By refusing to leave the locker room to play their NBA play-off game on Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks have started a boycott movement unprecedented in the recent history of American sport. Intended to seek justice in the Jacob Blake case – which has shaken the United States since Sunday – the act has been imitated in other matches, and even other sports (football, tennis). Specialist in the social history of the United States, in particular on minorities, on which he has devoted a book, black Americans: on the march for equality, (Gallimard, “Découvertes” collection, 2009), Pap Ndiaye points out the aspect “remarkable” and «extraordinaire» movement, while expressing reservations about its sustainability, for lack of specific demands.
Read alsoJacob Blake affair triggers historic boycott of American sports
Are these successive boycotts a first in the history of American sport?
This is not quite the first attempt. By the time of the 1968 Olympics, there were already black American athletes who attempted to organize a boycott of the event as part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. In the end, it didn’t work. Rare were the sportsmen to engage in the boycott (there was nevertheless Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), the pressures being very strong. Some, like Tommie Smith and John Carlos, therefore decided to do something else (the famous photo of Black Power’s raised fists on the podium).
With Milwaukee, however, this is the first time that it has worked. Which is quite remarkable given the pressures of all kinds, sporting, financial, but also legal with the contracts. Basically, this boycott takes place in a sequence that has been increasing since the murder of George Floyd, where we see the players wearing T-shirts, kneeling before the games. There, they took the next step, outraged by the shots suffered by Jacob Blake.
How do you measure the symbolic significance of such acts?
The gesture itself is quite extraordinary, since traditionally the world of professional sport is not a world that engages politically. On the contrary, it encourages depoliticization. Politicizing yourself when you are a great athlete is not at all easy. It is an extremely cautious environment, because of advertising and professional contracts, which clearly specify that political commitments are prohibited. It is therefore not easy for an athlete to commit, because there is this legal risk linked to the loss of contracts, of trouble with his club. Commitments are generally rare, and they come at a cost. Players like Colin Kaepernick paid dearly for it. The fact that today, these players are mobilizing, shows that something is happening.
What can this type of action bring in the fight against racial inequalities and police violence?
The boycott has a long history in the African American world, which goes beyond athletes. It is one of the classic tools of the civil rights movement, one of the weapons of non-violence. Behind, there is this idea of awareness. The boycott is first made to show the indignation, the anger on the part of professional sportsmen. But also their involvement, their solidarity with the African-American world unjustly hit by police violence, and the “Black Lives Matter” movement in general. There is an immediate publicity and movement strengthening effect, as the big stars take matters into their own hands and come forward by taking risks. Except that for a boycott to last, you need a platform of demands. And athletes don’t really have one.
If a boycott like this isn’t enough to shake things up, could the players go even further in their protests?
The proximity of the presidential election is still something decisive. It is she who will decide. I see an extraordinary gesture not necessarily intended to be prolonged, in sports where African Americans are in the majority. We’ll see what happens. There remains this feeling that many players do not want to be seen simply as the ones who entertain the public, as serious events unfold in their country and black people continue to be killed by the police.
Two months before the presidential elections, can these protests find an echo, even a political translation in the United States?
This movement will especially find support on the side of sports fans who, basically, already supported it. I’m not sure he convinces beyond those who already were, or that it tips the scales in the next presidential election. But it is significant, especially since Donald Trump is a sports fan. He gladly receives teams that have won the football, basketball and baseball championships at the White House. That the world of sport is mobilizing against him is also a wound of pride for him. In contrast, footballers or basketball players expect nothing from Trump. They have no illusions about what he will or will not do. But we must weigh in the approach of the presidential election, and also in the perspective of political change. Tell Democrats that they will have to put in place the structural changes they have promised. The message is therefore as valid for Trump as it is for those who aspire to replace him.
Does this mean that the commitment of athletes is necessary to advance the anti-racist cause in American society?
I am not sure. It was not needed in the 60s for the civil rights movements. But in this case, it is substantial support for an insistent demand for structural change in the way African Americans are treated by law enforcement and the judiciary. This support is not necessarily decisive or necessary, but it is in addition to the mobilization of important sectors of American society. In this, it is good news.