Basketball Plays Outside the Bubble

Professional sports are trying to function within the constraints of the coronavirus. The National Basketball Association, in a most novel solution, has tried to finish its interrupted season within a bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida. The remaining games have been played under strict supervision; the players have been in virtual lockdown. But the bubble has burst, and not because of the virus.

The police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin led the Milwaukee Bucks to refuse to play a scheduled playoff game. Other clubs soon followed such that all August 26 games were postponed. A follow-up players meeting had two teams, including basketball superstar LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers, calling to end the season. In other relevant sports news, after tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from a tournament in New York to protest for racial justice, all other matches were postponed as were three Major League baseball games and several Major League soccer matches.

Are athletes, teams and sports leagues finally coming out of their bubbles?

Sports has always been a retreat from the outside world. It is a distraction. Athletes and fans escape from their daily tedium by living in the moment inside a stadium or behind a TV screen. The field of dreams is part of the joys of sports. We empathize with athletes; we share their triumphs and sympathize with their losses. When we are inside the arena, we are far from the slings and arrows of the outside world.

There have been exceptions: Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City; Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War era and losing his right to box for several years; Olympic boycotts by the Soviet Union and the United States, and the kneeling during the national anthem by American football star Colin Kaepernick during the 2016 season.

Kaepernick was severely criticized. He was never hired by another team. But things have changed. The commissioner of the National Football League admitted that he was too harsh in his judgment. With the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake, more and more athletes have taken public positions against social injustice, especially Black athletes. Owners and league officials have also reacted more favorably. Kneeling before games during the playing of the anthem has become acceptable if not part of team building.

What will be the consequences of these protests? “We demand change. Sick of it,” tweeted LeBron James. “We’re tired of the killings and the injustice,” Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill declared. Doc Rivers, the respected coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, refuted the calls for “law and order.” In an emotional interview, Rivers said that it was people of color who were afraid of the police, not the other way around.

What changes can a sports boycott achieve? As abuses of power become more and more evident, athletes are using their public spaces to express political opinions. Black Lives Matter has found resonance with basketball players. Roughly 70% of players in the National Basketball League are men of color. Many have taken to wearing political statements on the back of their uniforms. And this has become accepted.

The consequences will not be immediate, especially during an election year. The Democratic Party has been the traditional party of minorities. Calls for social change are not new, and the history of segregation in the United States will not be solved by a Joe Biden victory. But the very fact that players have reacted by boycotting and threatening to the end the season, and that owners and league officials are not condemning the actions does show some progress.

Is that progress enough? In a new book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson argues that segregation is part of the American DNA. She highlights how the treatment of Blacks in the United States – similar to the treatment of Native Americans – Dalits in India and Jews in Nazi Germany all reflect domination by the ruling caste. According to her, this has not changed in the U.S.

We have seen national boycotts of the international Olympics. We have seen individual athletes make political protests. We are now seeing entire teams joining together to express their frustrations over social injustice. That in and of itself is progress and shows how sports and politics will no longer be radically separated. This is more powerful than individual or national actions. Let the billionaire owners of sports teams beware; the sports bubble has finally burst.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.