What we know and don’t know about the boycotts that stopped sports

The event that compelled the Bucks to act occurred in Kenosha, Wisconsin — just 31 miles from the team’s home — where, on Sunday, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot by police. The incident follows the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and more Black Americans by law enforcement.

NBA players joined the protest movement in response. Several have spoken at rallies and made financial contributions in support of organizations advocating for social justice. As the NBA resumed play in July in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, players wore jerseys emblazoned with messages such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Justice Now.”

The Bucks have direct experience with the issue of excessive force by law enforcement. On Jan. 26, 2018, Milwaukee forward Sterling Brown was driven to the ground and shocked with a Taser gun by an officer before being arrested after police cited him for a parking violation. Brown subsequently filed a federal civil rights suit claiming excessive force and wrongful arrest. He rejected a settlement from the city of Milwaukee.

Three hours after Wednesday’s game was postponed, Bucks players released a statement asserting, “Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”

Soon after, NBA players from teams still competing in the postseason convened inside the bubble complex to discuss their next course of action. At a spirited meeting, players debated whether to continue the season and discussed the need for team owners to do more to affect change.

NBA players have endured a lot to compete in the bubble. They’ve risked their health and left families behind. On Wednesday, they demanded a return on that investment in the form of societal change. — Kevin Arnovitz

As representatives of Wisconsin — as the players referred to the team in their statement — the Bucks believe the state legislature in Madison has failed to enact sufficient measures to address criminal justice reform and police brutality. A statement from Bucks players called for the specific action to hold accountable the officers involved in the shooting of Blake.

What does this mean for the three series postponed? Will this count as a forfeit?

This is a fluid situation with more questions than answers. The NBA operations manual includes “failure to appear” language for any team that elects to not play. The penalty is the forfeiture of the game and up to a $5 million fine. However, because all teams were in agreement not to play, the game forfeiture would not apply.

The NBA said in its statement that all three games that were scheduled for Wednesday are postponed and not canceled.

As mentioned above, the three games are postponed for now. Yet, technically, there could be financial implications for the players still in the playoffs, because they are failing to render services as required by the uniform player contract of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement.

As part of the June 20 restart memo agreed upon by the NBA and players’ association, a player who refuses to play without proper and reasonable cause or excuse can see his salary reduced by 1/92.6. However, the number of games that can be docked is capped at 14 — including the seeding games and playoff games.

For example, players on the Los Angeles Lakers have played 12 games and would lose only two games of pay in the scenario if the season is canceled. LeBron James would lose $667,178 out of his $37.4 million salary.

All NBA players — not only those participating in the playoffs — are still seeing a 25% reduction in their paycheck, with or without a boycott. As of Aug. 15, a total of $255 million has been collected. If the reductions continue through Nov. 1, the deductions will increase to $438 million.

Players are already in line to lose an additional $380 million in player escrow. In total, including the forfeiture of salary for games in Florida, player escrow and 25% reduction, the total loss of pay for James would exceed $8 million.

What happens if the playoffs are canceled?

Of course, there are bigger financial implications besides a loss of two games of pay. As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, the NBA and the players’ association recently agreed to push back the 60-day window to terminate the collective bargaining agreement.

The new Oct. 15 deadline is supposed to give both sides ample time to negotiate the resetting of the future salary cap and luxury tax numbers based on revenue lost as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Extending is an easy call,” NBPA executive director Michele Roberts told ESPN on Tuesday. “If everyone continues to be well-intentioned on how we deal with the economics of this virus, we’ll just make the appropriate adjustments, and there won’t be a need to terminate the CBA at all.”

What wasn’t mentioned by Roberts was the economic fallout if the season were canceled due to a player boycott.

Will the playoffs continue?

It’s unclear. On Wednesday night, players and coaches met in the bubble to discuss what comes next and whether the season should continue. Teams were polled about what their preference would be, and the Lakers and Clippers both voted to end the season, sources told Wojnarowski, though sources stressed there was no final decision on what would happen with the remainder of the season.

But sources said it was unlikely there would be games played Thursday.

— Arnovitz, Ramona Shelburne and Bobby Marks


WNBA questions

Four WNBA teams — the Washington Mystics, Atlanta Dream, Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx — were already on site for their matchups when the first NBA game was postponed. They met for about an hour to make a decision on whether to play.

The Mystics, who wore T-shirts with simulated bullet holes on the back as a protest against the Blake shooting, decided they wouldn’t play, and the other teams with games scheduled for Wednesday — including the Connecticut Sun and Phoenix Mercury — joined them.

What’s the historic precedent for an WNBA games protest?

The WNBA launched in 1997 and has not had a players’ strike. The only discussions of that happening have been during collective bargaining negotiations the league has had with the players’ union over the years, but it has never developed into a serious threat. The league and the union agreed to an eight-year CBA in January.

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Dream center Elizabeth Williams explains that the WNBA is standing in solidarity with the NBA and has opted to not play any games Wednesday night.

Will the players be penalized for boycotting?

In an interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe from the WNBA’s bubble in Bradenton, Florida, commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league supported the players’ decision to sit out Wednesday’s games. Engelbert said she hoped to have a discussion with the players Wednesday night.

“Obviously, we’re calling this a postponement for now,” Engelbert said, “and hopefully we’ll pick up these three games and talk with the six teams playing [Thursday] night and see how they’re feeling. And again, how they can band together in solidarity and have a really strong platform and also play basketball.”

Engelbert has stressed the league’s commitment to social justice since the decision was made to conduct the season, so penalizing the players for not competing would seem out of step with that emphasis. However, if many more games — or even the season — were canceled, it’s unclear if there would be a significant financial impact on the players. They are scheduled to make 100% of their salaries this season even though it was shortened to 22 games from the scheduled 36 before the pandemic.

What’s the reaction from WNBA teams and ownership?

The Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx organizations put out official statements saying they supported the players’ decision to not play Wednesday. A Washington Mystics spokesperson said the organization also stood behind the players’ decision, and the Mystics tweeted a link to the video of guard Ariel Atkins’ impassioned statement to Holly Rowe.

“This league is close to, if not over, 80 percent Black women,” Atkins said. “If you have a problem with us saying Black Lives Matter, you need to check your privilege. We matter.

“I know our team didn’t want to play. When they started talking about the business side of things, it kind of changed our mindsets. But when we get down to the human decency of life … are you choosing a human, or are you choosing a game? A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you’ll be silenced.’ We Black women are used to people trying to tell us to shut up. We don’t care. We’re gonna say how we feel.”

The Phoenix Mercury put out a joint statement with its players. The Connecticut Sun, Atlanta Dream and several other teams retweeted a photo of the four teams that were already on site for Wednesday’s games kneeling in solidarity. That photo was originally tweeted by the WNBA with the caption, “United.”

What’s the reaction from players and coaches around the league?

The players have been in solidarity on this issue — and that goes back to 2016 when the Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty wore warm-up T-shirts in support of Black Lives Matter after the shooting deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. Then-WNBA president Lisa Borders initially fined players for “uniform violations,” but ultimately rescinded the fines.

The WNBA’s coaches have also spoken out in support of the players. Washington’s Mike Thibault said he looked at the son of Mystics’ player Tianna Hawkins, “And I wonder what his life will be as he grows up. Whether he will be in a safe environment and get equal opportunities. Our players and our staff feel that we need to ensure his future somehow.”

Thibault, who turns 70 in September, added, “I was doing these kinds of demonstrations as a young guy, and a lot of the same things are still occurring in our society.”

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said she wasn’t sure if the players intended to continue the season, but that their decision-making shouldn’t be based on fear of the financial impact of not playing.

“They fear for their lives,” she said. “They fear for their family members’ lives. So where does basketball fit into that? Those that might suggest that playing basketball is something that we should focus on, or the fear of losing TV money, and our owners losing money, and therefore our league being in jeopardy … that’s not going to work. They’re focused on, ‘What can we do to help our communities, to help our families, so we can live safely.'”

— Mechelle Voepel


MLB questions

Driven by a movement from players after they saw the Bucks refuse to play, MLB games between the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres, and the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, were postponed hours before they were set to begin Wednesday.

Other MLB games had finished, were in progress or just about to start as the announcements were made, with some players opting to sit out while their teams played.

How did these decisions come about?

After consulting with family members, Dodgers superstar Mookie Betts decided he wasn’t going to play, regardless of the circumstances. He told his teammates he supported whichever decisions they made, but the Dodgers rallied around him, showing their new teammate a sign of support that was not taken lightly.

“I was already tight with everybody in the Dodger clubhouse, but now that I know that everybody has my back even more than I already thought means a lot,” Betts said. “I’ll always remember this day, and I’ll always remember this team just having my back.”

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Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw explain why the Dodgers chose not to play Wednesday night amid other games still happening in MLB.

What were the discussions like?

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts encouraged his players to speak openly. Roberts, one of only two Black managers, decided he wasn’t going to manage Wednesday’s game, even if his players decided to play.

The biggest impact, Roberts said, has come from the support of white players, particularly Clayton Kershaw, who has become particularly outspoken against social injustice over the past few months.

“For Black athletes right now to make a stand and choose not to play tonight, that’s one thing. But Black people have been fighting this fight for centuries,” Roberts said. “For white brothers to come in and support the Black man in this game is much more powerful.”

How much did the NBA decisions factor into those in MLB?

Brewers star Ryan Braun spoke directly to this Wednesday night, saying, “We saw what the Bucks decided to do, and frankly that inspired us. That motivated us.”

Braun’s teammate Josh Hader voiced a similar sentiment about the Bucks’ role in the Brewers’ decision earlier in the day, adding, “It’s an enormous stand. It’s more than sports. … It’s not about the game. It’s more than that. This is a time where we need to not stay quiet and show and empower our voices.”

What’s the historic precedent for an MLB games protest?

There really isn’t one. The first general players’ strike in MLB history occurred on Good Friday in 1972, wiping out the first part of that season. There have been seven more labor-related work stoppages since then, the last in 1994-95. In 1889-90, big league players walked out and formed their own short-lived league. All of these interruptions were products of conflict over salaries, pension plans and working conditions.

According to the account of that first strike in 1972 in The Sporting News, written by Bob Broeg, “There had been only one real walkout — and it involved one club on behalf of one player against one league.” He was referring to the one-day boycott by the Detroit Tigers to protest the suspension of Ty Cobb in 1912 after an incident at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. During that infamous encounter, Cobb responded to incessant heckling by a spectator — who turned out to be disabled — by going into the stands and beating his tormenter. The final straw was reportedly when the fan referred to Cobb by a racial epithet. American League president Ban Johnson, who was at the game, suspended Cobb. His teammates refused to play the next day in support of Cobb, and the Tigers were trounced 24-2 when they fielded a team of mostly amateur replacements.

That incident appears to be the closest thing to a non-universal boycott by a big league team, or teams, prior to what occurred Wednesday.

Other historical events from baseball’s distant past echo the flip side of the statement the players were making by their decision to sit out Wednesday. In the 1880s, through a series of boycotts and threatened boycotts led by such baseball luminaries as Hall of Famer Cap Anson, the sport’s color line was established and not broken at the big league level until Jackie Robinson was allowed to join the Dodgers in 1947.

What’s the reaction from other players?

In addition to the teams that did not play Wednesday, Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward, Colorado Rockies outfielder Matt Kemp and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler and pitcher Jack Flaherty sat out Wednesday’s games with their respective teams voicing support for their decisions on social media.

The Mariners were especially vocal on social media after the team’s decision not to take the field against the Padres, with outfielder Braden Bishop tweeting, “This is bigger than any sport. Period. The trauma is deeply rooted. As a white man, I will stand right along side Dee, Shed, Taijuan, Shef, Dunn, JP, CJ, KLew, Mallex, Fletch, Art” in response to an emotional tweet by teammate Dee Gordon.

What does this mean for these games?

The Reds and Brewers are expected to play a Thursday doubleheader with Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell saying, “We’re likely to play tomorrow,” and the Dodgers and Giants announced they will play a seven-inning doubleheader on Thursday. Here’s what Kershaw said: “I think as far as today goes, we made a great statement as a team. I feel like we did the right thing for today. As far as tomorrow goes, I think that’s another conversation. We’ll figure it out. If Mookie plans on playing, I think we’re gonna play. If it’s a doubleheader, we’ll figure that out as well. But for right now, I think the plan as a team is to play one game tomorrow.”

Will the players be penalized for boycotting?

Baseball’s official statement did not express this explicitly, but the tone of it strongly suggested that the players will not be penalized. Each of the teams that sat out Wednesday also issued official statements in support of their players, as did the teams who played but had individual players sit out, such as Flaherty and Fowler.

What’s the reaction from the league office and ownership?

MLB’s official statement read, “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.”

— Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez and Dan Mullen


MLS questions

When the NBA, WNBA and some MLB players and teams opted not to play Wednesday, momentum was created for MLS to do the same, with captains and player reps from various teams conversing. Players from around the league declined to play in protest of racial injustice, and in particular the shooting of Jacob Blake.

Why did one game finish?

With Orlando and Nashville kicking off at 7:30 p.m. ET, those teams were under what Nashville captain Dax McCarty called a time crunch, one exacerbated by the fact that a league rule requires players to turn off their cellphones an hour prior to kickoff — and have them stay off for the duration of the game.

“I got to the locker room. I put my phone down. I was focused on the game, figuring out what we’re going to do to try to beat Orlando,” McCarty said. “You hear rumors, you hear whispers. But ultimately, that’s what they are. We have had no firm conversations on what was going to happen before our game or with the other games. So I’m extremely proud of the rest of the players’ association for coming and being able to have that time to make that decision together.”

Nashville defender Jalil Anibaba, a founding member of the player advocacy group Black Players for Change, added that if a decision was made to go on strike, then everyone on both teams needed to be united, and there wasn’t sufficient opportunity to get everyone from both teams on the same page. That was why the game continued even after it became apparent that games elsewhere were being postponed.

Was this a decision driven by the players or the league?

Once it was announced that the five games had been postponed, MLS put out a statement: “Major League Soccer has made the decision to postpone the remaining matches — Miami-Atlanta, Dallas-Colorado, Real Salt Lake-LAFC, San Jose-Portland, LA Galaxy-Seattle — scheduled for this evening. Each match will be rescheduled.”

LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye was having none of it, tweeting in response, “We as players made the decision. Fix this, please give the right narrative.”

Kaye’s sentiments were echoed by Seattle Sounders manager Brian Schmetzer, who said in a statement, “I fully support the players’ decision. As an American citizen, it is clear to me that our country is incredibly divided, and it saddens me that some people seem not to understand the importance of this movement. The violence that we are witnessing across our nation needs to be addressed, and tonight I am proud of the players for taking a stand and using their voices.”

What happens next?

A source with knowledge of the situation said that while a majority of the teams wanted to postpone their matches Wednesday, it wasn’t unanimous. And it is unclear if this weekend’s games might also be delayed. What is certain, though, is that the issue of racial equality will continue to be front of mind throughout the league.

“At this point in time, it’s about unity,” Anibaba said. “We’ll continue to show that through our conversations internally, but also through our actions.”

McCarty added, “I’m sure the Black Players for Change is going to have some meetings with MLS. I’m sure they’re going to have player meetings with each other. I’m sure they’re going to have plenty of meetings with everyone involved in the MLS Players Association. As far as I’m concerned, all we can do is listen and learn and try to use our platform to affect change in a meaningful and positive way.”

— Jeff Carlisle

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