Making their strongest statement yet in the fight against racial injustice, players from six NBA teams refused to play postseason games on Wednesday in an act of protest that quickly reverberated across other professional leagues.
Also called off: Some games in Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and three WNBA contests, as players across four leagues decided the best way to use their platform and demand change was to literally step off the playing surface.
Late Wednesday, the Washington Football Team canceled a scheduled team scrimmage Thursday and will instead hold a team-wide social justice reflection.
Race in America
Players made the extraordinary decisions to protest the shooting by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Sunday of Jacob Blake, a Black man, apparently in the back while three of his children looked on. Kenosha is about 40 miles south of Milwaukee.
Kenosha's NBA team, the Bucks, became the first team to stop play in protest Wednesday by refusing to emerge from their locker room to play a playoff game against the Orlando Magic.
"There has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball," said Bucks guard Sterling Brown, who joined teammate George Hill in reading a statement on the team’s behalf. Brown has a federal lawsuit pending against the city of Milwaukee alleging he was targeted because he was Black and that his civil rights were violated in January 2018 when officers used a stun gun on him after a parking violation.
The NBA's board of governors have called a meeting on Thursday to discuss the new developments, said a person with knowledge of the situation. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the meeting plan was not revealed publicly.
"The baseless shootings of Jacob Blake and other black men and women by law enforcement underscores the need for action," the NBA Coaches Association said in a statement. "Not after the playoffs, not in the future, but now."
The statement by the Bucks also called for state lawmakers to reconvene and take immediate action "to address issues of police accountability, brutality, and criminal justice reform."
The NBA did not say when Wednesday’s games would be played or if Thursday’s schedule of three more games involving six other teams would be affected. NBA players and coaches were meeting Wednesday night to determine next steps, presumably including whether the season should continue.
"We fully support our players and the decision they made," Bucks owners Marc Lasry, Wes Edens and Jamie Dinan said in a joint statement. "Although we did not know beforehand, we would have wholeheartedly agreed with them. The only way to bring about change is to shine a light on the racial injustices that are happening in front of us."
Added Jeanie Buss, the Governor of the Lakers, in a tweet: "I stand behind our players, today and always. After more than 400 years of cruelty, racism and injustice, we all need to work together to say enough is enough."
Several NBA players, including the Lakers’ LeBron James, tweeted out messages demanding change. Some teams including Boston, Orlando and Utah released messages supporting the players.
"We weren’t given advanced notice about the decision but we are happy to stand in solidarity with Milwaukee, Jacob, and the entire NBA community," Orlando guard Michael Carter-Williams said. "Change is coming."
Magic players and referees were on the basketball court for the game but Milwaukee never took the floor. The National Basketball Referees Association said it "stands in solidarity" with the players, and teams including Orlando and Boston released statements or tweets of support.
"Players have, once again, made it clear — they will not be silent on this issue," National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts said.
Demanding societal change and ending racial injustice has been a major part of the NBA’s restart at Walt Disney World. The phrase "Black Lives Matter" is painted on the arena courts, players are wearing messages urging change on their jerseys and coaches are donning pins demanding racial justice as well.
Many players wrestled for weeks about whether it was even right to play, fearing that a return to games would take attention off the deaths of, among others, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in recent months.
"We’re the ones getting killed," Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who is Black, said in an emotional speech Tuesday night. "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. And 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. And it’s just, it’s really so sad."
Steve Ballmer, owner of the Clippers, tweeted his support late Wednesday.
"I am again angry over the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake. Doc Rivers and the Bucks players said it well: We need real police accountability," he wrote.
Former President Barack Obama also commended the Bucks' decision. "It's going to take all our institutions to stand up for our values," he tweeted Wednesday.
Players from Boston and Toronto met Tuesday to discuss not playing Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, which had been scheduled for Thursday. NBPA officers were part of those meetings, and Miami forward Andre Iguodala — one of those officers— said around 2:15 p.m. that he did not believe a plan had been finalized.
Things apparently moved quickly: Less than two hours later, the Bucks wouldn’t take the floor.
"When you talk about boycotting a game, everyone’s antenna goes up," Iguodala said. "It’s sad you have to make threats like that — I wouldn’t say threats — but you have to be willing to sacrifice corporate money for people to realize there’s a big problem out there."
The WNBA postponed its three games Wednesday night, hours after the NBA decided to postpone its three playoff games.
”We know it’s a very emotional time for our players. They are struggling with what’s been happening in this country for months, if not years," said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who said the league supports its players decision to not play Wednesday night.
In Bradenton, Florida, in the WNBA bubble, Washington was set to play Atlanta, Minnesota was going to face Los Angeles, and Connecticut was going to meet Phoenix. Players from the Mystics, Dream, Sparks and Lynx were talking on the court for about an hour deciding whether to play or not. The decision was announced shortly before the expected 7 pm. EDT tip for the Mystics and Dream.
All four teams took a knee at center court right before leaving the court.
Atlanta Dream player Elizabeth Williams read a statement on ESPN saying that the “consensus is not to play in tonight’s games."
“We stand in solidarity with our brothers in the NBA, and will continue this conversation with our brothers and sisters across all leagues and look to take collective action,” said Williams, the secretary of the players' union.
The Mystics came into the arena wearing shirts that spelled out Blake’s name on the front and had holes in the back to signify the seven bullets that the 29-year-old black man was hit with by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The league had just passed its halfway mark of the 22-game season. With teams playing pretty much every other day in the bubble the postponed games will most likely have to be made up after the regular season ends on Sept. 12.
WNBA teams held a roughly 30-minute vigil back at the IMG Academy hotel Wednesday night for Blake. The vigil was attended by every team, players, coaches, staff and officials.
The WNBA and its players have dedicated this season to social justice. Players have been wearing the name of Breonna Taylor on the back of the uniforms all season long. Over the course of the season players have worn warmup shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” on the front and “Say Her Name” on the back. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is featured prominently on the courts where the teams play.
Games between the Cincinnati Reds and Brewers in Milwaukee, Seattle Mariners and Padres in San Diego and the Los Angeles Dodgers and Giants in San Francisco were also called off hours before they were set to begin.
“There are serious issues in this country,” Seattle's Dee Gordon tweeted. “For me, and for many of my teammates, the injustices, violence, death and systemic racism is deeply personal. This is impacting not only my community, but very directly my family and friends. Our team voted unanimously not to play tonight.”
Other MLB games had finished, were in progress or just about to start as the announcements were made. Some players, such as outfielders Jason Heyward of the Cubs and Matt Kemp of the Rockies, sat out while their teams played.
All three postponed games will be made up as doubleheaders Thursday. There was the possibility, too, that other games around the majors could affected — two days before MLB was set to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day.
The baseball postponements came after the NBA’s Bucks didn’t come out on the floor for Game 5 of their first-round playoff series.
“Given the pain in the communities of Wisconsin and beyond following the shooting of Jacob Blake, we respect the decisions of a number of players not to play tonight. Major League Baseball remains united for change in our society and we will be allies in the fight to end racism and injustice," MLB said in a statement.
Said players' union head Tony Clark: “At this critical time, players have been deeply affected by the recent events in Wisconsin and by similar events in other parts of the country. We are proud of the stand that our players have taken, and we remain committed to supporting their efforts to effect change in MLB communities and beyond.”
Brewers player representative Brent Suter said he informed Cincinnati’s Mike Moustakas and pitcher Wade Miley -- both former Brewers -- of the decision.
“They just said flat out, ‘We support you guys no matter what. Whatever you decide to do, we’re all in favor. We want to follow your lead,'" Suter said. “So that was a great comfort for us going to the meeting.”
Dodgers star Mookie Betts, who is Black, told his teammates he was sitting out and they backed him.
“For me, I think no matter what, I wasn’t going to play tonight,” Betts said.
“I have to use my platform to at least get the ball rolling,” he said.
Once Betts made his decision, the Dodgers stood by him, ace Clayton Kershaw said.
“More than anything as a teammate of Mookie’s, as a member of this team ... as a white player on this team is how do we show support? What’s something tangible that we can do to help our black brothers on this team?” Kershaw said.
“My cousin got shot and killed. My father was one of the first Black men in his high school,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, son of an African American father and Japanese mother. “It was just more of getting everyone together and sharing our thoughts. ... Collectively, ultimately we came to the consensus that we shouldn’t play today.”
Kemp, who is Black, announced on social media he would skip Colorado's game in Arizona “in protest of the injustices my people continue to suffer.”
“I could not play this game I love so much tonight knowing the hurt and anguish my people continue to feel,” he wrote. “In a world where we are the ones who need to remain calm while a trained professional points a gun in our face; a world where the people in uniforms who took an oath to protect us are the same ones killing us; a world where we become hashtags before we even reach our potential; we must stand together, speak out, protest, and be the change we demand, require, and need so bad.”
Mets slugger Dom Smith, a Black man who has spoken about his experiences in a predominantly white sport, took a knee for the national anthem for the first time this season. New York pitcher Robert Gsellman, who is white, wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt instead of a uniform as he watched from the stands behind the dugout.
Heyward, who is also Black, was removed from Chicago's lineup shortly before first pitch in Detroit.
“There were multiple guys saying they weren’t comfortable going out there and playing if I wasn’t going to go out there. They didn’t want to leave me hanging," Heyward said. "I let them know, encouraged them – no, go play the game. I don’t think the game should be canceled. But I think I have to do what I have to do.”
Dexter Fowler, who is Black, and Jack Flaherty, who is white, opted not to participate in St. Louis’ game against Kansas City. The team tweeted that it supported the decision.
Washington manager Dave Martinez said he hadn't heard about the movement before a 3-2 loss to Philadelphia.
“I just now started reading what was happening and what was going on. I will say this, though. I’m proud of the NBA. I’m proud of all the people who stand for justice,” he said. “It's horrible. We need change.”
“I’m going to talk to the players. We’ll see what happens tomorrow. I get it," he said, choking up.
Toronto slugger Rowdy Tellez said the Blue Jays would meet Thursday to decide a course of action.
“It’s going to be a great team discussion and probably a very emotional one for a lot of guys that know what it’s like," he said.
Five Major League Soccer matches were postponed Wednesday night as players made a collective statement against racial injustice.
Players from games between Atlanta United and Inter Miami, FC Dallas and Colorado, Portland and San Jose, Real Salt Lake and LAFC, and the LA Galaxy and Seattle all decided not to play in solidarity. The lone match played was between Orlando City and Nashville SC.
Colorado forward Kei Kamara posted on social media: “We made a decision together as players and staffs to not play our game tonight because there’s more happening in our country to distract our minds to soccer. This is the first time I can agree to the saying `It’s just a game.’”
Atlanta United released a statement before its scheduled game against Inter Miami in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. After a group discussion, the players all gathered on the field before the game, arm in arm.
“We stand in solidarity with the Black community, with our players, our city and our fans in the fight against injustice,” the statement said. “We must use our voices to be the change.”
The Timbers similarly released a statement that said: “The Portland Timbers stand in support of our players and their decision not to play tonight. Racial injustice and police brutality against black people in our country must end now.”
After his team's 3-1 victory over Nashville, Orlando City midfielder Nani said he was not aware until after the game that players had refused to play the other games. Nani was the only Orlando player to kneel for the anthem before the game.
“We didn't know. We understand and we respect what's going on and what the other teams did," Nani said. "This is a situation we must stick together from today to try to do our best to see what we can help and what we can support.”
Sounders defender Kelvin Leerdam said that the players wanted to use their platform.
“As a group, we decided that we’re part of the world and we’ll let everybody see that the things that happen around us, we aren’t blind to it,” Leerdam said. “That’s why we took a stand to not play today.”
Earlier in the day, Major League Soccer issued a statement about the shooting in Kenosha.
“MLS unequivocally condemns racism and has always stood for equality, but we need to do more to take tangible steps to impact change. We will continue to work with our players, our clubs and the broader soccer community to harness our collective power to fight for equality and social justice.”
NHL players are discussing options to protest racial injustice, according to a person with knowledge of those talks.
The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity early Thursday because those discussions were private. The subject rose to the forefront as multiple leagues called off games and two prominent Black NHL players expressed frustration that the predominantly white league went ahead Wednesday with two games preceded by moments of reflection.
“We really didn’t find out that the other leagues had taken their stance until we got here tonight,” Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said after playing Game 3 of his team's second-round series against the Boston Bruins. “It was something that I think for us was something we found out by the time we got to the rink and something we’ll have to address going forward.”
Minnesota's Matt Dumba and San Jose's Evander Kane, founding members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, criticized the NHL for going ahead with games while every NBA playoff game, plus three in Major League Baseball and others in Major League Soccer and the WNBA, were postponed.
“The NHL, we’re always last to the party, especially on these topics,” Dumba said on Vancouver's Sportsnet 650. “It’s kind of sad and disheartening for me and for other members of the HDA and I’m sure other guys across the league. If no one stands up and does anything, it’s the same thing. It’s that silence that you’re just outside looking in on actually being leaders and invoking real change when you have such an opportunity to do so.”
Kane said on Sportsnet he was disappointed not to hear about Blake's shooting around hockey. He and Dumba, who gave an anti-racism speech on the opening night of the NHL restart and afterward knelt for the U.S. anthem, called on white players to take action about racial injustice.
“It’s great to write statements, it's great to send tweets, it's great to post stories and pictures on Instagram, but at the end of the day it’s going to be about real action and meaningful change," Kane said. “Unfortunately, that still isn't occurring, and we need to be better.”
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said the league will “get up to speed and support what needs to be done.”
“Unfortunately, we can’t control some of the things that go on in the outside world,” Cooper said. "I truly believe that whether it’s pro sports or the business world or whatever it is, at some point, we’re all going to have to come together. I think whether you say the NHL is behind or ahead, I think the league has done so many good things in so many different avenues, and this is one that we need to pick our head up and take notice and there’s no doubt we will."
Reached Wednesday night before Tampa Bay-Boston began and after the NBA's decision, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said postponing games was not currently being contemplated. Daly added, “Obviously, we will see if the players feel differently and will respond appropriately and as necessary."
The NHL Players' Association is having those discussions ahead of two games scheduled for Thursday.
Boston captain Zdeno Chara expressed support for NBA players but said it was too close to the 8 p.m. game time for players to have a serious discussion about not taking the ice.
“We were just getting ready,” Chara said. “But we support the fight against racism and injustice. There’s different ways to express that fight and, obviously, NBA players expressed their opinions by boycotting the games today, so we support it.”