National Basketball Association players who briefly staged a work stoppage in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake have decided to play their games after all. The threat to the truncated baseball season is also over. And herein lies a tale about sports and the limits of protest.
The courts where the NBA is staging its contests have “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on them. Critics complain, on the other hand, that although players and team officials are permitted and even encouraged to speak up about racial injustice at home, the league won’t allow them to criticize the government of China, a country from which the NBA earns billions in revenue. Assume that the charge is true. It’s not hypocrisy. It’s just business. It’s also evidence that when it comes to political protests in professional sports, the players get the publicity but the owners are in charge.
Some conservatives angrily charge that the NBA owners are trying to show how “woke” they are, but that’s an oversimplification. Like other corporate entities, the teams have First Amendment rights, and as they read the shifting political winds, they’re trying to position themselves to maximize profit. They see no gain in antagonizing Beijing; and they see little loss in siding with Black Lives Matter.
This era is like every other. Protests in sports succeed when the leagues and owners support them. Otherwise … not so much.
Case in point: In January of 1959, the Minneapolis Lakers arrived in Charleston, W. Va., to play a basketball game against the Cincinnati Royals. But the hotel where the Lakers were staying refused to give a room to superstar Elgin Baylor because he was Black. (A white teammate is said to have scolded the desk clerk: “This man is more successful than you, and makes a lot more money than you ever will!”) Later that evening, Baylor and the team’s two other Black players found that no local restaurant would seat them. Having had enough, Baylor refused to play. Tickets had been sold on the promise of his presence on the court. Instead he sat on the bench in street clothes. Sportswriters were angry. Local business leaders complained. The league considered handing down discipline, then backed off after the team’s owner supported his star.
The following year, a football player named Art Powell, a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, refused to play in a preseason game in Norfolk, Va., after learning that he could not stay at the team hotel because he was Black. Powell wasn’t a star. He’d been in professional sports for all of one season. The team didn’t support him. It released him. The protest has largely been forgotten. (At this writing, it’s not mentioned in Powell’s Wikipedia entry.)
A few years later, now a member of the Oakland Raiders, Powell was one of several Black players who threatened to boycott a preseason game in Mobile, Ala., because stadium seating was segregated. When the venue wouldn’t budge — “We don’t want four boys from Oakland telling us how to run our stadium,” stadium management said — the league arranged for the game to be moved elsewhere.
Maybe the owners were sympathetic to civil rights. But it’s also true that by 1963, when the controversy over Mobile arose, the issue of racial equality had become more salient, and it was clear as crystal which argument was in the descendant. It was important that the owners of professional sports franchises, whatever their private views, wind up on the winning side.
Just a year earlier, the Washington football team had been informed by the Department of the Interior that unless they added Black players to the league’s last remaining lily-White roster, they would no longer be welcome at the government-owned D.C. Stadium. The majority owner at the time was the venerable racist George Preston Marshall, who was determined never to integrate his team. But Marshall was a businessman. He saw the writing on the wall. Segregation was no longer profitable. He caved.
Not that things were always so clear. Consider some of the early Black players in major league baseball, long before the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson: Vincent Nava in the 1880s, George Treadway in the 1890s, Charles Grant at the dawn of the 20th century. Owners hired them to help their teams win more games, then tried to pass each as an acceptable ethnicity: Nava as Hispanic, Treadway as American Indian or perhaps white, and Grant as white. Each was soon outed as Black, and abandoned by his team. The issue of race was salient indeed, but the winds were blowing in a different direction.
We could argue for a right of protest that is independent of the views of the league. But there’s a catch. If we’re going to respect protest rights, let’s respect them across the board. The social-media attacks on the NBA’s Jonathan Isaac for refusing to kneel during the national anthem are wrongheaded, to say the least. In 2017, two high school football referees, upset that players were kneeling, walked off the field. “They’ve got the right to protest and so do we,” said one. After being disciplined for their walkout — even high school leagues know who butters their bread! — the refs wound up quitting.
To respond that the pair got what they deserved is to endorse the position of the National Football League owners accused of refusing to hire Colin Kaepernick after he began kneeling four years ago. They, too, were surely trying to maximize profit by outguessing the political winds. They just got the direction wrong.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.