There’s an old newsroom gag about sports departments (this was back when newsrooms and sports departments still existed). On Election Night, all the sports reporters see all the political reporters ordering pizzas, pounding cups of coffee, preparing for what is essentially their Super Bowl. The sports reporters chuckle. “Look at you all,” they joke. “The one time a year you have actual live news to cover. We do this literally all year-round. So yeah, enjoy your pizza. Congrats on finally having to work a night.”
I bring up that story not as a bit of newsroom nostalgia in a modern-day world where every reporter I know has been working 23-hour days every day for about nine years, but to spotlight two fundamental truths about sports:
1. They are constantly happening, every night, all the time.
2. People of all political and demographic stripes pay attention to them.
There isn’t much else in American life that fall into these categories. Sure, news is ever-present, particularly in an election year, but most of it is unscheduled — stuff you don’t see coming. Sporting events happen live, at a concrete time: You know who’s playing, when they play, where they’re playing, and how you can watch them. They have a structure to them that lends a foundation to their inherent unpredictability. You don’t know what’s going to happen in a game, but you do know something is going to happen. One of the reasons it’s so fun to write about sports professionally is that you are never in danger of running out of stories. There’s something entirely new and entirely unexpected every few hours. Every night is Oscars Night, every night is a political convention, every night is sweeps week. It is a constant churn of activity, news, and surprise — and people actually care. People always watch.
What was so powerful on Wednesday afternoon — after the Milwaukee Bucks announced that they weren’t going to play their first-round NBA playoff game against the Orlando Magic to demand accountability for the shooting of Jacob Blake, which led to cancellations of the rest of the NBA and WNBA games and several MLB and MLS games — is that sports actually stopped. They stopped! World War I, a pandemic, and now police violence: It takes a lot for this to happen.
It was jarring and disorienting: Wait, there’s no game? They’re just … not playing? We had slowly adjusted to a COVID-induced absence of sports, but this felt different: This felt like a needle sliding off the record. And that it felt so reality-bending is why it was entirely necessary. It is one thing to take a knee during the national anthem as way to protest police brutality toward Black people — considering that doing so got Colin Kaepernick banned from the NFL and turned the act of bending down slightly into the most white-hot political stance imaginable, it’s fair to say that was a pretty big thing. But to say, “We have been pushed so far that we are no longer going to play this game” — something that is essentially unprecedented in the history of sports — is a jaw-dropping moment. And yet, now that it’s happened, it feels like it was inevitable. In fact, it’s a little surprising it took this long.
Many players were already conflicted about playing in the first place; some, including Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, had expressed concern that players’ time could be better spent out in the streets. (Stephen Jackson, the former NBA player who was George Floyd’s lifelong friend, argued the same thing back in June.) But players, almost across the board, returned to Orlando to finish the season, with considerable success. The games have been crisp and enjoyable and riveting, the Disney World bubble has remained COVID-free, and it has been impossible to miss the Black Lives Matter messaging on the court and the calls for social justice coming from players and coaches every night. (Clippers coach Doc Rivers was particularly eloquent on the subject earlier this week.) The bubble could only hold off the outside world so long, though — particularly as players, who, remember, have been locked on a Disney campus and unable to leave for more than a month now, grow increasingly restless as America swirls dangerously out of control around them. The Blake shooting hit the Bucks particularly hard, given its proximity to their backyard, and their desire to sit out the game immediately established a permission structure for other teams to do the same. (Originally, the Bucks were willing to actually forfeit the game, but the Orlando Magic, their opponents, immediately decided to sit out the game as well.) The other NBA games were quickly canceled too, and were followed by cancellations of WNBA games (in which the Washington Mystics took the court in warm-up T-shirts that spelled out Blake’s name in painted bullet holes), MLS games, and several (but not all) MLB games. On Thursday, the players reportedly voted to continue the season, but everything is still perilous: This is just the start of their demands.
The episode has, of course, inspired the usual “shut up and dribble” prattle, including from Jared Kushner, of all freaking people — who this morning said, “What I’d love to see from the players in the NBA — again they have the luxury of taking a night off from work, most Americans don’t … I’d like to see them start moving into concrete solutions that are productive.” This ignores the Bucks’ pleas to the Wisconsin legislature to “reconvene and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform,” and LeBron James’s push for voter registration, his much-heralded public school in Akron, and basically the whole point of everything NBA players have been trying to do for many years now. But that Kushner and Vice-President Pence (whose chief of staff this morning said, “If they wanna protest, I don’t think we care”) are forced to address this, and that all of the games that millions of people were going to watch yesterday (and perhaps today and in the future) have not happened, forces Americans to address what the players are saying in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
LeBron and Chris Paul and Doc Rivers and many other NBA and professional sports stars have been explicit and active in their calls for social change for years, and America has nodded and even mostly agreed, and corporations have hashtagged and been Allies, and leagues have tried to be part of The Movement, and thus the games have gone on … and Black men keep getting shot in the back by police. (And now protesters are being shot by teenage militia members and getting praised by cable news for it.) What more would you have players do? They’ve played in a constructed bubble for our entertainment in the hope that it would amplify their voices and affect change. And outside that bubble, the world burns. Is it any wonder they would want to stop? The wonder is that it took them this long.
That’s the thing about sports: They happen so often, so regularly, so consistently, that you take them for granted. You take the games for granted, the story lines for granted, and most of all, the players for granted. Sports are so fascinating on their own, so intoxicating, that the message can get muddled: You want to escape from the world burning by diving into the game and trying to shut out everything else. What the NBA players, and many others, are saying now is that you, and I, have to stop doing that. They are telling us to look not at them, but at what matters. It is yet to be seen how effective this tactic will be, whether it will ultimately amplify the players’ voices or quiet them. But it is the most courageous, truly remarkable thing I’ve ever seen in sports. I’ll never watch games the same way again — which was the point all along.