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The NBA takes the night off for Jacob Blake, but we should tune in anyway

Referees stand on an empty court after the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play Wednesday in Orlando.
Referees stand on an empty court after the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play Wednesday in Orlando. (Image credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

If you jumped on your favorite streaming app today looking for the NBA Playoffs, it’s possible that you were confused or surprised when you saw there were no games being played. Today’s NBA game postponements began with the Milwaukee Bucks, who decided as a team to not take the floor for their 4 p.m. game against the Orlando Magic in response to the killing of another unarmed black man — shot in the back just 35 miles away from where they play. The boycott spread quickly as the Magic players left the court, and then the NBA teams in the remaining games announced similar boycotts. MLB's Milwaukee Brewers quickly followed suit.

These actions came in response to the Wisconsin police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2020. I certainly cannot recommend that you watch the video of the event, which I cannot bring myself to see. However accounts of the video and witnesses on the scene say that Blake was punched, tased and then shot in the back seven times while unarmed. Blake reportedly was trying to reach his three children, who were in the back of his car.

The NBA players, and the country as a whole, witnessed this all developing in the context of the movement towards racial justice that has dominated the spring and summer — but has been going on for decades — sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among others. A majority of NBA players are black, with recent statistics putting it at approximately 75 percent, including a large majority of the biggest stars in the game.

Through the NBA Restart after the COVID-19 related break, players were pushing social issues to the forefront of what they do. This has included silent protests, as well as painting the message “Black Lives Matter” on the court and some team buses. Many NBA Players opening struggled with the decision to return to the court while they were watching and participating in a movement that was much bigger than sports.

The Milwaukee Bucks hail from Wisconsin, so this particular shooting is clearly close to their players even as they are in the NBA bubble down in Orlando. It was fitting that they made the initial decision not to play, even as their brothers on other teams stood with them and chose not to play.

So, what are you going to stream instead of the NBA Playoff games? I hope that fans will tune in anyway. Instead of a game, which is usually a welcomed and enjoyable diversion, fans will find thoughtful coverage of NBA players, coaches, analysts and reporters talking about the painful issues facing the Black community, including these police shootings.

Many will say “Stick to sports,” which has always been a false choice to me. People with power, money and fame regularly use their platforms to speak on so many different issues that are important to them. Our country has had athletes become politicians in both major parties, and serve in offices from Mayor to Congressperson. There is also the deep hypocrisy of team owners and organizations participating in political and community activities while telling their players to just dribble.

You may feel like you care about basketball but you don’t need to care about all of these social issues. In an interview on Tuesday, Los Angeles Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers said “You don’t need to be Black to be outraged.” For decades and decades, Black communities have complained about unacceptable behaviors by police, and now the cell phone has become the tool that brings these cries to life.

NBA players are hoping that by making this move, people who watch the games and enjoy their capabilities can also learn and understand their lives and struggles. For those who dismiss these players as rich, and therefore removed from the struggles of everyday life as a Black person in America, I urge you to listen to their words and see the pain, anger and determination in their faces.

As a Black man myself, I can tell you firsthand that professional and financial success does little to remove the struggle, danger or hurt of being Black in America. These problems are gigantic, and urgent and they are not simply the problems of one race to solve for themselves. Turning a blind eye to widespread injustice in the name of sports, entertainment, or simply “not my problem” can crack the foundation of this country as much as any threat of socialism, authoritarianism or an enemy at the border.

Tonight, I’ll be watching this coverage more than I will news coverage, but I know I’m not who the players need to have tuned in. I’ve lived a life full of experiences as a Black man, and I know a lot about what they have to share already. Instead of turning to Netflix or old highlights, please consider streaming the coverage on TNT as well as other sports networks like ESPN. If you care about these Black athletes on the court, try to care about their lives in the streets. There is a fine line of breaks and luck that separates Giannis Antetokounmpo from Jacob Blake.

When the NBA and the players go back to playing games, fans of all races, ages and experiences can choose to cheer, yell and enjoy the best pro basketball available anywhere. If you remember this time out in a few days, hopefully it will be because you are more aware of the pain and urgency of the issues faced by NBA players and coaches, as well as all of their families and communities.