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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

NBA players try a different peaceful protest (Updated Aug. 28)

Vice President Pence's RNC speech this evening was to include criticisms of professional athletes for kneeling during the National Anthem. The criticism has always been disingenuous nonsense--critics demand peaceful protest, then tell the players they are peacefully protesting the wrong way.

So the players will try something new tonight: Not playing. The Milwaukee Bucks announced a boycott of this evening's Game 5 of their opening-round series. The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors discussed doing the same in their second-round game scheduled for Thursday. So the NBA canceled all games. No word on whether the Milwaukee Brewers (who have a home game Wednesday evening) or MLB will follow suit, although I doubt it. Update: I spoke too soon and happily stand corrected. The Brewers canceled their game. Other MLB teams are discussing doing the same, including the Mariners, who have the most African American players in MLB.

So what will be wrong with this form of peaceful protest? Does not playing disrespect veterans and troops? Is it wrong to politicize sports? Will Pence change his speech to decry cancel culture while calling for boycotts of this "politicized" NBA? Will everyone admit that the objection is to the message--that police are behaving badly--and nothing more neutral than that? Stay tuned. (Updated: No way on that last one).

August 28 Update: The NBA playoffs will resume Saturday. The league and union agreed to establish a social-justice coalition focused on voting, civic engagement, and criminal-justice and police reform. It also calls on teams that own their arenas to work with local election officials to convert the arena into a polling place. It is interesting that the push for racial justice has swerved into voting rights--recognition that voting rights are as endangered and that everything else happens only if people can vote and vote for officials who will pursue that agenda.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 26, 2020 at 05:23 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


Remember when I said I would delete comments when you are obnoxious (and untruthful). There you go.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 28, 2020 11:43:01 AM

The players' protest (which is really a "strike" - might want to look that one up) is, like most strikes, directed at their employers. The NBA, which is really a collective of the various NBA teams, has a tremendous amount of money at stake - including, for example, contracts with television channels, who in turn have contracts with, for example, advertisers. The players have articulated specific demands to the NBA and to team owners. All of this is publicly reported and one might imagine doing some research before criticizing the players as big dumb dumbs who don't know what they're doing. Reporting also indicates that the players are at least initially happy with the steps pledged by the NBA and the team owners, such that they're willing to continue the playoffs.

The argument that you are allowed to criticize any individual method of protesting without disagreeing as to the substance of the protest is utterly nonresponsive to the point that Howard is making, which is that objections to substance are frequently disguised as objections to method. That any one objection may actually be to method is largely irrelevant. Over a long enough time frame it has been made clear that no matter what peaceful protests are undertaken, they will be criticized, and typically in a manner disguised as relating to the method of protest. Indeed, professional athletes are routinely attacked in right-wing media for even just *saying* anything left-of-center. In this context it's entirely reasonable to just dismiss any criticism of methods of protest out of hand as sophistry. This is particularly the case when the criticisms of method are: (a) shrouded in whataboutism - as if the players should be expected to solve a longstanding human rights problem in another country before addressing the fact that people who look like them are murdered by the state in this country for no reason (a human rights situation in China that, I might add, is being completely ignored by the Trump Administration even as its domestic political allies raise the situation to attack NBA players); (b) uninformed by, I don't know, even five minutes of reading about the goals of the strike and what has happened since.

Posted by: anon | Aug 28, 2020 10:54:30 AM

But that's what I find disingenuous, especially coming from people who themselves have not been critical of China.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 27, 2020 12:25:24 PM

Understood. I generally agree, and I recall your criticism of the response to the comments about China/Hong Kong. The only reason I bring that up is because I think the response from LeBron and league in that instance actually undermines other player protests and makes it too easy for critics to dismiss them.

Posted by: TJM | Aug 27, 2020 12:09:31 PM

As to China: LeBron was wrong in his reaction to Daryl Morrey--and I criticized LeBron and the NBA at the time. I am less inclined to criticize players for protesting this while staying silent on China--one need not respond to all injustices.

As to criticizing method apart from message: I can and do separate them, when they are separable. But 1) Many critics are suggesting that the players are not within their rights or are morally wrong to protest this way, as opposed to suggesting that it is not effective (the "shut-up-and-dribble" crowd); 2) Many of these critics have targeted every other method (kneeling, t-shirts, video messages, etc.), suggesting the view that they are not within their rights or are morally wrong to use their positions as famous athletes to speak; and 3) The loudest critics are not, unlike TJM, prefacing anything with support for the message.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 27, 2020 11:46:44 AM


I completely disagree--there is nothing incongruent with criticizing the form of the protest while still being sympathetic to the protesters and their message. I write this as someone who does not watch basketball (and will not particularly miss any games that are not played), and as someone who is sympathetic to the message of ending brutality. Frankly, it is difficult for me to believe that you cannot separate those two aspects (persuasiveness/effectiveness vs. message), and that you cannot accept that others are capable of separating those aspects.

NBA players are free to protest however they damn well please, but I think this mode is ineffective for reasons I outlined below. The players apparently believe this is their best platform to convey the message. Good for them...but it doesn't mean that it will actually be persuasive or bring about any real change because the only people who will internalize the message are the ones who are already on their side.

Also, to be fair, it is disingenuous for the league and players like LeBron to only endorse protests with popular messages while silencing/criticizing others who want to use the same platform to protest other injustices like China's crackdown in Hong Kong.

Posted by: TJM | Aug 27, 2020 11:27:13 AM

There isn't logic to it. Fortunately, no one said that.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 27, 2020 11:22:33 AM

Why is it "nonsense" to object to conduct that disrespects our flag and country and to condemn rioting? One must accept kneeling during the national anthem as a condition to condemning rioting? Where is the logic in this?

Posted by: Harmon | Aug 27, 2020 11:11:23 AM

If a group attempts different forms of peaceful protest and every attempt is derided as the wrong manner, it suggests that the criticism of form is disingenuous. It suggests that what is really going on is a belief that a) this group of people should not speak or b) they should not express the particular message they are expressing. Which is fine. But own it.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 27, 2020 7:55:39 AM

The more I think about it, the more I feel like this is a poor choice for conveying the message. First, as far as I could tell, the networks that were supposed to be broadcasting the games tonight simply went to other programming. It's not like they stayed in the broadcast booth for the full three hours and showed an empty court. So other than the news stories, it seems like there was low visibility for the protest.

Second, the protest is not really directed to anyone who has the power to enact the change that is sought; are the owners the target? And it is unlikely that the NBA players will hold out playing until some sort of change occurs. That is, they will likely start playing games again within the next couple of days. Does that mean the protest was effective? If they really want to hit the owners in their pocketbooks, they would threaten to hold out and get the playoffs cancelled, but that would likely hurt the players just as much. When play inevitably resumes, I think this will look disingenuous.

Finally, to the extent that the lack of playoff basketball will cause households to search for something else to watch tonight, it seems ill-timed to boycott playing the same week that several major networks are broadcasting the RNC.

Posted by: TJM | Aug 27, 2020 1:59:04 AM

Honestly, I'm fine if the NBA stops playing forever.

That would be the greatest peaceful protest of all.

Weird that Howard seems to be upset that someone can peacefully protest and, at the same time, others can disagree with that protest or even think it's the wrong form.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Aug 27, 2020 12:32:26 AM

And on cue, here's Rich Lowry: "The term virtue-signaling is overused, but what possible effect can this have, except harming the sport that has made these athletes rich and famous?"

Posted by: David H Schraub | Aug 26, 2020 8:58:17 PM

Not sure that this is as effective; they will eventually have to play the playoff games. The MLB plays so many games as it is, will fans notice one night without it? Also, it probably would have been more effective to do this 3 nights ago, when the original shooting took place, rather than the day after protests turned violent and killed two others. Finally, it seems like this will result in at least some people watching the RNC who otherwise would not.

Posted by: TJM | Aug 26, 2020 8:11:13 PM

Players definitively have the right to protest and assert leadership in this pressing issue. And not playing is much more effective (as a form of protest) than just kneeling. But as soon as their paychecks start becoming smaller they'll change their tune. Hopefully they won't, but Lebron's stance on China makes me think they'll do.

Posted by: theRealAnonymous | Aug 26, 2020 6:58:58 PM

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