The NBA’s restart inside a restricted bubble at Disney World, which has proceeded smoothly for more than a month without any positive coronavirus tests, came to a screeching halt Wednesday when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for a playoff game against the Orlando Magic to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. The league announced the cancellation of all three games scheduled for Wednesday evening as a result.
The unprecedented decision to postpone the games was quickly followed by a similar decision by the Women’s National Basketball Association, which canceled its scheduled games across the state in Bradenton.
In Milwaukee, the Brewers announced they would not play their Major League Baseball game Wednesday night against the Cincinnati Reds. The Seattle Mariners’ game against the San Diego Padres also was postponed.
In Major League Soccer, players scheduled to play in five games—Atlanta United-Inter Miami, FC Dallas-Colorado, Portland-San Jose, Real Salt Lake-LAFC and LA Galaxy-Seattle—all decided not to play in solidarity. The lone match played was between Orlando City and Nashville SC.
The cancellations underscored an emerging new reality in big-time sports in which athletes are increasingly emboldened to express themselves on racial injustice and other social issues, and leagues are finding ways to accommodate their views.
The Bucks’ decision not to play, which caught league and team staffers by surprise, led the NBA to postpone all three games scheduled for Wednesday.
Tensions inside the bubble have mounted over the last two days, with players and coaches outraged by the video of Blake’s shooting. Bucks guard George Hill was among multiple NBA players to question whether games should continue considering the ongoing social justice protests around the country, and members of the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics discussed sitting out the first game of their second-round series on Thursday.
Instead, the Bucks went first. Shortly before the scheduled 4:10 p.m. tip on Wednesday, the Magic took the court for warmups like usual. They were never joined by the Bucks, as arena staffers, ballboys and the referees milled around the court. As the game clock ticked down toward the customary pregame introduction period, the Magic left the court, returned to their locker room and eventually departed Adventhealth Arena at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex.
The Bucks’ players, coaches, GM Jon Horst and other personnel remained inside their locker room for more than three hours before emerging to demand justice for Blake from Wisconsin politicians.
“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,” Hill said, reading a prepared statement on behalf of the Bucks players. “We hold ourselves to that standard and in this moment we are demanding the same from lawmakers and law enforcement. We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, it’s imperative for the Wisconsin state legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.”
The National Basketball Players Association planned to hold a meeting Wednesday night to discuss next steps, including whether to continue the postseason, which is scheduled to run through mid-October.
Before the meeting, union chief Michele Roberts issued a statement. “Throughout the season restart, our players have been unwavering in their demands for systemic justice. This week we witnessed another horrific, shocking and all too familiar act of brutality in the shooting of 29 year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Players have, once again, made it clear—they will not be silent on this issue. We stand with the decision of the players of the Milwaukee Bucks to protest this injustice and support the collective decision to postpone all of today’s games.”
NBA players have been outspoken on the issues of police brutality and racial injustice and have used their platform to express them from inside the bubble set up by the league at the Disney World resort in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Black Lives Matter is painted in bold letters on the courts and players are wearing words and phrases calling for social justice on the backs of their jerseys.
But the sentiment has pivoted to anger and despair since the Blake shooting on Monday night. LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers issued a powerful postgame statement after a game Monday night, saying “Quite frankly, it’s just f—ed up in our community.”
His remarks were followed Tuesday by Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, who said, “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.”
Before the Bucks’ players addressed a small group of media members, the organization’s ownership group issued a statement back their decision not to play.
“We fully support our players and the decision they made,” Bucks Owners Marc Lasry, Wes Edens and Jamie Dinan said. “Although we did not know beforehand, we would have wholeheartedly agreed with them. The only way to bring about change is to shine a light on the racial injustices that are happening in front of us. Our players have done that and we will continue to stand alongside them and demand accountability and change.”
The Bucks franchise has had multiple incidents with police brutality and racial profiling in recent years. Bucks guard Sterling Brown sued the city of Milwaukee after he was injured during an incident with police, and former center John Henson spoke out publicly after he was denied service by a Milwaukee jeweler.
“Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protesters,” Brown said, reading from a statement. “Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”
A group of Bucks players turned out for a July protest in Milwaukee with T-shirts that bore some of George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe.” Brown, DiVincenzo, Brook Lopez, Frank Mason III, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and his brother Thanasis joined the crowd.
Milwaukee’s other pro team quickly followed the Bucks’ lead as the Brewers, who like the Bucks play not far from the Kenosha, Wis., decided they would not play against the Cincinnati Reds, who agreed to sit out. About an hour later, MLB announced the Seattle Mariners-San Diego Padres game would also be postponed.
“It’s more than sports,” Brewers star reliever Josh Hader said before the Brewers met and decided. “That’s one of the things that’s – it’s not about the game. It’s more than that. This is a time where we need to really not stay quiet and empower our voices. . . . It’s something that we need to continue to talk about, and it’s something that we can’t put behind. It’s something that all of us, we have to continue to voice and bring light to this situation that we have.”
About an hour before what would have been first pitch, Brewers and Reds players mingled behind the batting cage. The Miller Park scoreboard showed three words, white letters on a black background: “Justice Equality Now.”
“Our team and the Reds felt that with our community and our nation in such pain, tonight we wanted 100 percent of the focus to be on issues that are much more important than baseball,” Brewers pitcher Brent Suter, the team’s MLBPA representative, told reporters.
As if to underscore the prominent role athletes have in raising societal awareness of police brutality and racial injustice, the players’ strike came on the four-year anniversary of the first time former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick did not stand for the national anthem in protest.
Several NFL players expressed support for the Bucks on social media. “NBA is showing us how it’s done,” wrote Houston Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills, who has frequently knelt during the national anthem. “Time to connect with local activists to help formulate demands.”
On Tuesday, the Detroit Lions canceled practice and addressed media while huddled around a whiteboard reading, “The World Can’t Go On.”
Wednesday night, many NFL players expressed support for the Bucks on social media. “NBA is showing us how it’s done,” wrote Houston Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills, who has frequently knelt during the national anthem. “Time to connect with local activists to help formulate demands.”
As of 6 p.m. Eastern time, the NHL was not aware of any plans to postpone the league’s remaining Wednesday night playoff games, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Sportsnet. The NBA’s postponement of games came during the league’s first of three scheduled Wednesday games. In the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting, the NHL instead planned to hold “a moment of reflection” before the Tampa Bay-Boston game in Toronto and the Colorado-Dallas game in Edmonton.
“I don’t expect the League to initiate a game stoppage,” Daly said. “Obviously, our Players are free to express themselves in any manner they feel is appropriate.”
Meanwhile, San Jose Sharks’ Evander Kane applauded the NBA players, calling it a “major statement.”