All of the NBA’s remaining playoff teams were scheduled to speak on Friday – the third day of the league-wide shutdown.
And then all of a sudden they weren’t.
In the Raptors’ case, a media availability was cancelled a half-hour after it was meant to start. We still didn’t know when – or if – games would be resuming.
“We are waiting for some clarity from some folks,” a team communications person said.
In the moment, it was not clear who those “folks” might be. Toronto executives? Toronto players? The players’ union? The league?
Could separate teams have separate agendas, as has been reported? And who exactly is the Cesar Chavez of this movement? Is it LeBron James? Doc Rivers? Adam Silver? None of them were talking either.
If you’re going to start a revolution, you need to put out regular communiques. Che Guevara understood that much.
But the NBA was now in full turtle mode. Other teams began bailing on their media meet-ups. The Boston Celtics pulled the plug 30 minutes into a blank-screen Zoom call. Then they sent a cancellation e-mail rather than letting a human be seen hanging up the phone.
Just as everyone in the sports world was looking to the league for moral guidance, the NBA decided to go radio silent.
This shows us one of the logistical problems with protests – they are easy to start; and not so easy to wind down.
An hour or so after that, the NBA and the players’ union announced via press release that play will resume on Saturday. They co-released a raft of initiatives straight out of the crisis PR playbook – a “social justice coalition,” ad buys, “economic empowerment.”
This thing started in calls for “change.” It ends up looking more like what corporations agree to do after their CEO has been caught on tape berating the janitor.
This isn’t to downplay the impact of what the players did on Wednesday. In news-cycle terms, that was Krakatoa.
Within hours of the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision not to leave their locker room, every other sport had received the message and were complying with its instructions. Even the NHL – a league so tone-deaf dogs can’t hear it speak – eventually cancelled a slate of games.
Had they started and ended with that – calls for a one-day wildcat strike across sports in solidarity with the NBA – the players could have called that victory. It would have both made a point and dangled a threat: “Be better, or this will happen again. And next time, we may not be coming back.”
But the boycott stretched into a second day. And a third. And then it became unclear what constituted victory.
We all like to think politics are simple. But if they were, professional politicians wouldn’t so often look like complete boobs.
NBA players are discovering there is a marked difference between speaking truth to power and becoming the power yourself. Because that’s what they did on Wednesday. Pro basketball made itself the de facto vanguard of the resistance.
That didn’t just encourage other people to follow it. It allowed all those others to perform protest without any of its responsibilities. All every other league has to do now is whatever the NBA does first.
Going forward, if the NBA players say that Issue X is the one that matters most, that doesn’t just mean that people will pursue that agenda. It means that people will abandon Issue Y and Issue Z.
There is only so much outrage to go around in any society where people still have mortgages and staycations to worry about. You have to harness that frustration judiciously.
Every decision in this regard is fraught. Success can’t be determined in a few days or a week. Short of invasion, systemic change takes time.
Clearly, all those thoughts have been occurring to the NBA’s players. And just as clearly, the enormity of it created a sort of temporary paralysis.
In the end, they refused to define a finish line. They haven’t accomplished anything concrete. What they’ve done is establish working committees whose goals and tactics remain gauzy.
By agreeing to return, they’ve bought themselves time. What they need now is a program, a bit like a non-elected political party. Because that’s what the NBA players’ union has become. They are the new Teamsters. They have that kind of weight to throw around.
They need to stop with the doomsday scenarios. Don’t talk aloud again about ending the season. If you were going to do it, you’d have done it.
In the long run, strikes only work if the product you provide is essential. And nobody needs basketball.
Where the players can make a difference is in advocacy. But again, this has to be measured and delivered in one voice. If every player decides his own take on the agenda, the message loses focus and people will wander off to the next shiny object.
When they think about how to organize all this, they might consider the evolution of kneeling protests.
When Colin Kaepernick was just about the only person doing it, it was a combustible topic for years. A week after everyone agreed that athletes not only could kneel during the anthem, but must kneel, the ritual lost all its moral urgency. It stopped being protest and became theatre.
The players still need to agree on a simple slate of achievable goals. They have to avoid running into blind alleys, promising things (a la “change”) that are not within their power to deliver.
Instead, they ought to focus on topics that already have widespread support: voting initiatives; community outreach; giving money – lots of it. It’s hard to be taken seriously as men of the people when you commute via private jet. It’s also not good enough to turn to the owners and say, “You do it.”
It’s easy to say all this, and hard to do successfully. Which is why we don’t upend the norms of our political discourse every month or so.
But the NBA players (commendably) wanted this responsibility. Now it’s on them to figure it out on the fly.