NBA and players’ union agree to resume play after player protest

  • LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers will be back in action on Saturday after days of protests halted the NBA playoffs. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)

  • Chris Paul, president of the NBA players’ union, speaks during NBA All-Star basketball media day in Chicago. On Friday, the players’ union and league announced a plan to resume play. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

The NBA announced a plan to convert some of its arenas into polling locations for the November election as part of an agreement with its players’ union to resume the playoffs on Saturday, union and league officials said in a joint statement Friday.

“We had a candid, impassioned and productive conversation yesterday between NBA players, coaches and team governors regarding next steps to further our collective efforts and actions in support of social justice and racial equality,” said the statement signed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Michele Roberts, the executive director of the players’ union.

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The announcement came two days after NBA players staged a dramatic work stoppage in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul, the players’ union president, told reporters Friday that he had never experienced anything like this in his 15 years in the league.

“We’re all tired of seeing the same thing over and over again, and everybody just expects us to be OK just because we get paid great money,” Paul said. “You know, we’re human. We have real feelings. And I’m glad that we got the chance to get in a room together to talk with one another.”

A small group of NBA players, which included Paul and Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James, consulted with former President Barack Obama to determine a path forward.

“As an avid basketball fan, President Obama speaks regularly with players and league officials,” Katie Hill, a spokeswoman for Obama, said in a statement to The New York Times. “When asked, he was happy to provide advice on Wednesday night to a small group of NBA players seeking to leverage their immense platforms for good after their brave and inspiring strike in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting.

“They discussed establishing a social justice committee to ensure that the players’ and league’s actions this week led to sustained, meaningful engagement on criminal justice and police reform.”

The Milwaukee Bucks will face the Orlando Magic at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday for the first game back. It was this matchup — the fifth game of their first-round playoff series — that the Bucks walked out of, spurring a wave of work stoppages across sports leagues, including the WNBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer.

WNBA teams also did not play on Thursday. Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBA players union president, said in a statement that the action was not a strike or a boycott, but instead a “day of reflection.” Ogwumike said the players’ union was calling for the arrests of the police officers who shot Blake and who killed Breonna Taylor, a Black woman in Kentucky.

Ogwumike’s statement concluded with: “DO SOMETHING. TODAY.” The WNBA resumed playing on Friday.

At least 100 staffers who work for the NBA league office also chose not to work Friday to instead focus on social causes.

“I am virtually walking out of the office in opposition to systemic racism and police brutality in this country in solidarity with our NBA and WNBA players,” an automatic email response from one of those employees said. “I will not be responding to any work emails. Instead, I will be taking the day to contact state and local officials to demand justice for Jacob Blake and for the police officers involved to be held accountable.”

The NBA and its union’s plan also includes, according to the announcement, the creation of “a social justice coalition, with representatives from players, coaches and governors, that will be focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.”

The plan to use arenas as polling places only applies where the arenas are controlled by NBA team owners, who agreed to work with local officials to make it happen. In places where the deadline to do so had passed, the owners planned to work with officials to convert the arenas, which have been largely unused during the coronavirus pandemic, into outlets for other election-related activities, such as voter registration.

Establishing more polling locations was a key goal of More Than a Vote, the initiative by James and other athletes to protect voting rights and increase civic engagement, particularly among Black people. In July, the Bucks offered Fiserv Forum as a polling location, in partnership with the group led by James.

Some NBA arenas, like the TD Garden in Boston and the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, are not owned outright by the NBA team that plays in it, whereas Madison Square Garden, for example, is owned by James Dolan, the owner of the New York Knicks.

Some teams already have their own plans underway. In June, the Hawks announced an initiative in partnership with Fulton County to turn State Farm Arena in Atlanta into an early voting polling location beginning July 20 for a primary runoff election, following a June primary that was marred with problems, such as exceptionally long lines. Last month, the Spectrum Center, home to the Charlotte Hornets, said it would welcome early voters from Oct. 15 to 31.

The Sacramento Kings said that the Golden 1 Center would be a voting site from Oct. 24 to Election Day, while the Cleveland Cavaliers this month announced a similar plan at the Rocket Mortgage Field House, but only for Election Day. (The Hawks, Hornets, Kings and Cavaliers do not own their home arenas outright.)

The Detroit Pistons said in early July that their practice facility — the Henry Ford Detroit Pistons Performance Center — would be used as a voting site.

The NBA was not the first league to have this idea. The NFL, prompted in part by stars like Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, introduced a get-out-the-vote effort this summer. Additionally, every team has looked into converting its stadium a polling place. Thus far, the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks have been approved to host balloting or election workers. Another dozen teams are awaiting approval from state and local authorities. Some teams were denied because of local rules governing elections.

The NBA’s focus on voting is the latest move for a league that has often sought to present itself as socially conscious. Players from the NBA, and especially the WNBA, have been outspoken about the police shootings of Black men and women in recent years.

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On Friday, Silver sent a note to NBA and WNBA staff members expressing support for social justice efforts of players in both leagues. “While I don’t walk in the same shoes as Black men and women, I can see the trauma and fear that racialized violence causes and how it continues the painful legacy of racial inequity that persists in our country,” Silver said.

He continued: “I understand that some of you feel the league should be doing more. I hear you — and please know that I am focused on ensuring that we as a league are effecting real change both within our organization and in communities across the country.”

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