Inadvertent General Strike

This is all very boring, and I don’t want to dwell on it. Instead I want to linger with the Bucks’ refusal to play, their refusal to coordinate with the players’ union in a strike or with the executives in bargaining, their anarchic work slowdown, if not stoppage. No matter what anyone says about what happened afterward, for a moment, before they took on roles in a story for which the liberal script had already been written, they leveraged their work—they refused to work—in the hopes of creating a world in which they would not have to work while the police were attacking people. That, I think, is admirable.

This moment may have screeched to a halt at a dead end, but the next may not

Following the Milwaukee Bucks’ refusal to play in Game 5 of the NBA playoffs, n+1 assistant editor Elias Rodriques and n+1 contributor Andrew Liu (76ers and Stephen Curry supporters, respectively) exchanged emails about labor, protest, the bubble, Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s fondness for green smoothies. —eds

Dear Andy,

I’ve been thinking a lot since the Bucks decided to sit out their game yesterday, to protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Historically, the relationship between Black radicalism and the league hasn’t exactly been robust. It’s true that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell attended the famed Cleveland Summit in 1967 to express support for Muhammad Ali, who had just lost his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam. But on the whole, the league’s history, like America’s, has been mixed at best.

In recent years, though, players have been increasingly outspoken about police violence. Two years ago, the Bucks’ Sterling Brown was stopped by Milwaukee police outside a Walgreens at around 2 AM. The police tackled and tased him. When the footage was released, the assaulting officers were disciplined, but I imagine that did little for Brown, a decently paid guard working in the most competitive league for his profession, the achievements of which ended up counting for very little at the moment the police were attacking him.

A few weeks ago, as people took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and police violence in general, NBA players joined them. Jaylen Brown, of the Celtics, and Malcolm Brogdon, of the Pacers, marched on the same Atlanta streets that Lil Baby rode down on his bicycle, black lives matter emblazoned on his mask. Stephen Jackson, a former NBA player and a friend of George Floyd’s, spoke at rallies, lamenting his loss and calling for change. Teams released statements: The Washington Wizards (formerly the Bullets—until the owner lost friends to gun violence) memorably wrote, “WE WILL NO LONGER TOLERATE THE ASSASSINATION OF PEOPLE OF COLOR IN THIS COUNTRY.” And many people in and around the league expressed their solidarity both with victims of police violence and those protesting it. The largely Black league, in other words, became a site of protest against anti-Black violence.

Then the NBA traveled to Disney World to quarantine and return to basketball. The league aired commercials that superimposed Black Lives Matter over footage of NBA players protesting. Players selected protest slogans or movements to put on the backs of their jerseys. Once subversive groups suddenly occupied prime real estate alongside brands and logos. But when I watched the games all of it seemed to blur into the background.

The players’ statements about police violence gained renewed currency last week, with the release of the footage of Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors. Ujiri had tried to get onto the court after the Raptors won the NBA championship in 2019. A police officer moonlighting as a security guard shoved him. Ujiri pushed back. Kyle Lowry called to Ujiri, pulled him from the crowd, and hugged him, seemingly telling him not to worry about it—after all, they had won. The release of the footage demonstrated that, contrary to what the security guard claimed in a lawsuit, Ujiri had not attacked the guard. Rather, just after presiding over the decade’s least likely athletic victory, Ujiri had become a victim of state violence.

And then yesterday, two days after the police shot Jacob Blake in Wisconsin and one night after protesters were shot by an armed person claiming to defend their business from so-called violent looters, as the Orlando Magic warmed up on the court, the Bucks sat in their locker room. No one knew what was happening at first, until reports came in that they would not play, in protest of the shooting in their home state. Regardless of what Adrian Wojnarowski said, this was a work stoppage, a strike.

Journalists were quick to ask what it was the Bucks wanted. Their questions struck me as in bad faith. You don’t have to be a brilliant close reader to see the empty court and figure out that the Bucks didn’t want to play while cops are killing and attacking Black people. They wanted a world in which this violence and their playing of basketball could not coexist. But when the journalists asked why they weren’t playing, they refused to read the Bucks’ refusal to play—to work—on its own terms.

Still, if the journalists’ questions were a predictable setback, the owners’ support for the move was what actually foreshadowed its end. The executives knew better than to go against the players, lest they lose the rest of the season and the profits that come with it. The season was already precarious, with many players presumably unhappy about separating themselves from their loved ones and having to quarantine in their workplace. And of course no matter how well anyone plays, the shortened season means that whoever wins the championship will do so with an asterisk. For LeBron James, a championship in the bubble would leave him with two shortened-season championships and two actual championships, placing him four shy of Michael Jordan. (It’s worth noting that Nikil Saval sneak-dissed me in a comment about Derrick Rose in his essay on LeBron for this very magazine, but it’s also worth noting that history will vindicate me.)  Fearing the loss of profits, the owners opted for the carrot instead of the stick: statements of support, and a meeting scheduled for the following day.

Well, that meeting has come and gone, and the end everyone expected has arrived: The playoffs will resume, the workers will return to work, and LeBron tweeted that everyone should vote, though Kenosha has a Democratic mayor. This is all very boring, and I don’t want to dwell on it. Instead I want to linger with the Bucks’ refusal to play, their refusal to coordinate with the players’ union in a strike or with the executives in bargaining, their anarchic work slowdown, if not stoppage. No matter what anyone says about what happened afterward, for a moment, before they took on roles in a story for which the liberal script had already been written, they leveraged their work—they refused to work—in the hopes of creating a world in which they would not have to work while the police were attacking people. That, I think, is admirable.

Best,
Elias


Elias:

When word first emerged on Wednesday that this boycott was possible, I was wary. Like you, I felt like every attempt at “social justice” messaging in the bubble had been too quaint and too easily accommodated by the team owners—a good sign that no boundaries were actually being transgressed. Then, around 4 PM, word slowly leaked out that the Bucks had refused to come out before their game against the Orlando Magic, followed by real-time confusion during their NBA TV coverage (relegation to this two-bit channel was reason enough to boycott in itself) and capped off by wave after wave of boycott announcements from the Rockets, Thunder, Lakers, and the Blazers. They were later joined by WNBA players, MLB teams, and the Black Asian tennis superstar Naomi Osaka. Suddenly, it seemed, the impossible had become reality!

But we now know that a general strike was never the Bucks’ goal. Indeed, the team had even anticipated absorbing the automatic loss against the Magic, preparing to finish play with a still respectable 3–2 series advantage. That kind of arrogance should sting Evan Fournier even more deeply.

Here we get to the heart of the matter. Unlike you, my memories of the ensuing evening and morning of media coverage are dominated by the almost universal acclaim for the NBA players by sports and labor journalists. Like you, these reporters disputed the framing that this was merely a “boycott” and argued that it was, in fact, a worker strike. Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times wrote a brief explanation of why, technically, the best description for what the Bucks had instigated was not the former but the latter, one I found entirely persuasive. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chimed in!

But we also need to reckon with the fact that the players themselves did not see their actions that way, whether semantically or in general terms. LeBron forcefully used the term “boycott” in a viral Instagram post, and say what you will about Woj’s rejection of the word “strike,” if nothing else he has his finger on the pulse of the bubble. The thorniest data point is the fact that the Bucks faced criticism by other teams for not informing the players’ union in advance, which indicates to me that they did not conceive of what they were doing in terms of collective labor.

Perhaps the best way to think about this, then, is as something like an “inadvertent strike”: it was certainly a disruption caused by the withholding of labor, and for a few hours it was political dynamite. We know how easy it has been for the NBA owners to sanction jersey messages like vote and education reform (as my friend Jacob put it, it’s telling that class first was left off the list of approved messages), but the threat of a worker strike surely sent shock waves down their spine. And maybe that’s the most important takeaway—that the Bucks had stumbled onto a potent, hitherto unthinkable political weapon, even if they were not quite ready to fully deploy it.

I have no doubt that the Bucks were entirely well intentioned in pressing pause on the NBA’s relentless schedule in favor of self-education (to me, Giannis will always be a pure soul, forever sipping on a green smoothie), but as far as I can tell, NBA players have been pragmatic in their political choices. Several have denounced Trump, yes, but though many have marched in public protests, none has publicly acknowledged (strategically, to be sure) even the existence of widespread demands for defunding or police abolition. As you say, their main message seems to be to vote for pro-police Democratic Party candidates.

Here I want to briefly dwell on this mismatch between the evident intentions of the players and the liberal fantasies reporters and commentators alike projected onto them during the manic twenty-four-hour window.

Years ago, in graduate school, I was thinking a lot about forms of unfree labor at the outset of capitalism—the enslavement of Africans, but also the indenture of various groups, especially Indian and Chinese workers in the West Indies. I realized that the question of labor and capital was largely absent from mainstream political discussions in the US today, with the one major exception: sports.

Taylor Branch’s explosive reporting in the Atlantic in 2011 on the unpaid exploitation of college athletes, which struck me as something that could have been written about unfree African and Asian labor in the 19th century, earned him coverage from outlets like CNN and Time. Years later, Michele A. Roberts, the newly elected executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, gave an interview to ESPN Magazine in which she came as close as anyone in mainstream culture to articulating what the socialists called a labor theory of value: “There would be no money if not for the players. Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money. If not for the players. They create the game.” Fair enough, but isn’t it also true that it’s the cooks who generate the value in a restaurant, the seamstresses who generate the value in a sweatshop, and the teachers who create the value in a private university? Why aren’t these the most celebrated workers in popular culture, rather than pro athletes?

One obvious explanation could be that college and professional sports represent massive sums of wealth. But that logic is a bit flat. The NBA is big money, but it is not so vital to our economy that a players’ strike would prevent ordinary people from going to work or sending their children to school. If players never left the locker room again, society would still operate.

Instead it’s clear to me that this is a question not just of form, but also content. Alternating my attention between economic history and NBA games over the years, I’ve long toyed with the hypothesis that modern team sports are a historical byproduct of—and thereby draw our fascination, because they are a quintessential expression of—life under capitalist competition. In the NBA, impossible feats of human agility and strength are ceaselessly transformed into abstract quanta of value, accumulated and tallied like national GDP, and then pitted against one another in displays of regional pride. (It now seems quaint to recall the Fordist origins of many team mascots, such as the Detroit Pistons and Seattle Supersonics (RIP), an intimate localistic relationship that has been rendered absurd by the postmodern pastiche of mascots like the Toronto Raptors and the LA Lakers.) Unlike with most commodities, labor here is not concealed behind the factory walls but publicly staged for mass consumption: a workforce of (mostly) Black employees organized into a division of labor and supervised by a (mostly) white management and ownership class. It’s not lost on the average fan that the in-game currency that NBA players accrue in points and PER has a direct correlation with the dollars they negotiate over in public view. NBA players, then, are performing in the most elegant and heroic way possible the life of industrial labor under capitalism.

So it’s no wonder that so many fans can so easily project their own political fantasies of an organized labor movement onto these athletes. They have already spent decades projecting onto them their own fantasies of upward economic advancement.

Of course none of this works without the obvious but unstated racial dynamics of sports like football and basketball, so reminiscent of the arrangements of slavery and Jim Crow. In some ways it’s encouraging that the best way to draw attention to questions of labor exploitation is to foreground the most starkly segregated industries. I mean, isn’t it good that a mostly Black workforce so effectively garners public sympathy? But at the same time I’m worried that it is too easy to politicize Black professional athletes. Rather than wrestling with the weighty contradictions of Black labor and white capital, are their white defenders and cheerleaders simply falling back on a self-congratulatory, moralistic formula of bad white racists and their poor Black victims? In my view, this DiAngeloesque moralism culminated in unrealistic white fantasies of Black-led worker radicalism—romantic at best, condescending and paternalistic at worst. (The Obama years, anyone?) In practical terms, it accommodates all sorts of fuzzy thinking about economics and political organization—the very questions that would need to be thought through clearly for said labor radicalism to make actual gains.

The final complication is that celebrity athletes—objects of so much projection by fans and media alike—spend their time away from the court preparing to join a separate economic class. LeBron James’s investments have made him wealthier than some of the league’s owners; Stephen Curry negotiated for major equity in the tanking Under Armour brand; and Kevin Durant has tried unsuccessfully to market himself as the boss of The Boardroom. Certainly, many NBA players are less well off and are only looking to maximize lifetime earnings, not accumulate capital. Earning a lot of money doesn’t fundamentally change the relations of production, after all. But it wasn’t the George Hills and Sterling Browns who invited fantasies of worker empowerment—it was the stars who headline the league. This tension between celebrity culture and worker collectivity is a thorny one that both players and the rest of us should confront before the next time—and like you, I’m assuming there will almost certainly be a “next time.”

Have I overthought this dilemma and ignored the positive gains that can be gleaned from this experiment in worker empowerment? Am I too pessimistic and dismissive? Should we instead focus on the new political horizons opened up, perhaps inadvertently, in this historic moment?

all best,
andy

PS: Condolences for the Sixers. Perhaps what your team needs is a little less Joel Embiid and a little bit more . . . Andrew Wiggins?


Dear Andy,

I suppose you’re right. But what are we to do? Dwell in the disappointment and the all too predictable ending? I’m far more interested in the “inadvertent strike” you describe, in the “potent, hitherto unthinkable political weapon.” This is to say that I want something like and unlike the Gramscian project: Not a description of how radicals lost, but a description of what was possible before radicals lost.

There were two moments that struck me as yielding many possibilities. The first was the time during which the Bucks were not on court and we did not yet know what would happen. It was that latter possibility that I was trying to tease out: that the refusal to work under certain conditions might bring about the end of those conditions—state violence as well as civilian violence against protesters working to end state violence—if not the end of work. For a moment, it seemed possible that the latter might not be conscripted into, on the one hand, liberal scripts for peaceful protest leading to government reform or, on the other hand, union-led demands for workplace transformation (individual players, the Players Association led by Chris Paul, and the Labor Relations Committee chaired by Michael Jordan calling upon their owners to act). The former asks for the reform of a fundamentally violent government; the latter asks for the reform of profiteers. Both are dead ends that we already knew were dead ends, but, I think it’s worth contemplating the ways the Bucks’ action might have brought about an end to work.

The other moment full of potential was the end of Wednesday night’s players’ meeting, in which the Lakers and the Clippers both voted against resuming the playoffs and walked out. The possibility of this moment was bolstered by both teams’ bargaining strength. Because the Lakers and the Clippers were heavy favorites to win the championship, as players pointed out, their departure from the bubble would have meant the end of the season. Consequently, the Lakers and the Clippers were not just radical; they also held all the power. When they walked out, before the morning came, it seemed possible that a workplace conflict might be determined by the most radical voices in the room.

The actions of the Bucks, the Clippers, and the Lakers, like anyone’s, could have resulted in manifold unintended consequences. And there were unintended consequences: Other athletes refusing to work, as you pointed out, as well as academics discussing a work stoppage on Twitter. The players may have wanted to return to work, but they might have started a general strike instead.

I think it’s the potential of the general strike that perhaps most clearly helps illuminate the labor relations at play in the events of two days ago. As you point out, a strike often aims to resolve a conflict between workers and their employers. It seeks a change in labor relations. But labor is never just about labor (especially not for Black laborers in America), and a strike is never just about labor, either. This is most obvious in a general strike, which so clearly seeks a transformation of the world. Consider, for instance, Du Bois’s writing on the general strike during the Civil War in Black Reconstruction. For Du Bois, enslaved people fleeing their masters, collaborating with Union army soldiers, and more constituted a general strike. They were fleeing from labor and labor relations, yes, but they also sought a broader political transformation in the United States that would make slavery impossible, undo the yoke between blackness and labor coerced via violence, and produce freedom.

As I’m sure you’re already thinking, the possibilities of Du Bois’s general strike was also curtailed. It produced, as Saidiya Hartman memorably wrote, emancipation but not freedom. We can look at what happened in the NBA this week and point out that their plans were doomed from the beginning. As you point out, the people mainstream Americans most readily think of as laborers—the people about whom many Americans can quite easily produce a labor theory of value, at least with regard to college athletes—moonlight as capitalists. Maybe they daylight as capitalists. LeBron is both a laborer and expropriator. Who could be surprised that they would return to making money? And as you point out, the reception of their labor is easily coopted too. Spectators sympathizing with a largely Black workforce can very easily do so in ways that reinforce liberal ideas, if not conservative ones. But these are truisms; no laborer is perfect as indeed no person is, and liberal spectators can read even the most radical action as a defense of their liberal values. Thank goodness, then, that a person’s actions can exceed their intentions. If what happened was all that people intended, there would be no hope, no future.

And yet the past five months were a future unimaginable to us a year ago. Perhaps nothing will come of this moment. I’m not inclined to think of NBA players as particularly important, despite all their talk of the importance of their platform and continuing to build their platform (though one wonders how much bigger a platform needs to be when it’s already the size of mansions in LA). I just happen to like basketball. But I do think the refusal to work is not just about work or labor relations confined to employer-employee disputes; it’s also about the world in which they labor. A transformation in the former yields a transformation in the latter, and vice versa. This moment may have screeched to a halt at a dead end, but the next may not.

Best,
Elias

PS: I can’t even talk about the Sixers right now. It’s too painful.


Elias:

When the rumors first emerged that it was LeBron’s Lakers spearheading the efforts to end the season, I rolled my eyes and braced for the inevitable hagiographic reports from NBA “insiders.” LeBron, the radical utopian martyr, they would say, had come this close to giving up the thing that mattered to him most (his last shot at an (asterisked) NBA title), all for the greater cause of social justice. Just this week, after all, LeBron appeared at his media sessions toting a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, truly an ostentatious display of “what I’m reading” that . . . OK, to be honest, as two academics, we have to respect.

I was surprised and heartened to learn instead, then, that LeBron had zigged where I had expected him to zag. LeBron and the union leadership allegedly reproached the Bucks for taking the strike too lightly. If one team were to sit out one game, they reasoned, then the logical endpoint was the end of the season itself, if not more. He would support a strike, but only if it were approached with the gravity it deserved. So although I do not think the Lakers and Clippers really considered ending the season, LeBron showed that he was thinking about the consequences of the Bucks’ protest far more seriously than the league’s white liberal cheerleaders (sorry, I can’t help myself) had been. His line of criticism confirmed the stakes you have outlined: the Bucks’ actions had indeed exceeded their intentions, threatening something far more explosive, and it is this radical potential that may ultimately be this week’s lasting legacy.

For what it’s worth, I suspect that what was on the players’ minds was not so much the protests of the 1960s, but the near-boycott against racist team owner Donald Sterling during the 2014 playoffs that resulted in Sterling’s suspension from ownership duties and ultimately forced the sale of the team, thereby setting the stage for one of the NBA’s most embarrassing franchises in its second most lucrative market to transform into one of its most competitive. Then-Clippers star Chris Paul, after all, now runs the players’ union. If we want to think in more hopeful terms, then we should entertain the possibility that, just as this week was a sequel to the events of 2014, then the dizzying events of Wednesday and Thursday have provided more tools for something more radical down the line.

What else? Your idea of “actions that exceed intentions” has me thinking about other newly revealed possibilities and political connections that are mediated by the labor of professional sports, even if the players themselves seem uninterested in framing their actions as a “strike.”

In your invocation of Du Bois, you are right to note that the transfer of Black labor from chattel to free “wage slavery” in 1863 may not have achieved real “freedom” but was still revolutionary because Black soldiers were laying a novel claim to political and historical agency. We should also remember, further, how this political agency was grounded in economic activity. What always struck me about Black Reconstruction was Du Bois’s choice to frame Black history through the language of class. This opened up new paths of internationalist solidarity that I think we need to see more of today. The opening chapter on the “Black worker,” for instance, drew lateral comparisons with not only the Irish peasant and the white Philadelphian but also the “yellow, brown and black laborer in China and India, in Africa, in the forests of the Amazon”; that “dark and vast sea of human labor,” he wrote, “on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny.”

This, for reasons you probably find obvious, I much prefer to the liberal model of Blackness and “allyship”—literally one of the social justice jersey options in the Orlando bubble (shoutout to Joe Ingles)—organizing the politics of the NBA, and much of this country, today.

Perhaps I was too glib when I characterized the NBA’s simulacrum of capitalism as merely performative. Du Bois would no doubt have recognized that the Bucks’ inadvertent league-wide strike was made possible by the real material conditions of the bubble itself. For the first time in the league’s history, the majority of its players (seriously, does a thirty-team league need sixteen playoff slots?) are occupying the same single space, playing, practicing, socializing around the clock. A scattered national workforce has been compressed into one gigantic basketball factory. On the shop floor—and on our television screens—we see the kinds of camaraderie and social interdependence that are fostered through collaborative labor. For all the talk of the NBA as a Black league, it is also, at the margins, far more multiracial and transnational than almost any other space in this country, certainly in the entertainment world. Think of the friendships between Akron’s prodigal son LeBron James and Lithuanian teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Oakland native Damian Lillard and Bosnian center Jusuf Nurkić. At the highest levels of competition, what televised sports provides is a faint realization of the universal meritocracy promised to us growing up in a capitalist society—but which almost always proves elusive.

I guess what I am saying is that if the NBA performs for us an idealized version of industrial society, then it also dramatizes some of the political possibilities opened up by the formation of a class-based division of labor. Working together as teammates and coworkers, these players have formed concrete relationships that cut across abstract differences. I don’t think enough attention has been made of the simple fact that the Bucks players thought they were simply acting as a unit of twelve teammates but instead unintentionally activated deeper social bonds that exceed the lines of race, nation, sex, gender, and profession, bringing the entire sporting world to a halt within a few hours. It was remarkable to witness.

Wednesday thus revealed something hopeful about the lateral connections between Black NBA players and their fellow jocks. Baseball in particular is a famously conservative and white sport. The Blackest team—shoutout to my Seattle Mariners—boasts only eleven Black players on a roster of forty, an inversion of the NBA’s own demography. Yet many MLB teams boycotted in solidarity with the Bucks players and against racist police and militia violence in Kenosha. This probably deserves to be seen as more than a footnote to the NBA story. For although we have seen many white-majority protests throughout the summer, the MLB boycotts struck me as distinct because they were mediated through that “common destiny” shared across NBA and MLB players as professional athletes—and it was through that identity as workers in common that white, European, Latino, and Asian players came to feel invested in a Black protest.

The more I think about this past week, then, the more I wonder if the contribution that the NBA players have made is once again as performers, demonstrating for the rest of us the political potential of labor. Even if NBA players themselves have not yet shown a particular commitment to radical politics, there are certainly many groups with more quotidian individual abilities who have. My hope is that as many of them as possible are NBA fans like us, paying close attention this week to a messy and unintentional display of worker collectivity, one dormant with possibilities.

all best,
andy

PS: OK, now that we have a playoff schedule again, who do you have winning it all? Personally, I am rooting for Giannis.


A,

It seems we have been bested by history. The Athletic has reported that, after the Wednesday-night meeting that the Lakers and Clippers walked out on, LeBron called Barack Obama and asked for advice. Obama recommended they return to play, continue to build their platforms (again I have to ask: how big does a platform need to be?), and encourage people to vote. The outcome, it seems, is that NBA stadiums will now double as polling places.

In the very moment that we were both describing as harboring the potential for a general strike, the players sought guidance from Obama, the drone bomber and mass deporter who promised an end to the war overseas and instead provided its extension, under whose presidency Black Lives Matter began. (Is this what our future holds? Will Obama swoop in on any moment with radical potential and conscript it into liberalism until he dies? He’s only 59 and has presidential health care; he’s going to outlive us.) I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure what you mean by the “liberal model of Blackness,” but I have to imagine Obama is its epitome: A Black person gaining access to the predation and violence attendant to liberalism and racial capitalism alike. By asking for and taking Obama’s advice, LeBron and others sounded the death knell for the moment.

But here I am, dwelling in sadness about a predictable outcome, rather than thinking about what is radical. I’m heartened, at the moment, by your analysis of the solidarity evinced when teams and players from other sports sat out Wednesday night. You’re right to remind that the importance of the general strike is that it’s general. If one person doesn’t go to work, an employer finds another employee; if no one goes to work, then the nature of work and the world have to change.

It seems important to me, here, to insist that Wednesday’s potential for a general strike came from work. I don’t think sports provide meritocracy, which seems counter to capitalism, so much as the illusion of it. All the yarns spun about professional athletes—that what separates professionals from amateurs is years of hard work, that if you shoot enough shots you’ll become the next MJ—are simply not true. An incredible amount of money goes into school and club programs; that money is unequally distributed to young athletes who have differing amounts of access to those programs at every stage of their development; and once an athlete makes it to the pros, wealth inequities continue to shape athletic outcome: Whichever Los Angeles team wins this year will have bought their championship. Sports are not universal meritocracy, so much as a peculiar strain of capitalism.

The workers who called on the memories of the almost-strike against one team’s racist owner in their work stoppage, ultimately, did so not outside of racial capitalism but from within. Like Cedric Robinson, Angela Davis, Robin Kelley and others, they acted, even if inadvertently, on the assumption that the same system that distributes and coerces labor on the basis of race, gender, and other identities is the same one that distributes violence on the basis of those categories. They knew, just as well, that racial capitalism profits from that violence; slogans protesting state violence on the back of their jerseys, for instance, have functioned to brand the NBA in an attempt to increase, or at least preserve, viewers and revenue. Knowing that labor and state violence are intertwined, they wanted to break that cycle. They gambled on the hope that changing their labor would change the world, and as you reminded, when they rolled the die, other teams did too.

I think you’re right that the solidarity the Bucks produced among workers in different profession, of different races, and from different nations—even if only for a night—gave us a glimpse of radical potential, of a different world in which workers refuse to work, and have the value of their work stolen by their employers in the form of profit, in the same world in which the state murders Black people. If the memories of the 2014 almost-strike helped bring to life the work stoppage of Wednesday night, one hopes the 2020 work stoppage will plant the seeds for some other, better strike in the near future.

E

PS: It’s hard not to see the Lakers winning the chip, but what good is a shortened-season championship to the man who would be king?

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