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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Athletes take historic stand to deliver strong message in response to Jacob Blake shooting

The court sits empty after a postponed NBA

The court sits empty after a postponed NBA basketball first round playoff game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic on Wednesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Credit: AP/Ashley Landis

America, the fun and games are over.

Athletes across the country have sent a strong and historic message. They are no longer going to be used to distract us from difficult times. They are no longer quietly going to provide us with a safe escape, no longer going to provide us with a place where we can forget the harsh reality of what is going on in our country.

In a history-making showing of collective power, athletes from the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and USTA declined to play their games Wednesday. The boycott came after the shooting of Jacob Blake, who was shot several times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Sunday.

“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman,” Naomi Osaka wrote on Twitter before withdrawing from Thursday’s semifinal match of the Western & Southern Open in Queens. “And as a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.”

The sports strike started in the afternoon with the Milwaukee Bucks, who in pre-COVID-19 times played their home games 40 miles north of Kenosha. The Bucks were scheduled to play the Orlando Magic in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series, but did not take the court for warm-ups in the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World.

Soon after, the NBA announced that their other two playoff games had been postponed. Next MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers announced they would not play Wednesday night and then the two other games scheduled for that night were also postponed. Five of six MLS games were not played. And then officials at the Western & Southern Open, a tune-up for next week’s U.S. Open, announced that all play Thursday would be paused before returning Friday.

It was a boycott the likes of which has never been seen before in professional sports and will take a place next to some of the most iconic moments in the history of American games.

“I respect the hell out of them for doing that,” John Carlos, the American sprinter who raised his fist along with Tommie Smith on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics, told TIME. “Because you have to squeeze the toothpaste tube to get people to respond. And their boycotting lets the powers that be, whether it’s the NBA or any professional organization or corporate entity, know that they need to raise their voices. They need to get serious about the situation.”

The fact that this generation of athletes is not afraid to squeeze the toothpaste – not afraid to say who they are and what they stand for – stands in bold contrast to some previous icons.

Sports fans got their first reprieve from the pandemic sports shutdown this year by watching “The Last Dance,” a 10-episode ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan’s championship runs with the Chicago Bulls. In one of the episodes, Jordan explains his lack of political engagement by saying, “I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player.”

Today’s athletes have clearly decided that they need to use their platforms for a larger cause. Underscoring their message is the fact that the strike came on the four-year anniversary of the first time former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick did not stand for the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racial injustice.

Yes, they are making big money and getting paid to do something they love. But athletes today are making sacrifices by returning to competition in the time of COVID-19. They have played an essential role in helping distract us from the harsh realities of our every day lives, whether it be the stress of figuring out whether to send your kids to school or the fear that the company you work for will go belly up.

One fear they are not willing to distract us from any longer is the fear many feel when they encounter someone in a law enforcement uniform.

And so our athletes, by walking out, have joined those marching in Kenosha and other cities in protest of yet another shooting of a black man. They believe that the stakes of any game – whether it be a basketball playoff or tennis semifinal – pale in comparison to what is at stake for our country right now as it begins to confront the reality of systemic racism.

The fun and games are over.

New York Sports