For Black History Month, players have worn custom Nike warm-ups declaring the league is BUILT BY BLACK HISTORY — that Black labor is the foundation of the star-driven league. This is a genealogy that mimics the struggle for progress in society.
The public sees Black NBA players as possessing a certain amount of power, though not enough individually to transcend the realities of race and class. Even the few who have banked millions of dollars can’t completely avoid white supremacist violence and state repression experienced by the rest of Black folks. While their paychecks come with a level of visibility and comfort, it is often short-lived. The average NBA career lasts only four-and-a-half years, which is also how long their career earnings last. In interviews and on social media, players have acknowledged a sense of precarity shared with people who look just like them.
When a Kenosha police officer shot seven bullets into Jacob Blake’s back, the Milwaukee Bucks sparked a historic interruption of last season’s playoffs based on the concept of linked fate, “the recognition that individual life chances are inextricably tied to the race as a whole.” This connectedness is also why Black folks feel the pain of former Bucks player Sterling Brown, who the Milwaukee police gang assaulted during what should’ve been a routine traffic citation. Because one day it could be any of us. One day it could be one of them.
Thus, it was no surprise to hear players — on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the league’s unofficial Black History Month kickoff — situate themselves in famous quotations from Dr. King, a man America reviled because he was a vocal and visible opponent to the three societal evils of racism, poverty, and war.
Dr. King’s words still loom large in our community. Yet in more than 50 years since his assassination, no words exist that will stop police from killing Black people. In Dr. King’s last papers and speeches, he admonished us to build collective power over individual platforms bringing together labor across all industries, including the guys in layup lines.
Today’s Black sports figures live in a different political environment than both recent and distant memory. Before the NFL banished quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling, former NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf protested the American flag, which he viewed as an international symbol of “oppression and tyranny.” Rauf was eventually forced out of the league in a manner similar to Craig Hodges who, just a few years prior, sought to organize a player protest during the NBA Finals.
Hodges proposed to Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan and Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson that their teams boycott the first game of the series to “stand in solidarity with the Black community while calling out racism and economic inequality in the NBA.” Jordan told him, “That’s too extreme, man.” The Bulls would win their first of three titles but ostensibly missed a great opportunity.
As tradition insisted, President George H. W. Bush invited the champion Bulls to the White House and Hodges put on quite the show. He arrived wearing a dashiki, made several three-point shots, and slid a letter to the president’s secretary. Like King’s examination of the three evils, Hodges’ eight-page message to Bush related the racist police beating of Rodney King to rampant poverty in the Black community and the Persian Gulf War.
The following season, the Bulls won another championship, this time amidst the infamous Los Angeles rebellion triggered by the acquittal of the police officers who maimed Rodney King. Hodges publicly challenged Jordan’s silence, and Hodges believes Jordan used his influence to “run (him) out of the league” in retaliation.
Nearly 30 years later, today’s NBA players proudly wear T-shirts, play on courts, and give interviews all proclaiming “Black Lives Matter.” While they may be like Mike in global popularity, they have taken a contrasting approach to public engagement with issues of racial and social justice, ergo last season’s unexpected and unprecedented work stoppage. The bubble’s thin membrane stretched from Disney’s Magic Kingdom to all of sports nation and — though it did not burst — commanded a universal pause. The NBA players strike led to postponed matches across professional baseball, tennis, and hockey.
Was this the show of might that future Hall of Fame player Carmelo Anthony envisioned in 2016 when he told journalist Howard Bryant that NBA players were “powerful enough” that they could start their own league? Initially, Bryant agreed with Carmelo but has since changed his position.
In an interview published weeks before the player strike, Bryant questioned, “How much power does a person have if they risk losing everything?” He continued, “Are we placing far too much emphasis on them when what they have is not a lot of power? They have a lot of money. And they’re not the same thing.”
Bryant suggests that NBA owners still hold power over the players in a league structured similar to most American enterprises where the workers make the product, but the higher-ups decide issues like pay and employment terms. For this reason, Dr. King led multiple efforts to mobilize the brawn of a unified workforce. In “Where Do We Go From Here,” published a year before his murder, Dr. King defined power as “the ability of a labor union like the UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say ‘yes’ when it wants to say ‘no.’” Even as it pertains to strictly NBA matters, William C. Rhoden, author of the book “40 Million Dollar Slave,” says, “Real power means desegregating the front offices and organizational charts of the players’ individual organizations that are now overwhelmingly white, or at least non-Black.”
In this moment of American history when union membership and workers’ rights are greatly diminished across the board, the National Basketball Players Association is the most prominent labor union in North America and has the potential to be the most influential. As journalist Rick Wartzman noted in Fast Company, “Some have looked at what has transpired in the NBA and hope that workers everywhere will now be inspired to come together and, when necessary, withhold their labor until they get a fair shake from their employer.”
Workers all over the country are joining a struggle for better treatment, better pay, and a safer society. Staff at Hunts Point Market in New York, the largest U.S. produce market, won a $1.85-per-hour raise. United Steel Workers in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, recently ended a week-long strike after ratifying a new collective bargaining agreement. Amazon staff at the Bessemer, Alabama, fulfillment center are voting to decide whether they will form a union. But the NBA players don’t have to travel to Bessemer to join the various unions showing solidarity to Amazon employees. They can dust off an old playbook from their own past.
Resulting from last season’s strike, league owners have followed through on their promise to form a Social Justice Coalition intended to drive political reform and an NBA Foundation meant to drive”‘Black growth”, but it remains uncertain whether these will affect the material conditions of people living in local NBA communities. So far, teams have made their arenas voting sites, the foundation has donated $2 million in grants to Black-led organizations, and the league has run commercials and PSAs about racial unity and social empathy, but even the owners have wondered aloud what more they can do. Players will have to take the next step.
Ultimately, the revolution was not televised. Yet momentarily, the world witnessed the genuine power of a collective act. Players did not shut up, and they would not suit up. And that is the game plan if they, or we, are to make Black history by exercising Black power.
Joshua E. McCoy is a writer and photographer based in East Point, Georgia. His work examines structures and status quo aiming to find the seams and bare the threads.
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