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NBA players aren't waiting for the arc of history

CBC Sports' daily newsletter examines the reasons behind the NBA walkout and the players' decision to stay and fight for change.

They're using their platform to bring about change – now

For many NBA players, slogans weren't cutting it anymore. (Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)

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NBA players decided to return to the court — but it's important to understand why they walked out

After much discussion and soul searching following yesterday's stunning walkout by the Milwaukee Bucks that led to the postponement of all three Wednesday playoff games, NBA players voted today to continue with the post-season.

The league said that games could be played as soon as Friday. But the three contests scheduled for today — including Game 1 of the Toronto-Boston second-round series — were postponed.

The players arrived at their decision to continue after two meetings inside the Disney World bubble — one last night, another this morning. At last night's, the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers reportedly were the only two teams who voted to walk out on the rest of the playoffs and leave the bubble. Lakers star LeBron James and Clippers star Kawhi Leonard reportedly backed this position. The Toronto Raptors were also said to be seriously considering a walkout.

Today's meeting resulted in the collective decision to carry on, but it appears the players have made it contingent on the NBA and its team owners helping them do more in confronting racial-justice issues. Players and owners were reportedly to meet later today to discuss a plan of action. Interestingly, right around the time the players were holding their meeting today, the Houston Rockets announced that their arena will serve as a voting centre for the upcoming U.S. Presidential election. It'll be open 12 hours a day for advance voting starting in mid-October, as well as on the Nov. 3 election day.

A desire to produce meaningful actions like that, not just make symbolic gestures, was at the heart of the players' walkout. Think back to earlier in the summer, before the NBA restarted. A few players (most notably Brooklyn's Kyrie Irving) expressed reservations about returning to play in the Disney bubble when they could be at home focusing on racial-justice and police reform in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. The idea of refusing to play the season never gained much traction, and things ended up going pretty smoothly in the bubble for the first few weeks.

But the recent police shooting of a Black man named Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc., about 65 kilometres from Milwaukee, reopened those old wounds. Even before the Bucks' walkout, several players expressed frustration that NBA-approved (and largely sanitized) measures like displaying Black Lives Matter and other such messaging on their jerseys just wasn't cutting it. The Raptors' Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam all eloquently explained their feelings about how the Blake shooting laid bare the need to take things a step further. As Powell said, "...Having these discussions and Zoom calls and putting apparel on, that's not getting the job done. Taking a knee for the anthem, that's not getting the job done. It's starting to get washed out… Something needs to happen where you're forcing those people who can affect and make the change to do something."

VanVleet and Powell also created a stir Tuesday afternoon by indicating the Raptors were considering not playing Game 1 of their series vs. Boston, and head coach Nick Nurse confirmed that option was "on the table." On Tuesday night, L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers delivered an emotional post-game speech to the media that included this memorable line: "It's amazing to me why we [Black people] keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back."

That certainly struck a chord. But there was no hint — at least not publicly — that the Bucks would refuse to play their game until minutes before the scheduled tipoff time. Members of the opposing team, the Orlando Magic, weren't even aware. The secrecy reportedly didn't sit well with some other players around the league, but it does seem like the walkout was a last-minute decision. The Bucks' George Hill reportedly said he raised the idea not long before the game, and his teammates supported it.

After deciding they wouldn't play, the Bucks reportedly got the Wisconsin Attorney General on a call to ask him what the government was doing about the Blake shooting and about pressing for a vote by state lawmakers on a legislative package that includes police-reform measures. The players also reportedly asked how they could help with this. The statement later issued outside the Bucks locker room by Hill and teammate Sterling Brown included this: "We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand 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 up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform." The final words in the statement were "remember to vote on Nov. 3."

Understanding NBA players' frustration with what they see as a lack of meaningful change since the George Floyd killing is the key to understanding their walkout. Many of them are angry at public authorities, at the NBA, and even at themselves for not doing more.

It's also important to understand why they're tired — and skeptical — of waiting their turn. The sports world hasn't seen anything quite like these protests since the 1960s — the decade of Muhammad Ali's exile from boxing and of Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' Black Power salute on the Olympic podium in Mexico City. Think about how powerful those protests were, and how iconic they're considered now. And yet, all these decades later, Black people are still far from experiencing genuine equality in the United States and around the world. That saying about the arc of history bending toward justice? It may be true. But NBA players believe they have the platform to help speed things up, and now they're really using it.

Tuesday comments from VanVleet and Powell created momentum for action. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The NHL is under pressure

On a night when every other active pro sports league decided to cancel at least a portion of its games, the NHL stood out as the one that barrelled full-steam ahead. All three playoff games went off as scheduled in Toronto and Edmonton. The first, Islanders vs. Flyers, started an hour before the Bucks' strike happened. Before the 8 p.m. ET Lightning-Bruins game, something described as a "moment of reflection" was held. The words "End Racism" were displayed on a video board, and the public-address announcer read a statement. No players kneeled or visibly protested in any way.

The NHL's (and its players') relatively muted response drew a lot of criticism. Sportsnet analyst Kelly Hrudey said on air that Wednesday night's hockey games should have been postponed. Minnesota Wild player Matt Dumba, who identifies as Filipino, told a Vancouver radio station that "the NHL is always last to the party on these topics." San Jose Sharks player Evander Kane tweeted that the NHL's "lack of action" was "incredibly insulting as a Black man in hockey."

Today, the Hockey Diversity Alliance — a recently formed group of players of colour that includes Kane — asked the NHL to suspend its playoff games to "send a message that human rights must take priority over sport." The first of today's two games starts at 7 p.m. ET. At our publish time, the NHL had not announced a decision. But TSN's Frank Seravalli reported that one team's players had voted not to play tonight, and Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported that players were "being told to prepare for cancellations tonight."

Here's how other sports responded to the Bucks' walkout

A look at where various leagues stand after a crazy/unsettling/historic 24 hours:

WNBA: All three Wednesday games and all three Thursday games were postponed as a result of players refusing to play. Last night, players from the six teams that would have been in action at the WNBA bubble in Florida took to the court and kneeled in a show of solidarity. Players from the Washington Mystics wore shirts with seven mock bullet holes on the back — a reference to where and how many times Blake was allegedly shot by police.

Major League Baseball: Three games were postponed last night due to players not wanting to participate. Another, in Houston, was called off due to the approach of Hurricane Laura. The Blue Jays-Red Sox game in Buffalo was among those that went ahead. At least two games tonight will reportedly not take place: Texas vs. Oakland and Philadelphia vs. Washington. Also, Red Sox players were reportedly considering walking out on their game vs. Toronto.

Major League Soccer: Five of the six Wednesday matches were postponed. None were scheduled for today.

NFL: The Colts, Jets, Titans, Cardinals, Bears, Packers and Washington cancelled their practices today. Teams are in training camp and the exhibition schedule was already cancelled due to the pandemic, so there are no games to sit out.

Tennis: After star player Naomi Osaka announced she wouldn't play, all matches at the Western & Southern Open in New York City were suspended for today. Osaka will play when the tournament resumes. Milos Raonic, who's the only Canadian left in that event, said after advancing to the semifinals last night that he had considered dropping out. He also questioned whether the U.S. Open should go ahead as normal this Monday.

Golf: The second event of the PGA Tour playoffs teed off as scheduled today just outside Chicago. This week's LPGA tournament, in Arkansas, appeared set to begin Friday as scheduled.

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