In March, my dad and I were watching a game between the Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets — we seldom pass on an opportunity to watch, in my opinion, the heir-apparent of the NBA, Luka Dončić. That was when we heard the news that Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19, shuttering a multi-billion-dollar industry overnight. It was a cough heard around the world of sports, if you will.
Fast forward to the present, a few weeks since the NBA and WNBA seasons — ones that were doomed mere months before — concluded and we’re seeing the end of the ‘bubble.’ The bubble was an ambitious and historic experiment met with league-wide apprehension that could, in many ways, be deemed a success, especially when comparing it to the state of health and safety in the NFL and Major League Baseball.
Yet, in my opinion, the biggest story of the bubble was not its success, nor was it Lebron James’ fourth ring or the WNBA’s Seattle Storm’s second title in three years. Rather, it was the way it intersected with the renewed and impassioned protest for Black lives, which has been heard around the world much louder than Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test.
The bubble protests
As Associate Sports Editor Angad Deol wrote in his retrospective article on the NBA’s political protests: “some things are bigger than sports.”
It all started when the Milwaukee Bucks decided to forgo their playoff game against the Orlando Magic in a silent but nevertheless impactful protest against the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Then followed a league-wide strike that shook the sports world.
Although playoffs resumed days later, it was clear that the unrest had only just begun as the players wore jerseys with messages aligning with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
But did the politicization of professional basketball start here? The WNBA has been merging social justice efforts and court time for years. This past season, it committed to devoting its upcoming season to promoting social justice and rallying against anti-Black racism.
The WNBA even refused to call anti-BLM Atlanta Dream team owner Kelly Loeffler by her name when it admonished her.
“A powerful labor organization against major sports leagues”
Deol’s article is an impassioned opinion piece reflecting on being a young sports fan who grew up watching his athlete role models stand up to racial injustice. He chronicles his vivid memories as an 11-year-old watching James and his team at the time, the Miami Heat, posing in the way that Trayvon Martin had when he was shot.
I, too, was 11 years old when Trayvon Martin was murdered, but I would be lying if I said I understood what the Miami Heat’s actions truly meant at the time. It is only years after that I saw what Deol saw.
This year’s bubble season served as a microcosm for this kind of protest for justice, bringing issues that players have been trying to emphasize for years to the forefront.
“This was the first time I have ever witnessed such a powerful labor organization against major sports leagues in my lifetime,” wrote Professor Derek Silva from the Department of Sociology at King’s University College at Western University.
True, some individual athletes have spoken out in the past — Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, and Colin Kaepernick to name a few — but not without ramifications. As Deol mentioned, Ali’s boxing career was subsequently cut short after he spoke out against the Vietnam War. Silva reminded me that Kaepernick is someone who has not played in the NFL since he took a knee and has been ostracized into pseudo-retirement.
Still somehow, we saw the entirety of two sports leagues mobilize succinctly around BLM.
The circumstances of political protest in sport
To fully comprehend how this happened, one must start from the beginning. Silva reminded me where.
“I think that one of the things overlooked in this whole narrative is the fact that athletes in the WNBA have long been LEADERS in shedding light on social injustice and racial inequality,” he wrote. “We forget that these athletes were speaking up and kneeling before Colin Kaepernick.”
Many of the initiatives and actions that professional players and organizations adopted during this bubble period have been done by WNBA players before. Indeed, they pioneered a blueprint to follow for both leagues.
In the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the NBA and WNBA found themselves grieving from injustice once again.
“No social movement ever happens in a vacuum,” Silva told me. “Covid-19 is a variable in all of this — and an important one. Covid-19 shed light on major forms and manifestations of structural inequality, systemic racism, and white supremacy that have been plaguing our world since long before [COVID-19].”
While the NBA and WNBA negotiated the terms of their return-to-play mid-pandemic and the risks that they would be exposed to, we witnessed — perhaps for the first time ever — a holistic leveraging of their power as income generators.
In a circumstance where they could choose to do nothing, something, or the right thing; they chose the latter.
We see players and executives standing up to problematic ownership. Coaches like Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich have advocated for voter participation. We exist in an afterglow of an overall successful social justice campaign.
However, like James articulated after his team’s Game 1 victory in these past NBA finals, I believe that “the job is not done.”
From ripple to wave
That is why I reached out to the University of Toronto BIPOC Varsity Association (BVA), a student group founded on its members speaking out about their experiences and the inequities they have faced on a personal and institutional level. In other words, they are young athletes who actively choose not to be silent.
They share James’ sentiment, writing, “Racism does not cease to exist when the season ends, and the media coverage dies down.”
They were pleased with how both leagues handled the campaign. The sincerity and passion with which these professionals — their idols — spoke was inspiring to them and many others. In fact, the BVA even sees a parallel in how helpful institutional support is in spreading its message.
But again, the job is still not done. When I asked Silva what he thought the future held, he began with: “prognosticating is not fully in my repertoire.” It is not in mine either, but he believes that athletes “will not stop speaking about what is important to them.”
I am inclined to agree. Only time will tell if this is indeed the ripple that started a wave.