It’s been just longer than a week since the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks chose to stay in the locker room before their Game 5 matchup against the Orlando Magic, protesting in solidarity with police brutality victim Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in the back in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a few days prior.
The historic move reverberated throughout American sports, prompting the WNBA, MLB, MLS and NHL to follow suit and postpone games. The world’s highest-paid female athlete, tennis star Naomi Osaka, also risked defaulting from her match in the Western and Southern Open to show solidarity.
Broadcasters, reporters and journalists argued whether striking was the right decision, debating the efficacy of the Bucks’ decision amid the dumpster fire that is the U.S. political spectrum.
A trend among some was to cite Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests as the impetus for athletes’ recent affinity for fighting against racial inequality and police brutality. That sentiment, however, is only surmisable through the lens of the presidency of Donald Trump, who has continuously stoked the flames of peaceful protests in sports ever since he began running for president.
The reality is, protests from professional and collegiate athletes have been synonymous with sports for centuries. What the Bucks decided to do was not a revolutionary feat, which is important to recognize in the greater fight against injustice.
We can go all the way back to a chariot race in Constantinople on Jan. 13, A.D. 532, when the Blues and Greens demanded their emperor, Justinian, pardon two of their teammates who had been charged with murder. He refused, leading to tens of thousands of deaths in a weeklong riot known as the Nika Revolt.
On Aug. 10, 1883, the player-owner of the Chicago White Sox, Cap Anson, demanded that Black Toledo Blue Stockings catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker sit on the bench against Anson’s team in an exhibition game. In defiance, Toledo manager Charlie Morton started Walker, who was injured at the time, in right field. On May 1, 1884, just under a year later, Walker became the first Black American to play in a major league baseball game.
Three years after that, owners barred Black players from professional baseball.
Dozens of protests have scattered American and Olympic sports history since then. We remember the 1968 Olympics, when track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the winners’ podium in support of Black Power and the human rights movement.
Legendary Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, who died last weekend at the age of 78, refused to coach against Boston College in 1989 in protest against the NCAA’s Proposition 42, which Thompson believed disproportionately barred Black students from being eligible to play, given its lofty academic requirements.
Last week in the NBA, the fight against injustice successfully persisted and evolved. The league’s star players were given a seat at the table as they demanded that their owners use their power and influence to prompt direct change. So far, Bucks representatives have been in conversation with Wisconsin’s attorney general and lieutenant governor regarding Blake, and the NBA players’ union prompted the league to make each arena a polling place for the upcoming presidential election.
That is unequivocal, tangible change after sustained and united resistance. This is precisely what is required to move the needle toward justice. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many others have left athletes, who are obtaining a steadily increasing amount of social capital, with no choice but to join the fight.
Now, athletes at the collegiate level have organized in defiance of their ostensibly exploitative conferences. The recently formed #WeAreUnited movement, spearheaded by Cal football linemen Valentino Daltoso and Jake Curhan, demands racial justice and economic benefits for all athletes of the Pac-12 conference.
At the collegiate and professional levels, movements such as these should be encouraged and championed.
Long after the adversarial Trump administration is gone, it is imperative that athletes, owners and fans understand how far we’ve come but recognize that, as is mirrored throughout our country’s history, change is possible through consistent, relentless and sustained peaceful protest.