- NBA players made history on Wednesday when a sudden “wildcat strike” in protest of police violence brought the league’s restart, and playoffs, to a sudden halt.
- The history of the league shows a willingness to strike from players since the 1950s, but activism has never been as common or pronounced as in the Black Lives Matter era.
- The league, Disney, and ESPN have billions riding on the conclusion of the season, and the players know the leverage they have.
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In June, not everyone thought the NBA should come back.
Its return would only detract from the historic protests over the police killing of George Floyd, which was caught on video. Now, less than a month after play resumed on July 30, Milwaukee Bucks players have gone on strike — what the team originally called a boycott — to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which was also caught on video. Blake was shot in the back and now appears to be paralyzed from the waist down.
By the evening after Milwaukee’s players went on strike, the next three games had been called off. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Bucks players were attempting to contact Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul from their locker room.
Later on Wednesday night, Charania, David Aldridge, and Joe Vardon reported the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers — the two best teams in the league this season aside from Milwaukee — had voted to cancel the season, though other reports indicated the vote was not a binding one. By Thursday, Charania reported the players had agreed to continue playing “but want to find new and improved ways to make social justice statements.”
They have already made a bold statement.
The sudden collective action by NBA players — essentially a “wildcat strike,” or when union members stop work without leadership’s authorization — is already the largest sudden work stoppage in NBA history. Even if the playoffs conclude, this moment has high stakes for the league and its partners, especially Disney and its subsidiary ESPN, with $1 billion invested in creating the “bubble” that allows play to safely resume.
NBA players, long unionized and ready and willing to strike, have all the leverage right now over their league and its partners.
The dynamics have clicked into focus over the past 24 hours: A group overwhelmingly made up of Black workers has withheld its labor to advocate for political changes, with billions on the line.
They are the most powerful employees in America, and they are acting like they know it.
Labor, employment, and replaceability
The members of the Players Association have outstanding leverage, compared with many employees, because of a variety of factors.
The first is commonly associated with Michael Jordan: the superstar effect. Teams already employ the best of the best: Just 1.2% of college players and 0.03% of high-school players make it to the NBA, according to the NCAA. That might suggest thousands of basketball players are waiting in line to play if an athlete steps out of line, but the superstar effect — whereby the marginal difference between very good and exceptional leads to outsize financial rewards — allows for big-name pla