Opinion: Athletes give voice to voiceless. ‘It takes monumental courage to stand up’

The Milwaukee Bucks were the first to use the immense power of their platform Wednesday afternoon, deciding to give up what they love the most, playing a game – an NBA playoff game at that – to give voice to the voiceless in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, another unarmed Black man in another American city.

What the Bucks started soon turned into a pulsating movement, sweeping through the entire NBA and WNBA, then reaching the Women’s Tennis Association, Major League Baseball and finally, belatedly, the National Hockey League.

By Thursday afternoon, most of the nation’s pro sports leagues had stunningly shut down, if only for a day or two, as athletes Black and white, male and female, young and old, made a statement for the ages.

“Oh, you don’t hear us,” the Los Angeles Lakers’ J.R. Smith posted on Instagram. “Well now you can’t see us!!!!”

We call them professional athletes. History will call them heroes.

The Milwaukee Bucks have taken a stance in the wake of Jacob Blake's shooting in Kenosha, Wis. (Photo: Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

We know the men and women of these leagues because they play the sports we love. Future generations will know them even more because they chose not to play for several days to protest social injustice in the midst of a pandemic in a year of heartbreak and horror that will forever be emblazoned in time: 2020.

It was fitting that the NBA started it all, just as the league shook the nation out of its daydreams to show us how real the coronavirus was March 11, when it announced it was suspending its season.

Within 48 hours, the nation had shut down. It was clear that the sports world had found its voice through the NBA, and as the NBA went, so went the nation.

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Little more than five months later, the NBA is leading the way again, this time demanding change, demanding justice, demanding a platform to scream from the rafters that Black lives matter, to tell a reeling country that the tragedies of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Blake and so many others are entirely unacceptable.  

The NBA: the North Star of 2020

“What stands out to me is just watching the Republican convention, viewing this fear,” said Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, fighting back tears. “All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities.

“We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. All you do is keep hearing about fear. It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad.”

WNBA players joined the NBA in not playing at all Wednesday, and announced another day of no games Thursday, with play resuming Friday. They said they were not striking or boycotting; they preferred to call it “affirmatively, a day of reflection, a day of informed action and mobilization,” said Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks, president of the WNBA Players Association.

Ogwumike listed specific calls to action, including the arrest of the officers who killed Taylor, an investigation into the Blake shooting and a plea for Americans to register to vote.

These athletes were joined by a powerful voice, Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who tweeted Thursday afternoon, “It takes monumental courage to stand up for what you believe in. NBA and WNBA players, keep standing up and demanding change.”

A small signal of that change: The Houston Rockets and Harris County, Texas, announced that their home, Toyota Center, will serve as a vote center for the 2020 election – for nearly three weeks in October and again on Election Day Nov. 3.

Interestingly, Wednesday’s NBA-led sports shutdown occurred four years to the day after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem in peaceful protest of police brutality.

So much time has passed; so little has changed.

Naomi Osaka, 22, a tennis star who is Haitian and Japanese, was one of the athletes who expressed her disgust with the racial inequality she has seen this summer. In explaining why she was not playing her semifinal match Thursday at the tune-up tournament for the U.S. Open, which she won in 2018, she wrote on Twitter:

“I don't expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction. Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach."

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