In light of the social justice movements taking place across the country, professional athletes from multiple sports leagues took a stand against racial injustice on Wednesday, Aug. 26, as they refused to participate in scheduled games, using their national platforms to spotlight police brutality and systemic racism.
The protests came on the heels of the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man paralyzed after being shot seven times in the back by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin. They also follow a summer of unrest after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which energized a nationwide movement for social justice.
Players from the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks organized a walkout before their game against the Orlando Magic, refusing to take the court for the playoff game.
“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,” guard George Hill and forward Sterling Brown said in a team statement after the boycott. “We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.”
In the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), athletes from the Washington Mystics walked onto the court with shirts spelling out “Jacob Blake” on the front, as well as seven bullet holes painted on the back, before boycotting their game against the Atlanta Dream.
"After speaking with representatives from teams playing tonight, as well as our WNBPA [Women’s Basketball Players Association] leadership, the consensus is not to play in tonight's slate of games and to kneel, lock arms and raise fists during the national anthem," Dream forward Elizabeth Williams said. "We stand in solidarity with our brothers in the NBA and will continue this conversation with our brothers and sisters across all leagues and look to take collective action.”
Players from the WNBA took the lead in addressing social justice issues at the beginning of the 2020 season, dedicating the season to Breonna Taylor, a Black woman shot and killed by police in her apartment in March. Two teams, the Seattle Storm and New York Liberty, walked off the court prior to the National Anthem during their season-opening game in support of racial justice protests. Guard Renee Montgomery of the Minnesota Lynx chose to skip the 2020 WNBA season to work on promoting social justice causes following the killing of George Floyd.
“There’s work to be done off the court in so many areas in our community,” Montgomery said on Twitter. “Social justice reform isn’t going to happen overnight but I do feel that now is the time and moments equal momentum.”
Games were postponed across both basketball leagues following the boycotts, as well as three games in Major League Baseball and five Major League Soccer matches as more athletes refused to play. Scoreboards displayed messages such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Justice Equality Now” at the empty stadiums and arenas.
“To be able to voice our opinion I think is just another way that we are setting an example for the young kids that are coming up, to show that they can speak out for what they believe in and also to use our platform and our visibility to be able to do something big,” said Chris Duvall, defender for the MLS’s Portland Timbers.
The United States Tennis Association stopped its matches at the U.S. Open after tennis player Naomi Osaka refused to participate in a semifinal match.
“Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman,” Osaka said. “And as a Black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.”
Following the walkouts in the NBA and WNBA, players associations met with their respective leagues to discuss how to move forward. The WNBA proceeded with games Friday night after the players’ union called for the arrests of both the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor and those who shot Jacob Blake. NBA playoffs continued on Saturday after a plan was formed with the players’ association to convert league venues into polling places for the upcoming election and form a “social justice coalition” to advocate for civic engagement and criminal justice reform.
Teams from the MLS and MLB resumed play over the weekend, and scheduled tennis matches for the U.S Open began on Monday Aug. 31st.