Today the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play a basketball game to protest police brutality in front of the world. They sat out a playoff game because their voices were not being heard and every day seemed to bring a new horror to light. NBA players had chosen to go to the bubble and switch the name plate on their jersey for messages of social justice. 

  • Black Lives Matter.
  • Say Her Name.
  • See Us.
  • Hear Us.
  • Respect Us.
  • Love Us.
  • Listen To Us.

Listen to us. It’s a plea to hear instead of speak, to pay attention instead of dismissing the concerns and experiences felt by so many NBA players and their families, friends, neighbors, spiritual leaders and community. It’s also a plea for action. If you listen, and hear, then you should have no choice but to act – because listening to these stories of injustice and brutality and hearing them for what they are should be horrifyingly motivational. They talked before the games about their concerns for justice. The Denver Nuggets took to wearing “Justice for Elijah McClain” shirts, with coach Michael Malone facing the media in one for press conference after press conference. His case has remained unprosecuted for over a year now, with the officers who pinned the teen down as he walked home, choked him and injected him with ketamine until he died being found innocent by their coworkers. His is one case that happened in Denver, but every NBA city has a case like this.

The players used their minutes after the contests to speak up about both the individual and systemic violence inflicted on Black communities. They did it in the locker rooms, and on social media. “Everyone is heartbroken.” “We demand justice.” Here’s Donovan Mitchell after a game:

But NBA players have been sequestered, unable to see their families or spend time in their communities, and those communities remain under literal fire. One of the most recent occurrences was Jacob Blake, shot 7 times in the back by a Kenosha, WI police officer in front of his children, leaving him paralyzed and fighting for his life. The protests in Kenosha have been fiery, with property damage and angry citizens in the streets demanding answers and – again – justice. Militia members came to the scene and were greeted warmly by the police, after which one of them shot several protestors, killing two of them, and then walked through the police forces and drove home to a neighboring state. Much of this was captured on video, and in the immediate aftermath the police department of Kenosha intimated it was the victims’ fault for being out after curfew

And the Milwaukee Bucks decided they’d had enough. They had an ex-Buck, Jon Henson, who was confronted by police while trying to buy jewelry. Another player, Sterling Brown was forcibly restrained and thrown in jail for illegally parking. Illegally parking is not supposed to be a reason for assault. The penalty for slow compliance with law enforcement – or even non-compliance – is not supposed to be death. The legal system has long demonstrated biased outcomes against people of color, but much of the current protesting revolves around those victims of police violence who cannot even get into the legal system without deadly force being deployed against them. It is the most obvious and lethal bias, caught on tape time and time again, but change is slow. Change in the system, change in the hearts and minds of those who believe in the system, change in the true portrayal of the system to those sympathetic onlookers.

“The legal system has long demonstrated biased outcomes against people of color, but much of the current protesting revolves around those victims of police violence who cannot even get into the legal system without deadly force being deployed against them.”

So, the Bucks responded. They had a team meeting, and decided to sit out their Game 6 matchup with the Orlando Magic, forfeiting a playoff game to protest the ongoing police violence. The Magic have refused to accept their forfeit, so perhaps the game will be made up later – and perhaps not.

Sports as protest is time-honored. If sports are supposed to stand in for politics and values, as it has during the Olympics, or after 9/11, then using it to make points about not living up to our values makes even more sense. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his boxing license and title for protesting the Vietnam War. Tommie Smith and John Carlos both posed on the 200-meter track medal stand in 1968 and lifted their fists in protest of the human rights violations perpetuated against the African-American community. When all eyes are on you, sometimes the smallest gestures have great meaning.

Will the rest of the NBA playoff teams follow suit? I don’t know, though it looks like today’s slate of games may indeed be cancelled. Is this the end of the 2020 playoffs, or a sign that more players may be leaving the bubble to return to their homes and communities with their focus on more vital matters? I don’t know. 

But I’m glad the Bucks decided to put the focus squarely back on the protests against police violence, which have not abated in many towns and cities across the country. NBA players continue to speak out and make headlines for things other than their play on the court, and I’m glad for that in this case. “Shut up and dribble” is not a valid criticism. Criminal justice in this country cannot go on the way that it has. If there is to be justice, then the conditions must be fair and the punishment must fit the crime. 

Before even getting to the point that people of color are disproportionately arrested by the police and punished by the criminal justice system, the bare minimum that is being asked by protestors is that they be allowed to have an interaction with the police that does not end in violence and even death.

NBA players are asking you to hear them, to respect them, to love them – and to listen to them.

Please hear what they are telling you, with their words and now their actions.

All solidarity from us here at Denver Stiffs to the protestors for justice both inside and outside of the NBA.

UPDATE: today’s games are cancelled, with more discussions on the way.