Thirty-three weeks. That’s how long it had been since the Milwaukee Bucks walked away from a playoff game against the Orlando Magic. That boycott – hatched after police in Wisconsin shot an unarmed black man named Jacob Blake – started out as a surprise to the Orlando Magic only to become news to the world as other NBA, WNBA, MLB and NHL teams and the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament took timeouts, too. “We are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable,” the Bucks said in a statement explaining their boycott. “We are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.”
For a single summer weekend America was denied its escape into sports and couldn’t blame the blackout dates on Covid. It felt like a turning point. But now? It feels like turning circles.
The cycle restarted on Sunday when an unarmed black man named Daunte Wright was fatally shot by police during a traffic stop in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center. On Monday the NBA, MLB and NHL postponed their games in Minneapolis. But this time it was local lawmakers collaborating with league officials to make the call. And you might commend them for showing compassion for their players’ mental health if they weren’t so obviously doing their part to keep a lid on a town that’s been on the boil since the Derek Chauvin trial seized the national spotlight last month.
On Tuesday afternoon the Minnesota Timberwolves resumed play against the Brooklyn Nets, with players and coaches struggling for words. “Today, I don’t even know if we were supposed to be playing, to be honest,” Wolves guard Josh Okogie told reporters. “The sad reality is that we just keep moving forward,” added Nets coach Steve Nash. “And it just keeps happening. Meaningful change needs to come at some point.”
Kim Porter, the officer identified on police body-camera footage as Wright’s killer, announced her resignation along with Brooklyn Center police chief Tim Gannon – who characterized the shooting as an oops moment. Apparently, she meant to draw a taser instead of a gun; in fact, you can hear her quite clearly yelling “taser” repeatedly before cutting down Wright like a dog in the street. She could’ve just as easily been screaming “reasonable doubt!”
For the cop who kills an unarmed citizen, it seems, there is always an excuse. There is always a dead black person who was more at fault. Philando Castile had a broken taillight, George Floyd a counterfeit $20 bill. Wright was driving on expired license plates and had an air freshener dangling from his rearview mirror. Meanwhile, Dylann Roof gets Burger King and a private jet ride to prison, and Kyle Rittenhouse walks free on bail because, well, they’re just kids. No matter how unfavorable the argument, the cops always win. The average athlete has a greater expectation to protect and serve.
To be an athlete is to be subject to endless criticism. When it’s not the media, it’s fans. When it’s not on ESPN, it’s on Twitter. When it’s not about performance, it’s about pay. And God help them if they should fail under pressure. Because if they make any excuse, they’re guaranteed to be crucified for it. Just last month we saw a number of men’s college basketball players share the ugly social media messages they received after suffering upset losses in the NCAA tournament. “I hope you die,” one user wrote to Ohio State’s EJ Liddell after his second-seeded Buckeyes fell to Oral Roberts. “Go sit your monkey ass on the couch,” wrote another to Illinois center Kofi Cockburn after the top-seeded Illini lost to Loyola Chicago. And yet: That’s nothing compared to the hell Chris Webber experienced after calling a timeout Michigan didn’t have and costing the Wolverines the 1993 national championship. These guys are just kids too, after all – but we expect them to assume total responsibility for those losses. Somehow they always do.
The first line of Scott Norwood’s obituary will doubtless make mention of his epic field goal miss in the 1991 Super Bowl. Same goes for Bill Buckner and his fielding error in the 1986 World Series. And Jean van de Velde and his implosion in the 1999 Open Championship. Heck even non-athletes like Steve Bartman have their lives upended when they mess up sporting events.
Kevin Durant had to face the cameras, apologize and accept a $50,000 fine for an Instagram war-of-words with the actor Michael Rapaport that should’ve never been made public in the first place. But Porter and Gannon? They got to quietly step down from their posts. When cops mess up on their job, they don’t catch heat. They collect guaranteed pensions and, failing that, crowd-funded lucre. They hide out at home or behind barricaded stations flying Blue Lives Matter flags. They never take ownership for the blood they spill. It’s almost as if they know they don’t have to.
Years ago while attending a Mets game as a spectator, I was looking on from the outfield landing, trying to cram some Shake Shack down my gullet in between pitches when a table of off-duty, baby-faced NYPD Harlem beat cops invited me to join them. It didn’t take long for the conversation to drift from the baseball to their own jobs. When I expressed empathy for the difficult, high-stress nature of their work, one of the guys took a pull from his draft and shrugged. “Hey, as long as we make it home at night,” he said. “That’s all I care about.” The others raised their cups. In other words, when they had to choose a life, they chose theirs. It’s a moment I won’t soon forget.
Meaningful change would be holding law enforcement to the same impossible standard that athletes are duty bound. Police rosters should be as Googleable as NBA rosters and even more comprehensive. Police salaries should be as widely published and hotly debated as salaries are in sports; police budgets should be as dissected as any other salary cap.
More to the point: police union heads should be as known and as accessible as the NBPA’s Michele Roberts or the NFLPA’s DeMaurice Smith. Imagine if local news outlets covered police as comprehensively as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski covers the NBA. We could track the other Chauvins being tried across the country. We could make it impossible for them to turn up in another police jurisdiction or default to lethal force again. We could make it extremely difficult for a president who owes his office to black friends like Stacey Abrams and black voters in Michigan and Georgia to express more concern for the Brooklyn Center cops’ due process or any potential property destruction than for Wright’s family, friends and neighbors.
Major League reliever Sean Doolittle once called sports “the reward of a functioning society.” At the time he was talking about baseball’s attempts to comeback during the first wave of Covid-19. But the line is just as apropos for the centuries-long fever that is anti-black racism in America. While sports have done much in the past year to highlight the problem, not playing isn’t stopping these killings. Forget training police. Meaningful change would be doing what the Bucks recommended in the first place and train the aLl LiVeS mAtTeR crowd to scrutinize a 22-year police veteran who “accidentally” killed a guy as intensely as it does a 20-year-old basketball player who accidentally called a timeout. Until that day comes, the weeks between these unplanned blackouts are only going to get shorter.