NBA player strike just one positive reminder of worker power


IT WASN’T HOCKEY BUT IT WAS A POWER PLAY. Pro basketball players went on a 24-hour strike August 26 to use their popularity and influence to support the Black Lives Matter movement and the demand for an immediate end to police attacks on, and murders of, Black people. Players in all other major pro sports leagues soon also went on strike in solidarity.

The strike started when the players on the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team refused to leave the locker room for game five of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic. Players on all the other teams in the basketball playoffs stood in solidarity with the Milwaukee and Orlando players. The league was forced to cancel all playoff games that night.

Players pulled no punches

LA Lakers star LeBron James supported the Bucks players with this tweet: “FUCK THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT.”

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said: “At the end of the day, if we’re gonna sit here and talk about making change, then at some point we’re gonna have to put our nuts on the line and actually put something up to lose, rather than just money or visibility.”

Solidarity from all major sports players

In baseball the New York Mets and Miami Marlins left the field on August 27, after a 42-second moment of silence (in honor of Jackie Robinson). They left behind a T-shirt on home plate that read “Black Lives Matter". Two other baseball games were also cancelled.

Numerous National Football League teams cancelled practices. Baltimore Ravens players had a four-hour team meeting, and then put out a remarkable action statement.

NBA referees staged a march, wearing T-shirts that read, “Everyone Against Racism.” The Women’s National Basketball Association also cancelled games.

The National Hockey League first tried to ignore what was happening. But player pressure forced the team owners to cancel a slate of games in solidarity with the events swirling around the sports world.

Naomi Osaka, the tennis star of Japanese-Haitian descent, also bowed out of a tournament and tweeted the following: “[B]efore I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And as a Black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis. I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction.”

All workers have power

The significance of the player actions goes far beyond the world of sports. The fact is the players are workers who stood up to their bosses, and for themselves, to get something they wanted. They knew being in the sports spotlight gave them extra power and they used it.

About 75% of the NBA is Black and many of the players come from poor and working-class backgrounds. As the Toronto Raptors’ Fred VanVleet said: “We’re the oppressed ones and the responsibility falls on us to make a change to stop being oppressed.”

The player strikes were important. But the players want more. Their supporters want more.

NBA player leaders want the franchise owners to put some “skin in the game.” NBA insider Shams Charania reported that, in a meeting with owners, players called on owners to be “proactive, not reactive, to social justice changes; create actions, not simply financial commitments.”

Like being ‘hit with an electric prod’

“I’m all for extracting concessions from billionaires,” says Nation magazine columnist Dave Zirin. “But what these players are doing is nothing less than striking for Black lives. They are using their power as workers to protest... the fact that, as one player put it, ‘nothing is changing.’

“By exercising their power as workers, the players are inspiring an incredibly dormant part of the resistance to racism and Trumpism: the labor movement.

“If the NBA can shut down in protest of racist police violence, why not other industries? Why not cities? Why not entire sectors of the country’s economy? Strikes do not have to be about wages and benefits.

“That may sound far-fetched, but I can say that I received half a dozen calls from unionists or union officials telling me that they and their members felt like they had been hit with an electric prod. The idea that everyone in the country was talking about this 'strike' taking place was making so many of these workers feel.

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