On August 26, 2016, Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, first took a knee while the national anthem played before his scheduled game. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told reporters at the time. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” It was a decision that would cost him the remainder of his NFL career.
On Wednesday night, four years after a moment that changed football forever, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, Atlanta Dream, LA Sparks, Minnesota Lynx, Phoenix Mercury, and Connecticut Sun refused to play a single minute of basketball. The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks started the wave, opting out of their own game. The Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers voted to end the current season, in the middle of the playoffs, and LeBron James called on team owners to take more action. In a turn that will shake the tennis world, Naomi Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete ever, sat out of the semi-finals of the Western & Southern Open. Each person who chose to strike, to risk their livelihoods, to put endorsements and contract renewals on the line, did it to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times by police officers in front of his children in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Despite the fact that athletes have found themselves at the forefront of political movements for decades, they are often still met with derision whenever they voice an opinion unrelated to their sport. Donald Trump famously referred to NFL players who chose to kneel with Kaepernick as “sons of bitches.” Kelly Loeffler, co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, wrote an impassioned letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert asking for politics to be removed from the league after it was announced players would wear Black Lives Matter shirts before games and display Breonna Taylor’s name on their jerseys. Laura Ingraham told Lebron James to “shut up and dribble.” While players constantly have to remind fans and detractors that they are human beings before they are athletes, Naomi Osaka’s statement and her withdrawal from the semi-finals at the peak of her career is arguably the loudest cry for justice from an athlete since Kaepernick first kneeled on the field four years ago.
While players like Lebron James, Megan Rapinoe, and Maya Moore have been at the forefront of social justice movements in their sports, Osaka’s move puts her career at risk far more than her peers who have had longer careers and firmly established personal brands. Beyond that, Osaka is at the disadvantage of not playing a team sport; she cannot look to teammates for support when this act of protest turns into a talking point for the conservative right. She stands and kneels alone on the court—and yet her statement ends with a poignant question that all of these athletes have posed: “When will it ever be enough?”
A debate that has bubbled up since Wednesday night is whether players choosing not to play should be considered a boycott or a strike. While semantics is not the issue that requires the most focus at this moment—that would be the police violence that is currently being protested against—the reality is that the refusal to play is not intended to affect team owners or even the leagues themselves. The strike is for the fans.
The WNBA’s opening games for the 2020 season drew in 504,000 viewers. The NBA’s opening scrimmage between the Mavericks and the Lakers drew 300,000 viewers. In years when fans were allowed to attend, the Western & Southern Open can draw a live crowd of up to 25,000 people. Hundreds and thousands of people show up to watch the likes of Osaka and James move a ball around, and for an hour or more they have the undivided attention of the masses. It is their power as athletes and for the fans, it is a privilege to watch people so talented do what they do best.
In refusing to perform for their fans, Osaka, WNBA players, NBA players, and MLB players are saying we no longer deserve that privilege if we aren’t willing to take a stand against police violence—and if we assess that statement honestly, it’s true. Sports fans don’t deserve to be entertained and distracted from the “genocide of Black people at the hand of police,” as Osaka put it, if we’re unwilling to stand up for fellow fans who have been gunned down by police. Athletes can no longer be asked to stick to sports for the sake of the greater good if it comes at the cost of pretending that the lives of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, and Jacob Blake don’t matter, or that their killings and shootings were anomalies. Sports doesn’t get to be a safe space until players like Maya Moore, Lebron James, Naomi Osaka, Renee Montgomery, and Natasha Cloud also feel safe living in America as Black people.
Updated 2:38 PM ET: Naomi Osaka will play a rescheduled semi-finals match on Friday according to Bleacher Report. Per ESPN, the NBA has voted to continue their post season schedule, but Thursday’s games remain postponed. The WNBA released a statement Thursday afternoon on Twitter announcing the postponement of all games scheduled for Thursday night.