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Week In Sports: Players Strike In Solidarity With Protests For Racial Justice

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

No music for sports this week, not many games either as many pro athletes called a halt to their seasons to express solidarity with protesters in Kenosha and other places. The Milwaukee Bucks refused to play their playoff game against the Orlando Magic. The LA Lakers and Clippers even voted to boycott the remainder of the playoffs. The WNBA, National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and even Naomi Osaka in tennis followed. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Tom, thanks for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And a lot of solidarity in the world of sports this week. Also a lot of raw emotion, wasn't there?

GOLDMAN: Incredibly raw, anguish. Here are three voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DOMINIC SMITH: For this to continuously happen, I mean, it just shows just the hate in people's heart. (Crying) And being a Black man in America, it's not easy, so...

DOC RIVERS: It's amazing to me why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.

TROY VINCENT: And I got a 22-year-old and a 20-year-old and a 15-year-old (crying) that I'm trying to prevent from being hunted.

GOLDMAN: That was, Scott, Dominic Smith of Major League Baseball's New York Mets, Doc Rivers, head coach of the NBA's LA Clippers, and Troy Vincent, a former NFL player who now works for the league. Their words, you know, searing, right? And they really helped push forward what has to be called a mass protest in U.S. sport.

SIMON: This week really seemed to be a breaking point. And how did we get from Colin Kaepernick being considered an outcast not long ago to major league sports joining national campaigns of protest?

GOLDMAN: A lot of things not changing. Kaepernick took a knee to protest police violence and social injustice a few years back. The same things are being protested now. But Kaepernick and the few who joined him, as you mentioned here, were isolated, and he's still shunned by the NFL. This week, such a stunning difference, you know? The cumulative effect of one tragic event after the next, most notably George Floyd's killing in May and now with Jacob Blake, even though the case may be more complicated than we initially thought, after the Kenosha police union report. Still, seven bullets in the back have proved to be a tipping point. And the protesting athletes aren't isolated this time. They are now together and realizing their collective power and demanding that team owners, very rich and very connected people, listen and work with players to effect change.

SIMON: And there've been a lot of commitments, promises for change announced over just the past few days, haven't there?

GOLDMAN: There have. Basketball's return today is tied to an action plan. Players in the league are forming a social justice coalition focusing on voting access and police and criminal justice reform. Also, as of right now, 13 NBA arenas have committed to being converted to voting locations for the general election. In another sports league, the NFL's Baltimore Ravens have staked out an action plan notable for its detail. I mean, some of what it's calling for - Senator Mitch McConnell bringing the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act of 2020 to the Senate floor for vote, state and federal-mandated accreditation and national standards of care and policing. Will this all work, Scott? We don't know. But athlete anger isn't going away anytime soon, nor is the player's belief in their collective power. You know, they've shown they can shut down the entertainment and force people to listen.

SIMON: As journalists, we have to point out that not so long ago, the NFL and the Ravens were charged with covering up and minimizing domestic assault charges against one of their best-known players. Is it - how do major league sports franchises get to the moral high ground now?

GOLDMAN: Well, you know, through this process and listening to the players and, you know, as part of the momentum of this whole thing, there is a sense, I think, if you stake out a claim now against the player's action, it's going to be tough on you.

SIMON: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman, thanks so much for being with us.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.