Aug 27, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

πŸ‘‹ Good morning. In March, the NBA kicked off the sports shutdown, alerting many Americans to the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, the NBA led yet another national movement. And some people say sports "don't matter."

Today's word count: 1,899 words (7 minutes).

1 big thing: 🚫 The day sports stopped

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The most historic day in sports activism history began in an empty gym.

  • The Bucks chose not to take the floor for Game 5 against the Magic, leading to all three NBA games being postponed β€” and most of the sports world following suit.

The backdrop: The Bucks' landmark decision came three days after Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin β€” just 45 minutes south of Milwaukee.

"Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball."
β€” Bucks team statement (video)

Why it matters: Many NBA players decided to participate in the "bubble" because it offered a platform to bring awareness to social justice issues. That was enough, in their minds, to offset any concerns about sports being a distraction.

  • But after the Blake video surfaced, players began to question whether the anthem kneeling, "Black Lives Matter" T-shirts and pre-approved jersey causes were having any impact.
  • Now, they've gone off script. And in doing so, they've taken the conversation about sports' role in society to a place it's never quite been before.

The big picture: The NBA's decision to postpone Wednesday's games triggered a reaction from other leagues.

  • πŸ€ WNBA: The six WNBA teams scheduled to compete on Wednesday chose not play. "We stand in solidarity with our brothers in the NBA," the players' union said in a statement.
  • ⚾️ MLB: The Brewers were the first MLB team to pull the plug on their game. Later, the Mariners and Dodgers did the same. While the NBA and WNBA are no strangers to political activism, this type of stance is new in baseball.
  • ⚽️ MLS: Though the night's first game between Orlando and Nashville was played as scheduled, the remaining five games were postponed as the players collectively decided not to take the field.
  • 🎾 Tennis: After Naomi Osaka withdrew from the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open (scheduled for today), tournament organizers suspended all Thursday matches.
  • πŸ’ NHL: In a departure from other leagues, the NHL went ahead with both playoff games β€” one in Toronto and one in Edmonton.

What's next: NBA players and coaches held a meeting Wednesday night inside a ballroom at the Coronado Spring Hotel. Teams were polled about how to proceed, and the Lakers and Clippers both voted to end the season, ESPN reports.

  • But it remains unclear what exactly the NBA can offer, and how far players are willing to go. While walking away sends a strong message, leaving the bubble would also reduce the power of the players' collective voices.
  • For now, all we know is that the six games scheduled for today will likely be postponed, and that the NBA's board of governors and the players will each meet at 11am ET to discuss next steps.

The bottom line: The NBA built a bubble to keep out the coronavirus, and so far, it's worked. But even the most stringent safety protocols and testing procedures couldn't shield it from America.

2. πŸ“Έ Photos: Sports stand still
Photo: Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. β€” Silence within, chaos without.

Photo: Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

PALMETTO, Fla. β€” The Mystics wore shirts with Jacob Blake's name on the front and seven gunshots painted on the back.

Photo: Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

MILWAUKEE β€” The Brewers were the first MLB team to opt out of playing. Miller Park is 42 miles from Kenosha.

Photo: Chris Gardner/Getty Images

SANDY, Utah β€” Real Salt Lake planned to allow 5,000 fans to attend its match against LAFC, but the game was postponed.

3. πŸ’ Meanwhile, in Canada: The NHL plays on
Photo: Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

TORONTO β€” The NHL held a moment of reflection before Game 3 of the the Bruins-Lightning series, with "End Racism" written across video screens at Scotiabank Arena. Then they played a hockey game, which Tampa Bay won, 7-1.

What they're saying: Players and coaches said they didn't find out about what was happening in the NBA and other leagues until they got to the rink, leaving them no time to discuss following suit.

"The world has changed in just this short time that we were at the rink. ... What's happening now at 11:15 is much different than what was happening at 4:30. At the time ... those weren't things being discussed with our group."
β€” Lightning coach John Cooper
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

EDMONTON β€” The Avalanche beat the Stars, 6-4, in the nightcap. Meanwhile, off the ice, San Jose's Evander Kane and Minnesota's Matt Dumba, two prominent members of the recently formed Hockey Diversity Alliance, criticized the NHL.

  • Kane: "It's incredibly insulting as a black man in hockey the lack of action and acknowledgment from the NHL, just straight up insulting."
  • Dumba: "NHL is always last to the party on these topics. It's kind of sad and disheartening."
4. ✊🏿 Athlete activism: 1968 vs. today

Illustration: AΓ―da Amer/Axios. Photo: Bettmann/Contributor

Much like 2020, 1968 was a year of protests, violence and upheaval in America.

  • The demonstrations in the streets, the cities burning, the police brutality, the fear (of the Vietnam War then, and COVID-19 now) β€” it's all remarkably similar. And both times, athletes led historic protests.
  • The difference now is that those athletes have a lot more power. This is a new generation β€” a new breed β€” with their own experiences to draw on, and their own tools (like social media) to help their cause.
Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) during the 1968 Summer Olympics. Photo: John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

The big picture: In 1968, two Black athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists in protest at the Mexico City Olympics β€” resulting in an iconic photograph that has stood the test of time.

  • In 2020, hundreds of athletes of all races chose social justice over sports β€” creating not just one lasting image, but many.
  • And, while Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympics and largely ostracized by the U.S. sports establishment, today's athletes are united and supported in ways their predecessors could never dream of.
5. ⚾️ MLB snapshot (if anyone cares)
Data: Baseball Reference; Table: Axios Visuals

We planned to publish an MLB midseason report this morning. Then, something a little more important happened, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

  • Standings are the essence of sports as distraction. They distill the beauty of competition into the binary of wins and losses; entire seasons into neat spreadsheets; fans into nervous scoreboard-watchers.
  • But last night, six teams decided there were more important things than playing nine innings (while another two had their game postponed due to Hurricane Laura ... because 2020).

12 games were still played across the big leagues. Gerrit Cole saw his undefeated streak end at 28 games, the A's won yet again to extend their division lead and the White Sox hit four more homers, continuing their torrid August pace.

  • On a normal day, those things might matter β€” and it's those stats, storylines and narratives that delight us as sports fans. But this morning, they just don't.
  • One day, hopefully soon, the minutiae of home runs and MVP races will reclaim their spot at the fore of our minds. Until then, there are bigger things at stake.
Photo: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO β€” Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts told his teammates he wasn't going to play in their game against the Giants. They unanimously decided to sit out with him.

"I was already tight with everybody in the clubhouse, but now that I know that everybody has my back even more than I already thought, [it] means a lot. I'll always remember this day. I'll always remember this team just having my back."
β€” Betts
6. πŸ“† Aug. 27, 2016: Kaepernick's protest
Screenshot: @nytimes (Twitter)

Four years ago today, the following headlines dotted newsstands and phone screens as the world reacted to Colin Kaepernick's decision to remain seated during the national anthem before an NFL preseason game.

  • NEW YORK TIMES β€” "Why Colin Kaepernick Didn't Stand for the National Anthem"
  • SB NATION β€” "During a Summer of Renewed Athlete Activism, Kaepernick's Protest is First of its Kind"
  • TIME β€” "Colin Kaepernick Protests National Anthem Over Treatment of Minorities: 'There Are Bodies in the Street'"
  • SPORTING NEWS β€” "NFL Facing New PR Disaster Over Kaepernick Protest"

What he said:

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color."
β€” Kaepernick, four years ago yesterday
7. πŸ’¬ What they're saying
Source: NBA on TNT (YouTube)

Kenny Smith walked off the "Inside the NBA" set to show solidarity with the players.

"I think the biggest thing now 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."

Dominic Smith gave an incredibly raw and emotional interview following the Mets' win over the Marlins.

"The most difficult part is to see people still don't care. For this to continuously happen ... it just shows the hate in people's hearts."

Chris Webber spoke powerfully about systemic racism and marginalized communities, and applauded the players for their historic actions.

"I'm sure Dr. Harry Edwards, Dr. John Carlos, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson and others have been praying for this day. ... I'm very proud of the players. I don't know the next steps [but] the first steps are to garner attention, and they have everybody's attention around the world right now."
8. ❀️ Why we love sports

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Jeff writes:

"Sports movies are by definition Hollywood. They're fun and moving, powerful and exciting, with well-written scripts and storybook endings.
"But life isn't a movie. It's messier. The shot doesn't always fall, the catch isn't always made, the athletes aren't always heroes.
"Then again, sometimes they are. Sometimes they look in the mirror and decide that today's not about the game. Sometimes they surprise you not with their skill, but with their fortitude, passion and will.
"I love sports for too many reasons to count, and chief among them is the fandom rooted in a sort of tribalism that's unexplainable to the uninitiated, yet inherently understood by those with a like mind.
"But yesterday something more important bubbled to the surface, and I not only didn't care that my beloved sports were off the screen and in jeopardy of another protracted absence β€” I felt unadulterated pride for the athletes who knew the time for playing games was over.
"Sports are ultimately nothing without those who play them, and yesterday was a stark reminder of what it means to be more than an athlete."

✍️ Submit your story: Do you have a fondest sports memory? Or a story about sports having a positive impact on your life? To share, simply reply to this email.

9. Elsewhere in sports

Dan Snyder. Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

  • 🏈 NFL: During a 2008 swimsuit video shoot of the Washington Football Team's cheerleaders, staffers were ordered to film a "behind-the-scenes" video for owner Dan Snyder, WashPost reports. Snyder denied his involvement or knowledge of the 10-minute video, which featured unconsented nudity. This comes six weeks after more than a dozen former female employees alleged sexual harassment within the organization.
  • πŸ€ College hoops: The NCAA is investigating LSU coach Will Wade for allegedly arranging impermissible payments to at least 11 recruits in exchange for their enrollment. This is in connection to a previous scandal β€” outlined in HBO's documentary, "The Scheme" β€” in which Wade was caught on tape talking about making a "strong ass" offer to sign a high-profile recruit.
  • ⚽️ Men's soccer: 21-year-old Weston McKennie is headed to Juventus on a $3.55 million loan from Schalke (Bundesliga), pending a medical. He'd be the first American man to play for the world-famous club.
  • ⚽️ Women's soccer: Lyon beat PSG, 1-0, to advance to its fifth straight Women's Champions League final, where it will play Wolfsburg (Germany).
  • ⛳️ Golf: Phil Mickelson won his PGA Tour Champions debut, shooting 22-under par in the Charles Schwab Series at Ozarks National in Ridgedale, Missouri. His opening-round 61 set a record for a Champions debut, and his 191 is tied for the lowest 54-hole score in tour history.
10. 🎧 Listen: Today on Axios
Illustration: Axios
  • Axios Today: I join host Niala Boodhoo on our morning podcast to discuss what transpired on Wednesday. Listen now.
  • Axios Re:Cap: Renee Montgomery, an 11-year WNBA veteran, joins host Dan Primack on our afternoon podcast to discuss the player strikes and the athlete-led push to turn stadiums into voting sites. Subscribe/listen later.
Kendall Baker

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "What a day" Baker