‘We’re all in favor’: Racial justice boycotts roil pro sports

From the NBA to MLB to WNBA to tennis, professional athletes are uniting to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin by refusing to play scheduled games and matches. “I have to use my platform to at least get the ball rolling,” said Dodgers star Mookie Betts.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
Las Vegas Aces forward Dearica Hamby goes up for a shot during the first half of the team's WNBA basketball game against the Dallas Wings, Aug. 25, 2020, in Bradenton, Florida. The WNBA joined the NBA in boycotting games Wednesday night.

NBA players didn’t come to Disney solely for a restart. They wanted social reform.

The Milwaukee Bucks showed how far they’re willing to go to get it by opting not to play in their playoff game Wednesday. Two more games were postponed later in the day, the second time this season NBA basketball came to an immediate halt.

Other sports followed, just as they did in March when the season was suspended for four months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This time, the players will decide how long the stoppage lasts.

“The biggest thing that we all understand is if we’re not playing, what are we doing? What are we doing to show and to help what’s going on outside this bubble?” Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams said, shortly before the Bucks were scheduled to tip off their game against the Orlando Magic.

Instead, the Bucks players remained in the locker room, finally emerging hours later to read a statement demanding action from lawmakers and encouraging voting by citizens.

They changed the narrative across the entire sports landscape, putting the focus squarely on social justice reform in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, while three of his children in his car looked on.

While players and teams from baseball, the WNBA, MLS, and tennis sat out their competitions Wednesday night, NBA players and coaches met for nearly three hours in a Disney hotel to determine next steps, including whether the season should continue. They did not come to a consensus, a person with knowledge of the meeting told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because details weren’t revealed publicly.

The NBA’s board of governors will meet Thursday morning and likely address whether the playoff games scheduled for that day will be played. The Western & Southern Open won’t be, with the U.S. Tennis Association, along with the ATP and WTA Tours, announcing play would be paused after two-time Grand Slam women’s champion Naomi Osaka had already said she wouldn’t play her semifinal match.

“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,” Ms. Osaka tweeted. “Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach.”

More lost NBA games would be another punishing financial blow in a season in which the league was already headed to losses of hundreds of million of dollars, potentially leading to ramifications that would be felt in future years.

Before coming to Disney, many NBA players wrestled for weeks about whether it was even right to play, fearing that a return to games would take attention off the deaths of, among others, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in recent months.

They ultimately decided coming to the bubble and playing televised games would give them the largest platform, though now at least some are wondering if that’s still true. Toronto coach Nick Nurse said he’s heard some players on his team say they were thinking about going home.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers hopes they won’t.

His players considered boycotting a playoff game in 2014 after audio tapes featuring former owner Donald Sterling were revealed. He said this time is different because it’s the whole league, rather than one team, weighing the decision.

“I think every team has to decide what they want to do and honestly I hope everyone plays,” Mr. Rivers said. “I just think showing the excellence in doing your job, there’s nothing wrong with that, but also fighting for what’s right is important as well.”

It certainly is for the Bucks, who play about 40 miles from Kenosha. Sterling Brown, one of the players to read the statement, has a federal lawsuit pending against the city of Milwaukee alleging he was targeted because he was Black and that his civil rights were violated in January 2018 when officers used a stun gun on him after a parking violation.

And it is for the Raptors, whose team president, Masai Ujiri, had an altercation with an Oracle Arena security guard after Game 6 of last year’s NBA Finals. A video of it released recently appears to show an Alameda County sheriff’s deputy initially shoved Mr. Ujiri, who is Black, twice.

They are scheduled to open the second round Thursday against Boston, but Mr. Nurse said his players were already having discussions about not playing.

“Boycotting the game has come up for them and again, as a way to try to demand a little more action and I think that’s really what they want,” Mr. Nurse said.

“I think there’s enough attention and there’s not quite enough action and I think that’s what I can sense from the discussion. Their disappointment of man, how can we get something to change?”

It probably starts with actions like the Bucks took. Mr. Rivers and LeBron James had passionately described the emotions the NBA community felt after seeing the video of Mr. Blake’s shooting.

But it’s going to take more than players sitting out NBA games.

“It’s going to take all our institutions to stand up for our values,” former President Barack Obama tweeted, commending the NBA and WNBA players while posting a link to Rivers’ comments from earlier this week.

The WNBA also postponed its three games Wednesday night, just hours after the NBA.

”We know it’s a very emotional time for our players. They are struggling with what’s been happening in this country for months, if not years,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who said the league supports its players decision to not play Wednesday night.

In Bradenton, Florida, in the WNBA bubble, Washington was set to play Atlanta, Minnesota was going to face Los Angeles, and Connecticut was going to meet Phoenix. 

All four teams took a knee at center court right before leaving the court.

Atlanta Dream player Elizabeth Williams read a statement on ESPN saying that the “consensus is not to play in tonight’s games.”

“We stand in solidarity with our brothers in the NBA, and will continue this conversation with our brothers and sisters across all leagues and look to take collective action,” said Ms. Williams, the secretary of the players’ union.

The Mystics came into the arena wearing shirts that spelled out Mr. Blake’s name on the front and had holes in the back to signify the seven bullets that the Black man was hit with by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The WNBA and its players have dedicated this season to social justice. Players have been wearing the name of Breonna Taylor on the back of the uniforms all season long.

Over the course of the season players have worn warmup shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” on the front and “Say Her Name” on the back. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is featured prominently on the courts where the teams play.

Three MLB games between the Cincinnati Reds and Brewers in Milwaukee, Seattle Mariners and Padres in San Diego, and the Los Angeles Dodgers and Giants in San Francisco were called off hours before they were set to begin.

“There are serious issues in this country,” Seattle’s Dee Gordon tweeted. “For me, and for many of my teammates, the injustices, violence, death and systemic racism is deeply personal. This is impacting not only my community, but very directly my family and friends. Our team voted unanimously not to play tonight.”

Other MLB games had finished, were in progress or just about to start as the announcements were made. Some players, such as outfielders Jason Heyward of the Cubs and Matt Kemp of the Rockies, sat out while their teams played.

All three postponed games will be made up as doubleheaders Thursday. There was the possibility, too, that other games around the majors could affected – two days before MLB was set to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day.

“Given the pain in the communities of Wisconsin and beyond following the shooting of Jacob Blake, we respect the decisions of a number of players not to play tonight. Major League Baseball remains united for change in our society and we will be allies in the fight to end racism and injustice,” MLB said in a statement.

Said players’ union head Tony Clark: “At this critical time, players have been deeply affected by the recent events in Wisconsin and by similar events in other parts of the country. We are proud of the stand that our players have taken, and we remain committed to supporting their efforts to effect change in MLB communities and beyond.”

Brewers star Christian Yelich said he exchanged texts with Bucks guard Pat Connaughton to let him know they wouldn’t be playing at Miller Park and that “we wanted to be united with them in what they started.”

Brewers player representative Brent Suter said he informed Cincinnati’s Mike Moustakas and pitcher Wade Miley – both former Brewers – of the decision.

“They just said flat out, ‘We support you guys no matter what. Whatever you decide to do, we’re all in favor. We want to follow your lead,’” Mr. Suter said. “So that was a great comfort for us going to the meeting.”

Dodgers star Mookie Betts, who is Black, told his teammates he was sitting out and they backed him.

“For me, I think no matter what, I wasn’t going to play tonight,” Mr. Betts said.

“I have to use my platform to at least get the ball rolling,” he said.

Once Mr. Betts made his decision, the Dodgers stood by him, ace Clayton Kershaw said.

“More than anything as a teammate of Mookie’s, as a member of this team ... as a white player on this team is how do we show support? What’s something tangible that we can do to help our black brothers on this team?” Mr. Kershaw said.

Toronto slugger Rowdy Tellez said the Blue Jays would meet Thursday to decide a course of action.

“It’s going to be a great team discussion and probably a very emotional one for a lot of guys that know what it’s like,” he said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP Writers Tim Reynolds in Miami, Steve Megargee in Milwaukee, and Doug Feinberg contributed to this report.

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