Last night the Milwaukee Bucks decided to boycott their playoff game against the Orlando Magic in order to protest Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey’s shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back. In a horrifying cell phone video, we can see the officer shoot Blake seven times in the back as Blake attempts to get into a car. After the Bucks took action, the NBA decided to cancel all three games. More and more NBA stars and coaches are saying that they cannot continue to play and entertain while this violence against Black people continues unabated.
Economic theory teaches that we can predict human behavior by looking at rational choices individuals will make to increase their wealth. I have never had much time for Milton Friedman, mainly because economic choice theory fails to account for very important human behavior that is not financially motivated. It doesn’t explain what the NBA is doing now in response to pervasive social injustice.
To be clear, there have been work stoppages related to labor disputes. There have also been symbolic social justice protests that include kneeling, messages on jerseys, and pointed statements during press availability. But yesterday’s action represents a major escalation. Never before have star athletes in major American sports shut down actual games as a form of protest.
Does I need to explain why this is not ‘rational economic’ decision making? The players get paid to play. They are contractually obligated to play. Their failure to hold up their end of the contractual bargain jeopardizes their ability to collect that pay. Not all players have the stars’ lucrative endorsement contracts. A forfeiture of their considerable NBA salary could mean a dramatic and immediate change in lifestyle.
There are other obvious risks associated with this boycott. Despite Michael Jordan’s famous statement that even Republicans buy sneakers, today’s stars are no longer hesitating to take a side. Consider that this is happening at a time when the nation has not been this divided since the Civil War. Yesterday’s decisions not to play have lead to the immediate reaction by many that politics and sports should not be mixing. People are saying they are done with the NBA because they don’t like the ideology. There are real economic costs to choosing a side.
But there is also a clear reason why this is happening now. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers provides a pretty solid explanation here:
New York Mets 25 year old first baseman Dominic Smith’s statements from last night also help explain player reactions:
When we see the same thing happen again and again and nothing changes, that is indicative of a power and leadership vacuum. Professional sports players would probably love to just “shut up and dribble,” but putting on blinders is not sitting well. The communities from which these celebrity have emerged are crying out for representation that is absent and/or ineffective in political and governing structures.
No, more than ever, star athletes are forcing the issue.