Man, those professional basketball stars really screwed up my Wednesday.
There I was, sitting in my apartment, ready to crank out some writing while a day’s worth of NBA games played in the background. By now, any sports fan who’s been working from home should know the comforts of the second-screen experience. Rather than putting all your energy into one thing (working), you can trick yourself into enjoying the daily grind by keeping a game (or two) on in the background.
Lately, the NBA has offered the ultimate at-home support system. The first round of the playoffs provides four games a day, typically running from the late morning through the evening (on Pacific Time, mind you), and being able to glance up and check the score, catch a clutch shot, or simply spend a few minutes “on break” to see the end of a nail-biter helps keep self-isolation from turning stale. The NBA playoffs offer a rare shared experience in the time of social distancing, not to mention a convincing imitation of normalcy.
When the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t take the court for Game 5 of their series with the Orlando Magic, everything changed. Commentators ad-libbed. Twitter exploded. Questions started flying, though it soon became clear: This was a wildcat strike. There wasn’t a game to watch, and there wouldn’t be another game later, so there wasn’t a distraction from work, or from the world, or from anything, really.
One of the more frustrating elements of spending so much time watching television is seeing things fall back into established patterns. From broadcast procedurals that thrive on formula to TV eras spawning copycat programs, TV is a business — and business bets on success. The same successful people produce the same successful shows, and the same successful shows produce similar, if not the same, successful episodes, and so on and so forth. Eventually, it all looks alike.
Even in a microcosm. This year has been defined by two events: the pandemic and the protests. The former started its sweep across America more than five months ago, and people are already tired of it. (5.8 million cases? 180,000 dead? Who cares? Let’s go to the movies.) But while a responsible response to the pandemic is inaction — don’t go anywhere — protests require the opposite. People have to do something to bring attention to the cause. The Black Lives Matter movement needs momentum, and momentum builds from disruption, which is the fundamental idea of peaceful protests. They upend routines, they create noise, they force you to pay attention.
The best television demands your unbridled attention, but that’s rare. Most people use TV as a time to relax; as a means of re-instituting routines. Even when TV is used to stay informed, be it the nightly news or late-night shows, talk isn’t enough, and that’s only become clearer over the past month. Two weeks worth of DNC and RNC TV coverage, where a parade of politicians recited talking points from a teleprompter, didn’t feel like a call to action; it felt like a long-winded reminder of the very obvious choice we all face in November. Plus, TV’s focus on the election cycle, the Emmys, and fall TV bring back familiar patterns. It’s easy to spend your TV time fretting over “Who will win?” or relaxing with this week’s “Yellowstone.”
But by far the most inviting reason to forget our problems and feign normalcy has come from sports. Professional baseball, hockey, and basketball resumed their official seasons less than 30 days ago, barreling past COVID-19 fears to give games back to fans, and already the initial weirdness inherent to each sport’s modified relaunch has been smoothed over. Empty baseball stadiums have been filled with virtual fans. Stars abstaining from the truncated season are replaced by new players to support. Seven-inning doubleheaders offer twice the baseball in nearly half the time… while steering focus away from why so many games need to be made up in the first place. (It’s not weather!)
Plenty more abnormalities flood the relative comfort of sports, but they’re still comforting. Even the NBA, which built a bubble to protect against the pandemic but made sure to spotlight Black Lives Matter messaging inside, had fallen into a familiar groove. NBA games look dramatically different than they did in February, from the social justice messages on the back of players’ jerseys to the Black Lives Matter message emblazoned on the court, but the game is the game. How many fans were focused on the words under Luka Dončić’s feet as he pulled back for a game-winning shot, and how many were only focused on the swish of the net?
Already, the players were doing everything they could. That they were playing in a quarantined bubble, away from their families and totally devoted to the game, only goes to show how committed NBA players are to providing respite for anxiety-riddled fans stuck at home. They wanted to do both: alleviate pandemic disruption while elevating social disruption. But then Jacob Blake was shot. And he was shot during an NBA game. Clearly, the messaging around the game wasn’t enough. Something had to change. And, as usual, the players were the ones to take action.
I first noted the traditional breakdown of televised sports when Chris Paul fielded a typical postgame question and, instead of following the “Bull Durham” philosophy of providing bland non-answers, he said, “I don’t know, that’s all good and well, but I just want to send my prayers out to Jacob Blake and his family.” From there, he clarified his focus even further: “Sports, it’s cool, it’s good and well, it’s how we take care of our families, but those are the real issues that we gotta start addressing,” Paul said.
LeBron James shared similar frustrations, to the press and via social media, and later I saw L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, the son of a police officer, give an emotional interview after his team’s Game 5 victory over Dallas. “Our jobs are basketball players, fathers, we’re businessmen, and we should still be able to do our jobs, but it’s hard sometimes,” Rivers said. “Today was hard. It really was. For every team. […] We can’t stop doing our jobs because it’s what we do. It allows us three hours of solitude… We can get into our jobs and forget what’s going on.”
The next day, reports surfaced of the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors teams holding a players-only meeting to discuss striking before their Thursday game. Hours later, the Milwaukee Bucks did just that, and the system broke down. The NBA tried to wrest control back from the players by formally postponing Wednesday’s games. Then, Milwaukee Brewers players stood with their city and decided to sit out their game against the Cincinnati Reds, which led to two more MLB games being suspended due to the players’ protests. The WNBA and MLS called off their remaining games on Wednesday, both in solidarity with the NBA players’ walkout and in support of protests over Jacob Blake’s shooting.
To be clear, this was a heroic act. Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle’s now famous quote, “Sports are the reward of a functioning society” has come to mind often over the last month, and here it’s a staggering reminder of how broken things are: The players, whose lives are fully dependent on sports, are the ones trying to fix a broken system. Yes, they’re part of that system, and they’re effectively holding our reward hostage until we get our shit together, but they’re holding themselves hostage, too. The Bucks are in a prime position this year to win their first NBA title since 1971. Their paychecks depend on playing. And they’re not playing!
But the massive, pointed, and much-needed disruption could be seen in what did end up on television as well as what didn’t. Just the image of an empty court was enough to go viral. Vacant baseball fields soon followed suit. Commentators took a stance, as well, most notably when TNT analyst and retired NBA star Kenny Smith walked off the set. “As a Black man, as a former player, I think it’s best for me to support the players and just not be here tonight,” he said, disconnecting his microphone.
Sports were still televised Wednesday night. NHL players skated and many MLB stars swung the bat. But as I watched my beloved Cubs take the field Wednesday night, I hoped that every pitch would be the last. As reports surface that the playoffs will resume, what matters is keeping the goal of their disruption front and center. Change is good. It can be hard, but it’s often necessary. No one can argue that what the NBA players did on Wednesday created anything less than immediate and widespread change. They did their part and will undoubtedly keep decrying police brutality — to the press, on social media, and through TV.
What’s next is up to us. The NBA players’ strike is a flex every enemy of inequity and decrier of racial violence should get behind. (And we can start this Friday.) Everyone who marched for Black Lives Matter, everyone who donated to bail funds, everyone who jumped at the chance to get out of the house and do something should support the players’ harder choice not to play.
What they’ve done has already reverberated across television. TV needs sports. Even before the production shutdown, broadcasters were reliant on live sports for big ratings. As audiences shift to SVOD and watching scripted programming whenever they want, cable networks like ESPN and broadcast networks across the board need event programming to draw audiences on command. Even with NBA ratings on the decline, the players know they’re the stars, they’re the attraction, they’re the reason people watch.
They know there are powerful people depending on people watching. They know I’m watching. They know their strike ruined my evening. Bless them for it. More “normal” nights need to be ruined so more lives can be saved.