Commentary: The day the sports world’s bubbles burst

Why We Wrote This

The NBA tried to create a perfect bubble to return to play. But it all came crashing down with the shooting of Jacob Blake. And there’s a deeper lesson in that.

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A detail of the jersey of Russell Westbrook, #0, of the Houston Rockets during the second half against the Dallas Mavericks at The Arena at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex on July 31, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

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When the National Basketball Association began planning to return from its pandemic-related hiatus, its hopes centered around a $170 million bubble. It would protect the players, and it would even amplify their voices. “Black Lives Matter” was printed on the floor, and the backs of players’ jerseys had social justice messages.

It appeared to be almost perfect. But it wasn’t bulletproof.

The shooting of Jacob Blake, an African American, by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, led to a strike by players of the NBA and Women’s NBA Wednesday. Other major sports teams and leagues followed suit.

In a country of deepening divisions – from Facebook bubbles to partisan bubbles – the NBA experiment was a poignant irony. No bubble can keep out the world. Indeed, the events of this week were decades in the making, from a teammate pleading with Michael Jordan to boycott Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals, to Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell protesting prejudice he faced at a Kentucky lunch counter in 1961. They are reminders that the spirit of revolt against prejudice and hate never dies.

When the National Basketball Association announced its plan to resume the season in early June, it provided a fitting bookend to the events that postponed the season in the first place.

Two Utah Jazz players tested positive for the coronavirus in March, and the NBA quickly suspended the season. The rest of the country soon followed. Not just professional sports. Not just March Madness. Everything.

The plan to resume centered around a $150 million bubble – keeping all NBA players and game staff at a Walt Disney World facility in Florida to play out the rest of the season and the playoffs. It was not just a construct, but an investment to protect the players (and the season). As the return to play neared, the bubble carried an Avalon-like mythos. It wasn’t just legendary, it seemed a safe haven with no reported cases of COVID-19.

This bubble wouldn’t be only about sports, either. The NBA’s predominantly Black player base wanted to send a message. “Black Lives Matter” was printed on the floor. The backs of players’ jerseys had messages such as “Equality” and “Say Her Name,” a response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others.

The bubble appeared to be almost perfect. But it wasn’t bulletproof.

Late Sunday evening, two names entered the national consciousness: Jacob Blake and Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Mr. Blake, a 29-year-old African-American man, had been shot in the back seven times by police. He is now paralyzed, according to family members. The incident set Kenosha afire with protests. It felt like George Floyd and Minneapolis all over again.

For a few days, the NBA bubble held, with games continuing. Yet in the face of another police shooting, the on-the-court shots began to ring hollow.

The first sign came from the Milwaukee Bucks. For them, the shooting hit home not just because Kenosha is an hour’s drive from Milwaukee, but also because teammate Sterling Brown was tased and wrongly arrested by police in January 2018. Last October, he rejected a $400,000 settlement.

What happened to Mr. Blake didn’t just poke at conscience. It punctured the bubble.

“First of all, we shouldn’t have even came to this d— place, to be honest,” Milwaukee guard George Hill said in response to the Blake shooting. “Coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are. But we’re here. It is what it is.

Kevin C. Cox/AP
An empty court and bench are shown following the scheduled start time of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, on Aug. 26, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. All three NBA playoff games scheduled for Wednesday were postponed, with players throughout the league choosing to boycott in their strongest statement yet against racial injustice.

“We can’t do anything from right here. But definitely when it’s all settled, some things need to be done.”

A nation of bubbles

In a country of deepening divisions, the NBA bubble was a poignant irony. From Facebook bubbles to partisan bubbles to news bubbles, Americans have been slowly separating themselves from those with whom they disagree, seeking comfort and reassurance in that distance. For the NBA, the primary goal of the bubble was to create an environment that virtually eliminated the threat of COVID-19. There was even the hope that it could become something more – an amplifier for a predominantly Black league’s collective message of social justice. Even if it wasn’t an ideal situation, it was an ideal.

What happened to Jacob Blake changed all that. It was the day the bubble burst.

On Wednesday, the urgency to do something resulted in a wildcat strike that shook the sports world. The Women’s National Basketball Association, whose players have been trailblazers on social justice issues, took up arms with the NBA. Other sports leagues – from Major League Soccer to the National Hockey League – followed. National Football League teams canceled practices. Several Major League Baseball teams refused to play.

All leagues are planning to return to play this weekend. But fittingly, the NBA/WNBA strikes occurred four years to the day that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during a preseason game to raise awareness about police brutality.

The events of this week were decades in the making. The NBA bubble was only the latest example of a sports world seeking to quarantine itself from issues of race and justice.

This week, Dr. Louis Moore, an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University, shared a stunning timeline of Black athletes and police brutality.

But efforts to combat these incidents also have their own timeline.

Long thread of activism

Four years ago, before the world had even heard of George Floyd, the Minneapolis Lynx wore Black Lives Matter shirts in the aftermath of police shootings that left two Black men dead. Maya Moore, who was the face of that protest, is in the midst of a two-year sabbatical from the sport for the cause of social justice. Her activism was significant in the overturning of the conviction of Jonathan Irons.

Then there is the story about Chicago Bulls sharpshooter Craig Hodges, who lobbied basketball icons Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to sit out Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals. Mr. Hodges wanted to protest the Rodney King beating, and he expressed the urgency of the moment in his autobiography, “Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter”:

Before game one, in warm-ups, I pulled Michael Jordan to the side and told him that I thought he and I should encourage our players to boycott the game. I cited the action at the 1964 All-Star game [when players threatened before tip-off to not take the floor unless they received pensions and better working conditions]. I said we could wait for everyone to fill the stadium, the cameras would begin to roll, and then we would stand in opposition to racism and economic inequality both in the Black community and in the NBA. I knew if I could get Michael on board the rest of the team would follow. We were a tight unit. Michael said I was crazy and quickly dismissed my idea.

Disappointed but undeterred, I approached Magic Johnson during warm-ups and said the same thing to him, knowing he would have the same kind of influence in the Lakers locker room. “That’s too extreme, man,” said Magic.

“What’s happening to our people in this country is extreme,” I replied. “We need to take advantage of this moment.”

In 1961, Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell led a boycott of an exhibition game in Louisville, Kentucky, after he had been refused service at a restaurant the day before. The white players went ahead and played. On Thursday, he posted an old news story on Twitter with this headline: “Russell Would Give Up Basketball For Rights.” The first paragraphs of the story were even more compelling:

Defensive genius Bill Russell said he would quit the Boston Celtics “without hesitation” to assist the civil rights movement if it would ease racial tension and aid Negroes.

The 6-foot-10 inch center, a Negro, when asked during a news conference whether he would leave the Celts to assist in the civil rights movement, said:

“Yes, but only if it would make a concrete contribution. There’d be no choice. It would be the duty of any American to fight for a cause he strongly believes in.

“But I really don’t think the situation will warrant me leaving the team,” he added quickly.

Mr. Russell applauded today’s players Thursday afternoon.

“I am one of the few people that knows what it felt like to make such an important decision,” Mr. Russell said. “I am so proud of these young guys.”

Mr. Russell’s encouragement not only bridges the generation gap, but also reminds us that the spirit of activism never dies. The promise of every revolution against prejudice and hate rests in every revolt, no matter how long or short.

Yet where there is promise, there is also pain for Black people in America, whether laymen or legend, regular or revered. The truth is this: There are no bubbles.

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