Some 53 years before NBA players walked out on their season, 53 years before a police officer shot Jacob Blake, in the fall of 1967, Dr. Harry Edwards founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The goal was to fight racial injustice. Edwards ultimately helped engineer a boycott of the 1968 Games. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, and other Black athletes refused to participate. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on a podium. Edwards stood by them. And he has watched as other athletes have taken similar stands in the half-century since.
“There've been boycotts before,” he says.
But this? A league-wide strike in the name of human rights? During the NBA playoffs?
“That’s unprecedented,” Edwards told Yahoo Sports. Which is why the multi-sport movement that unfolded Wednesday took even him, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on athlete activism, some time to “wrap my mind around.”
“You can demonstrate, and I'm supportive of demonstration,” he said over the phone Wednesday night. “But at the end of the day, I've always advocated for the strongest possible action. And that was a boycott. And this is something that really got everybody's attention. And it's going to spread.”
A boycott, or more accurately a strike, “puts more teeth into the situation than a protest where statements are made,” Edwards explained. “Kaepernick made a statement. Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a statement. The athletes who are boycotting today with the NBA are sending a message: We are serious about this. Stop killing us! It's more important that we deal with that than we play a basketball game and entertain you out here. Stop killing us.”
“That's the message,” he continued. “Now the issue becomes, as I've told some of the athletes and the coaches … how do you create a strategy that gets you to next steps? And that's always the challenge: To move from protest … to progress.”
Should NBA players walk out on season?
NBA players met for nearly three hours Wednesday night at Disney World’s Coronado Springs resort. The question looming throughout the meeting, sources told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, was the big one: Should they walk out on the remainder of the season?
But to Edwards, “I don't think that's the issue now. They are not boycotting basketball any more than Kaepernick was protesting the flag and the anthem.” Rather, they’re sending a message about police brutality. A strike isn’t the endgame. It’s a means to real, tangible change. The players, Edwards said, should be negotiating a strategic plan for enacting that change. The threat of a full-season strike is leverage in those negotiations. But, Edwards asked: “Why would they boycott games once they have a strategic plan?”
Edwards’ advice to the players is this: “You've got to get people who are in the best position to leverage what they have access to to compel changes.” By that, first and foremost, he means the billionaires who own NBA franchises. “They can pick up the telephone and call a governor, and a governor will pick up,” Edwards explained. “They can call the attorney general, and the attorney general will pick up. They can call the mayor, and the police chief of a local town, and then have one of the athletes go with them to talk about these issues that we have to clean up.
“In other words, these are people that have resources that they can leverage, to get this situation [fixed]. So owners, sponsors,” broadcast partners – anybody who benefits from basketball being played, and who’ll suffer if it isn’t played— now have incentive to help the players push for change. “So there's some things that they can leverage,” Edwards said. “But they've got to be strategic about it.”
Protest for progress
Players will meet again Thursday to formulate that strategy. The NBA’s board of governors will convene virtually as well. At some point, players, coaches, league officials, owners and other stakeholders will need to engage one another. And they’ll have to work together.
“It's for the owners, the sponsors, the players, to all come out with a united front, saying, ‘We're going to go to the governor of Wisconsin, and we're gonna work our way down through the attorney general, to the local DA, to the police commissioner, to the neighborhood organization groups, and so forth,’ ” Edwards said.
Milwaukee Bucks players have already spoken with Wisconsin politicians. They released a statement calling on “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.” Next, they’ll need others to echo their call. LeBron James, according to Haynes’ sources, was critical of NBA owners at Wednesday’s meeting, suggesting they weren’t doing enough to support players and Black people facing systemic racism.
If owners refuse to do more, perhaps the strike will continue. But workers don’t strike just to strike. Players don’t protest just to protest. As Edwards likes to say: They protest for progress. Progress, therefore, could get the playoffs back up and running.
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