NBA Athletes Are Too Rich to Be Revolutionaries

There’s nothing radical about allowing the league to co-opt a labor strike

Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For a minute there, the revolution was truly untelevised. After the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for their Game 5 appearance against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, in protest of Kenosha police’s repeated shooting of unarmed Jacob Blake, it seemed like the country’s Blackest sports league had finally said “enough.” The rest of the teams slated to play that night began to follow suit; Houston and Oklahoma City first, then the Lakers and Blazers. The WNBA, major-league baseball, MLS soccer. This was it, people thought. From the unlikely flashpoint of the NBA bubble, a race-class struggle big bang would transform American sports from the inside out. Eighteen hours later, though, the league announced that the playoffs would resume — likely by the end of the week.

Womp.

As a hoop head and a socialist, I felt a serotonin rush at the slightest signal of a burgeoning labor struggle, because I couldn’t imagine it happening at all. A day before the Bucks’ first strike, when teams like the Raptors and Celtics had begun discussing the possibility of sitting out games, I hit the group chat on some “those dudes would never!” shit — so when they did, I was willing to bask in the potential. But by Thursday morning, the catharsis of having owners and management scramble to meet Black workers’ demands all but subsided.

The NBA is full of Black men, yes, but they are also the largest collection of wealthy Black men in America. That wealth factors into their personal and political interests, and what they’re willing to do to maintain them. The swiftness with which this demonstration was cut short, and the ways we as fans projected our interests onto these players, show us the attractiveness — and utter hollowness — of liberalism in the revolutionary movement.

It takes a real sacrifice to stick up for poor and working-class Black people. Retaking the court and appeasing the economy of the league negates that sacrifice — yet, that sacrifice is exactly what players and the NBA are positioning themselves as making.

Almost immediately after the Bucks stalled, the spin cycle revved up. The NBA itself announced that it had postponed all games until further notice — never acknowledging they had been forced by a work stoppage to cease operations — and would be taking part in meetings on social justice with players and management. In fact, the idea that this was a strike never quite got a foothold. Sports journalists called the demonstration a “boycott,” even though that’s not really how boycotts work. The players/teams themselves (for what I imagine to be contractual reasons) never went so far as to call sitting out a work stoppage. That kind of language could have the unintended effect of voiding the collective bargaining agreement between the league and players, and placing players at a disadvantage when negotiations resume next season.

All of this to say that in the high-intensity aftermath of the Kenosha PD’s murderous antics, it seemed that no one — not the teams, players, coaches, management, or owners — had any clue where any of this was supposed to go.

One thing that became clear in the bubble is that the NBA is full of guys with good hearts. We routinely heard from players, from its biggest stars to its little-known benchwarmers, that they’d be uncomfortable restarting the season at the expense of our “racial justice” awareness. They wanted to be of service awakening young people across the globe. So they demanded that owners and league officials take social justice seriously. In addition to plastering “Black Lives Matter” on the court and letting players rock those corny-ass social justice messages on their jerseys, the NBA also promised to invest in a 10-year plan for funding in Black communities. (It’s anyone’s guess which communities they’re actually talking about.)

While those promises were nice, they don’t do much for the psychic and physiological trauma of perpetual Black death. So now we’re in a new limbo, caught between the restart of the restart and the season’s close. Presumably, we’ll get a better sense of players’ demands over the coming days — but I’m not holding my breath for anything truly revolutionary.

The wealthy don’t participate in revolution. Instead of abolition, they push for “reformation” of police (which often ends up making the police even more dangerous); they demand voting centers, rather than pressing their candidates to be accountable to the interests of oppressed people. There will always be a gap between the rhetoric and the rule, because the struggle for Black liberation is in direct contradiction to the sustaining of mass wealth. As freedom fighter Frantz Fanon would say, “liberals are as much the enemy of oppressed people and Freedom as the self-avowed enemy, because it is impossible to be both a member of the oppressor class and a friend of the oppressed.” Even the best-intentioned of the NBA’s athletes were caught in the existential conundrum.

Black liberals are middlefolk, the White-approved managers of Black America who’ve gained enough popularity with the dominant class that the powers that be have anointed them as being beneficial to the country. Black celebrities have become voices of political centrism, of incremental progress; the Democratic Party establishment and the Black celebrity class are so entangled as to become a single webbing of spectacle and strategy.

This puts powerful Black people at odds with locals on the ground — organizers, activists, change-makers — the ones who are pushing for real, radical change. Their impassioned IG videos, their press appearances, their jersey messages all turn that work into a manageable, marketable product. They cannot be a part of the revolutionary struggle because they are too busy repackaging and selling it.

To be sure, this conflict for players isn’t unfamiliar to anyone who desires to fight on the side of the oppressed. It takes a real sacrifice to stick up for poor and working-class Black people. Retaking the court and appeasing the economy of the league negates that sacrifice — yet, that sacrifice is exactly what players and the NBA are positioning themselves as making. Bubble games are inundated with found footage of players demonstrating at protests and rallies.

Not that the burden for changing the world — hell, the burden of changing the NBA — rests solely on the players. White owners and league officials should have to answer for their investment in prisons and police. Ownership groups with a history of racist/sexist violence should be accountable to the league, so that a spiritual transformation can be initiated. But a labor stoppage is serious business, and backing away from it so easily makes clear that the promise of a platform is really the promise of continued comfort.

So, as disheartening as it was to hear the thud of that liberatory door closing on this opportunity, it’s important to embrace the disappointment. Perhaps it can lead to a deeper revelation: Revolutionary power always finds home in the people. Not in the filthy rich; not in the celebrities and politicians propping up a violent regime. The people will have to free themselves — just as it has always been.

African from Texas• Staff Writer at LEVEL • Black politics, Celebrity interviews, TV & Film Criticism • Previously: MTV News, San Francisco Chronicle

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