoma just tornadoes without the Thunder.
Just from a few days postponement, players extracted several concessions from the league, including turning arenas into polling stations for the November election and running ads during games ‘promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity.’
These are not nothing, but it could have been so much more. The players were in a real position to press for change governments and politicians have so often failed to enact. Voting can only do so much when the only choice is between going backwards or stagnating.
Not only that, an ongoing wildcat strike would be a signal for everyone; workers at supermarkets, offices, or construction sites that you aren’t powerless.
Reversing years of neoliberal industrial relations policy was not going to magically occur, of course, but events like these can be powerful catalysts for change.
Players had it in their hands – and they folded. I do not blame them. Years of conditioning about your role in the workplace is not easily overcome, not even by multimillionaire celebrities. It also doesn’t help when you seek guidance from a former President, and he tells you to stop.
When George Floyd died and a reckoning over systemic racism was occurring, in the midst of a powerful movement, Rayshard Brooks was killed by police, Breonna Taylor was killed by police, Jacob Blake was shot in the back – by police.
Society doesn’t change unless we will it to change. The NBA strike could have been that extra nudge we needed.