Athletes are no longer here purely for our entertainment. If you were enjoying the NBA playoffs before Wednesday, when a boycott led by the Milwaukee Bucks sparked he postponement of three NBA playoff games—and a stunning ripple effect throughout the athletic world—tough luck. Players have made it clear: Sports are no longer here to serve as some sort of panacea for tough times, some unifying force, some pleasurable distraction.
Ever since Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence and racial injustice in 2016, and especially in these past few months, since the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, pro sports stars have been consistently saying “we’re people before we’re athletes.” On Wednesday, they showed that to be true like never before.
In a historic display of collective power, athletes in the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer declined to play their games Wednesday, in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wis. on Sunday. The Milwaukee Bucks, whose arena sits around 30 miles north of Kenosha, did not take the court to warm up for Game 5 of their opening round playoff series against the Orlando Magic: it was soon announced that the game, and the other two playoff games scheduled to be played in the NBA’s Walt Disney World bubble Wednesday, would also be cancelled. (Although many of the athletes involved have used the term boycott to describe their actions, labor experts have said that as employees withholding work from employers, the athletes engaged in a wildcat strike.) The WNBA also postponed its games; in baseball, the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds decided not to play. “With our community and our nation in such pain,” Brewers and Reds players said in a joint statement, “we wanted to draw as much attention to the issues that really matter, especially racial injustice and systematic oppression.” The Seattle Mariners, who have more Black players than any other team, voted not to play their game against the San Diego Padres. A game between the Los Angeles and San Francisco Giants was also postponed.
Late Wednesday, tennis organizers sent out a statement saying that the entire Western & Southern Open would pause play on Thursday, and resume the tournament on Friday. Earlier Wednesday night, tennis star Naomi Osaka had announced on social media that she wouldn’t play her Thursday semifinal match. “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,” she wrote.
“I respect the hell out of them for doing that,” John Carlos, the American sprinter who famously raised his fist along with Tommie Smith, on the medals stand, at the 1968 Olympics tells TIME. “Because you have to squeeze the toothpaste tube to get people to respond. And their boycotting lets the powers that be, whether it’s the NBA or any professional organization or corporate entity, know that they need to raise their voices. They need to get serious about the situation.”
Carlos’ Black Power salute is iconic, and speaks to late-60s unrest. Similarly, high-profile sports boycotts could come to define these times. “This is unprecedented,” says Harry Edwards, emeritus professor of sociology of the University of California, Berkeley, who’s been studying athlete activism for decades. Edwards played a pivotal role in organizing the Black Power salute. “Now, we’re into a thing where athletes are sending a message,” Edwards says. “That’s an escalation of the movement.”
In the lead-up to Wednesday’s NBA playoff games, players and coaches shared their frustrations on witnessing police violence, again, against a Black man. “We keep loving this country,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who is Black, “and this country does not love us back.” Players began to question whether one of their stated goals before the NBA’s summer restart in July—to use their platform to enact social change—was being met. Should they have even gone back to playing after George Floyd? “I really don’t regret a lot of things in my life,” Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam said Wednesday. The Blake shooting, however, “makes me question if this was the right decision. Are we really making a change? Are we doing something meaningful?”
After the Bucks refused to play their game, the team joined a conference call in their locker room with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barns, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski first reported. “When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin,” Bucks guard George Hill read from a team statement Wednesday, “we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same of lawmakers and law enforcement. We’re calling for justice for Jacob Blake, and demand that the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin State legislature to reconvene, after months of inaction, and take meaningful measures to address police accountability, brutality, and criminal justice reform.”
NBA players met on Wednesday evening to discuss next steps; the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers reportedly voted against finishing the season. The owners were scheduled to meet Thursday morning, according to ESPN; the players planned to continue their discussions then. Edwards says he’s been in touch with players and coaches. “I suggested that they call together the owners, they call together the sponsors, the other business partners, along with the other officers of the league,” Edwards says. “I mean Adam Silver can pick up the phone and call any governor in this country, and the governor will pick up the phone and answer. That becomes critical. The teams mean so much economically to the area that they are located in. At the end of the day they need to come up with strategic next steps to deal with the problem. This is not a problem of whether they are going to continue a boycott of basketball. Because they’re not boycotting basketball. They’re sending a message. Stop killing us.”
After raising his first in Mexico City, Carlos received death threats. Athletes participating the in boycott, Carlos says, should expect ugly blowback. “It really brings out the bigotry involved, you understand?” Carlos says. “You get a chance to see what side of the fence people are on.”
Still, facing an uncomfortable response will prove worthwhile. “When we brought our fingers together to make that fist, it showed the power of unity,” says Carlos. “It’s not about Black power. It’s about people coming together, humanity coming together. Understand? The Milwaukee team is coming together and saying, ‘Hey man, enough is enough.'”
The video of police shooting Blake in Kenosha sparked an all-too familiar visceral reaction for Carlos. “You can only cry so much,” Carlos tells TIME. “You can be in agony only so much, man. When you sit back and think about s–t like this, you know what the majority of Black people, what they’ve been saying for so long? Oh f–k!” Carlos says in a raise voice. “That’s the extent of what they can do because they can’t do anything else. They’re not going to break the law. They’re not going to knock some white man in the head based on what happened to a Black man. They just have so much frustration that they want to explode. So they scream out, ‘f–k!’ And they aren’t screaming f–k in a calm, gentle sort of way. They’re screaming, ‘oh, f–k’ in pain, agony.”
So Carlos cheers athletes who are making a sacrifice and channeling that pain into action. “I’m proud of them,” he says. “It took a lot of individual courage to say, ‘Hey man, I vote that we boycott. I vote that we step back.’ And remember this. They’re stepping back from something they love. They’re stepping back from a situation where they may have turmoil relative to their contracts and commitments. But all that s–t goes out the window, man, when you get to the point where you have to scream ‘Oh f–k.’