On August 23, Jacob Blake, an innocent black American, was peacefully trying to get into his car when a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot him seven times in the back trying to arrest him. Although Blake survived, he was paralyzed from the waist down. A video of that shooting has gone viral and outrage quickly spread, rekindling the nationwide protest for racial justice. Teams from both the WNBA and NBA refused to play because of this; bringing attention to the ongoing social injustice between police and black Americans.
The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks were the first to take action when they refused to take the court for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic. The team players and coaches remained in their locker room for more than three hours before coming out. They demanded justice and released a statement as to why they refused to play.
“When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable,” George Hill, a Bucks player who read the statement on behalf of the team, said. “We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment we are demanding the same from lawmakers and law enforcement. We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable.”
After Hill said his part, the NBA postponed the three remaining playoff games planned to August 23. On that same day, the Washington Mystics, along with five other WNBA teams, decided against playing in the three games scheduled. The Mystics arrived at the arena wearing t-shirts sporting the name of Jacob Blake along with seven faux bullet holes across the shirt’s back instead of their usual uniforms. In place of the game, players from both teams lined up on the court, arm in arm, and took a knee.
This was not the first display of support that WNBA players have made. In earlier months, teams such as the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, and Washington Mystics were among the first athletes to wear warm-up shirts showing messages supporting Black Live Matter. They posted social media blackouts and kneeled during the national anthem.
“We wanted everybody to feel like they were supported,” the Mystics’ Ariel Atkins said in an interview with ESPN. “Understanding that this isn’t just about basketball. We aren’t just basketball players and just because we are basketball players, doesn’t mean that’s our only platform. We need to understand that when most of us go home, we still are Black, in the sense that our families matter.”
At one point players as prominent as Kyrie Irving and Lebron James declared that continuing the season, which had resumed in the midst of a pandemic, was a mistake and a distraction. They urged for athletes to stay home and work within their communities for change. Discussions on canceling the season began, but after a day of consideration, the players voted to return to playing. While the NBA players will continue on with the season, some WNBA players including Renee Montgomery of the Atlanta Dream, opted to skip the season. Instead, she and many others have decided to focus on social justice causes.
This protest inspired other professional sports teams to follow the NBA and WNBA’s lead, ensuing a wave of silence and a refusal to play. The involvement of hundreds of players from a variety of different professional sports has made this one of the largest political statements to ever occur in U.S. athletics.
This demand for justice is a message to the people of the United States. By threatening to withhold the sport they love and represent, WNBA and NBA players have shown how much they are willing to give up for the cost of justice.