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Nicolais: Professional athletes are Bucking the system

With their walkouts, athletes can prompt real reform. It's time for Cory Gardner and the Senate to respond.

For the second time this year, I watched live as an NBA game made history. Hopefully the most recent will also lead to specific, meaningful changes. 

In early March, I watched as the Denver Nuggets played the Dallas Mavericks in what should have been a midseason matchup. It turned out to be the last NBA game of the “regular” season. Just as the second half began, the league announced that the season would be suspended over coronavirus concerns.

The stunned, courtside reaction by Mavs owner Mark Cuban summed up what most of us felt.

Mario Nicolais

Last week I flipped on the television as soon as reports surfaced that the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to take the court in their playoff game against the Orlando Magic. The Bucks boycott came in reaction to the shooting of Jacob Blake.

A Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer shot Blake, a Black man, in the back seven times last Sunday.

The Bucks’ protest against racial injustice set off a domino effect across the NBA and other major league sports. For example, the following day the New York Mets and Miami Marlins took the field and stood silent for 42 seconds – in honor of Jackie Robinson, the iconic player who broke the race barrier and wore 42 – before walking off and leaving a Black Lives Matter shirt draped over home plate.

Most importantly, the Bucks made a clear and direct plea for specific legislative changes and called on the public to engage and vote.

It cannot be understated how important it was for the Bucks to move past simple platitudes for “change” or “justice” that typically adorn the stock reactions of celebrities and into the more concrete world of real reform.

The language used in the Bucks’ statement calls for the Wisconsin state legislature to reconvene and “address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.” Hopefully, the individual players for the Bucks will use their outsized communication platforms to further elaborate on specifics.

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A good place to start would be the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act supported by the NAACP. Among the specific policies in incorporates, it includes provisions to end “qualified immunity” and racial or religious profiling, establishes uniform policies for use of force, mandates data collection on police encounters and bans chokeholds and “no knock” warrants.

It has also languished in the U.S. Senate for over two months.

That is where athletes can be the most effective. Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo has more than 1.2 million followers on Twitter alone. That type of reach and voice can help educate and activate people across the country.

For example, when LeBron James declared “Change doesn’t happen with just talk!! It happens with action …” to his more than 47 million followers coupled with multiple exhortations to vote, it created exactly the kind of environment that forces politicians to pay attention.

You can imagine that swing-state senators like Cory Gardner would rather avoid the glare the spotlight an upset James, or outspoken Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, could shine on Republican inaction in the Senate.

Thankfully, it appears many athletes participating in such advocacy will now also have the support of their management and ownership. Even as the Bucks players refused to take the court, Alex Lasry, the son of owner Marc Lasry and SVP for the Bucks, tweeted that the organization would “stand 100% behind our players ready to assist and bring about real change.”

Four years ago I chastised Colin Kaepernick when he failed to vote in the 2016 presidential election. While his cause was just and raised awareness, he missed the opportunity to compel concrete change.

Last week the Milwaukee Bucks, and the myriad of other athletes that followed, took that next step toward real reform and change. They have taken up a cause our politicians have failed to address. 

If those athletes continue to channel their collective voice into specific measures – and an electoral strategy to back them – we may yet see a world more just toward people like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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