This week Letetra Wildman, the sister of Jacob Blake, delivered a gripping message: “I don’t want your pity, I want change”.
Apparently, the NBA received her memo.
It all started with the news on Wednesday that the Milwaukee Bucks decided to boycott their playoff game after Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times in the back by a white police officer in the team’s home state of Wisconsin. Soon, the NBA cancelled the rest of Wednesday’s playoff games and leagues such as the WNBA, MLB and MLS followed suit.
On television, former player Chris Webber delivered an emotional address as he fought back tears: “We understand it’s not going to end. But that does not mean young men that you don’t do anything. Don’t listen to these people telling you don’t do anything because it’s not going to end right away.”
Everyone has weighed in with their opinions since the Bucks announced their boycott. Many questioned whether a boycott can really change the inequality and racism at the heart of America. Or what refusing to play basketball has to do with Jacob Blake or George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or any of the other countless Black men and Black women who have been unjustly injured or killed by the police with no accountability.
I’m glad you asked. In July, I wrote an article detailing how much power NBA teams – and their billionaire CEOs – wield in the cities where they play. Money talks and it is well known that lost revenue has a way of motivating organizations to action at lightning speeds. Although teams are currently playing in a socially isolated bubble in Florida, people in their home bases will have seen players – and some CEOs – are willing to take action on racial injustice. If, in the future, a team threatened to leave a city if nothing is done on, say, police reform, civic leaders may well listen.
It has worked before. What the NBA and WNBA are doing now is monumental and they follow the tradition of athlete activists who have utilized the art of the boycott as a way to not only make a statement, but to push for real tangible change. A case in point: the great Elgin Baylor
During his first season in the NBA in 1959, the Hall of Famer’s Lakers team were scheduled to play a neutral-site game in Charleston, West Virginia, against the Cincinnati Royals. When the Lakers arrived at their hotel, the clerk looked at the team and said: “The three colored boys [Baylor and his Black teammates Boo Ellis and Ed Fleming] will have to go somewhere else: This is a nice, respectable hotel. We can’t take the colored boys.”
Baylor, Ellis and Fleming ended up staying in an all-Black hotel but he had had enough. He decided to boycott the game, telling his white teammate, and Charleston native, Rod Hundley: “Rod, I’m a human being, I’m not an animal put in a cage and let out for the show.”
Baylor’s decision was important because it hit the pockets of the rich and powerful in Charleston. The game had been sponsored by the the American Business Club of Charleston, which paid $6,500 (around $57,000 in today’s money) for the privilege. They also, damningly, knew in advance that Baylor and his Black teammates would not be allowed to stay with their white teammates and had done nothing to change things, despite the power they wielded in the city.
Suddenly, those rich, white businessman had paid to sponsor a game in which the league’s best young player would not even play. The club later sent a telegram to the NBA complaining that the incident had been “most embarrassing to us”.
Shortly after Baylor’s boycott, NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff promised to make sure such treatment of Black players at hotels would be a thing of the past when they were representing the league.
Later, Baylor would meet with Lakers CEO Bob Short and that too led to meaningful change. “[Baylor’s] refusal to play was a matter of principle with him,” said Short, “and I’m certainly not going to fault him for that … We will demand a non-segregation clause in future contracts.”
Baylor gave us a blueprint for how current NBA players can employ boycotts as a method to force NBA CEOs to use their power and influence to truly bring about change. Imagine those in the 50s who criticized Elgin Baylor. Who said that he was overstating his importance and his power. His courage to hurt powerful figures in a segregated city caused the NBA and the Lakers to change the way they treated their Black players. The likes of LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo can effect similar change now. All they have to do is demand it.