The day the Milwaukee Bucks remarkably refused to play an NBA playoff game — and I’m not sure everyone understands even now just how remarkable it was — came nearly four years to the day that Colin Kaepernick had taken his first knee.

That protest would cost Kaepernick his career. It also set in motion another battle in Donald Trump’s ongoing culture war, this time in opposition to the NFL, which has been over the years the nation’s most conservative, wrapping-itself-in-the-flag, war-cheerleading league.

In the era of Black Lives Matter, when millions, Black and white, have taken to the streets to protest the police killing of George Floyd, to protest the (not yet charged, but obvious to anyone with eyes) police killing of Elijah McClain, to protest systemic racial injustice in general, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell now says he should have listened to what Kaepernick was trying to say and would support peaceful protest. Sure, it was way too late, but it still shocked me, even seeing it as the PR move that it was.

Mike Littwin

The Milwaukee Bucks risked forfeiting a playoff game. That is no small thing. The fact that the NBA would actually condone, and even praise, the walkout, which spread around the league and to the WNBA, to NFL practices, to the MLS, even to the NHL, is a very big thing. Some Major League Baseball games were postponed when players continued the walkout Wednesday. Many more on Thursday. On Wednesday, Matt Kemp, an African-American player for the Rockies, sat out while his teammates played. The Rockies tweeted their approval of Kemp’s action. The next day, his Rockies teammates said they should have had Kemp’s back and decided to not play that night. 

I don’t know what all this will mean to the Trump-Biden presidential race, which is an unavoidable question these days. You may have heard Jared Kushner’s patronizing comments on the wildcat strikes.

I have a better idea of what it means to the state of political activism by athletes. LeBron James, going back to his hoodie-wearing support for Trayvon Martin, is the most famous athlete in America and has become its most outspoken. If you heard him speak, if you heard Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers speak, if you’ve watched interviews with so many coaches and players, Black and white, you can see that radical — yes, sure, let’s claim the word in context — change is underway.

The leagues are back to playing— in the NBA bubble, “Black Lives Matter” is written on all basketball courts — but some players argued for shutting the season down. Finally the NBA players decided from their Orlando bubble that they had access to a larger platform if they were playing every night on national TV.

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The activism isn’t unprecedented, except in its scale. In Colorado, some of us still remember Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who refused to stand for the National Anthem in 1996. He received death threats, and his home was burned down. Hardly any players supported him. 

At the time, most athletes seemed apolitical. It’s the time when Michael Jordan had refused to endorse Harvey Gantt, an African-American, in his U.S. Senate challenge of the openly racist Jesse Helms. It was a time when Jordan said Republicans buy sneakers, too. He claims the remarks were made on a team bus and in jest. But the sentiment was right. And yet, Michael Jordan, now an NBA owner, has been a strong supporter of the players’ actions and has contributed millions to similar causes.

I didn’t remember former Nuggets’ star Alex English’s star turn with protest until I was reminded of it when reading a story in the Denver Post. For English, it came in a movie, Amazing Grace and Chuck. In the film, English played “Amazing Grace” Smith, a player for the Boston Celtics who learns of a Montana Little League pitcher who has announced he will give up baseball until nuclear weapons are abolished. And so Smith, played by English, leads a strike by professional athletes that ends, of course, with a disarmament treaty. It’s good we can have happy endings to fall back on. 

It won’t surprise you to know that Abdul-Rauf supports this protest movement. Or that English wholeheartedly agrees. In an interview with The Sports Fan Journal, Abdul-Rauf said, “I was on my way from training some NBA guys here in New York, excited about watching some players I enjoy during the playoffs, and immediately became more excited when I heard they weren’t playing and the reasons why. This in my estimation is not only an intelligent but bold step forward — the kind of positions taken that when sustained can produce meaningful results.” 

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Nearly 60 years ago, Bill Russell, among the greatest basketball players ever and an active participant in the civil rights movement, led a walkout, pulling himself out of an NBA game as a demonstration against racism. His Black teammates on the Boston Celtics followed suit, as did Black players for their opponent, the St. Louis Hawks. The white players played. It was an exhibition game played in Lexington, Ky. — hardly the same as a wildcat strike during the playoffs — but Russell explained his protest this way: “I am coming to the realization that we are accepted as entertainers, but that we are not accepted as people in some places.” Russell has also praised the present-day action by players.

In the ’60s, when activism was everywhere, we saw John Carlos and Tommie Smith raise their fists during a medal ceremony at the Mexico Olympics. They were kicked out of the athletes’ village and went home to wide condemnation. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, a college star at UCLA, skipped those Olympics in protest over racism. It was the same year, of course, that Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. Everyone knows how Muhammad Ali lost three years of his career, and his heavyweight title, for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”

I was a summer intern in the late ‘60s  for a newspaper sports department. My first full-time job was covering the Virginia Squires and Dr. J in the ABA. The two basketball leagues were becoming increasingly dominated by African-Americans. It was a time when you would see nearly every team have two or three white players sitting at the end of the bench. And while no one took a knee, many players at the time stood during the National Anthem with their arms folded across their chests.

Black athletes understand in a way that most of us cannot — certainly in a way that silver-spooned Jared Kushner cannot — that even in their rarefied lives, they didn’t grow up that way, their relatives and friends don’t live that way. They’re privileged, of course, but the privilege doesn’t extend any further than the next time a cop pulls him or her over while driving an expensive car. And after watching the video of Jacob Blake getting shot in the back seven times, emotion and anger overtook many and walkouts followed. Go back to Bill Russell’s words. They still resonate today.

In my early years as a sportswriter, I wrote a lot about race, and maybe the most heartbreaking interview I did was at the Los Angeles Times in the late ‘70s with a Los Angeles Dodgers all-star player, Reggie Smith. He grew up in Los Angeles, but was drafted by the Minnesota Twins and sent to play in the minors at Wytheville, Va., named for George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. 

I later wrote about it for an article on baseball’s too-long-coming recognition of Jackie Robinson on the 50th anniversary of his breaking the color line. Smith was 17 years old when he went to Wytheville, plenty old enough to know about racism, but never as it was practiced in the Jim Crow South. He had taken the team bus from the minor league spring training site in Florida to Wytheville, where he and his teammates checked into a hotel. Smith didn’t realize he was being snuck in the back door, and he wasn’t prepared for the fact that the next day, the hotel manager would tell him, the lone Black player on the team, he couldn’t stay there.

Smith said he walked the three miles to a boarding house on the other side of town, crying the entire way. “I didn’t know whether to cry or to be angry,” he said. Eventually, he chose angry. Though some of his teammates supported him, he was still very much alone. He would demand to eat in segregated restaurants, only to see the dishes broken and the silverware thrown away. He would refuse to back down when it was so dangerous to even walk on the same sidewalk.

That was 1963, in the years of the civil rights movement. Smith would say, “I’m lucky I’m not hanging from some tree.” Years later, there is a Black Lives Matter movement, which professional athletes, Black and white, have joined in force. 

Meanwhile, Donald Trump gave us an hour’s worth of fear mongering Thursday night, centering on the violence that has accompanied some protests, warning of angry mobs — read: angry Black people — storming the suburbs. 

And meanwhile, too, LeBron James and a large group of athletes and entertainers have formed a group called “More Than a Vote,” which is designed to protect and enlarge the Black vote and, without putting it in so many words, counter Donald Trump. The fight goes on.

No one should think what we’re seeing will lead to any kind of final reckoning. But by November, I would guess, we may be able to see in what direction we’re headed.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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