Professional sports are coming to a halt in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, this past Sunday. Blake is currently in the hospital after being shot seven times in the back by police officer Rusten Sheskey in front of three of his children. On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, and soon after, the Magic walked off to join them in protest. The remaining games on Wednesday were also postponed, while the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers voted last night to cancel the rest of the season. Then the show of solidarity for Black Lives Matter spread beyond the NBA, with teams in the WNBA (no stranger to racial justice protests), MLB, and MLS also refusing to play games.
It’s meaningful that some of the most profitable professional sports leagues are demanding real action against a racist police force that continues to harm Black people with impunity. But it’s led to some confusion over what to call players’ refusal to keep playing games. Many, including players and media outlets like the New York Times, have been calling it a boycott — but is it a boycott or a strike? Is it a walkout? A protest?
What counts as a boycott?
Basically, a boycott is a form of protest where you abstain from associating with a person, institution, company, or even a country. It’s a potent way to shun an entity and limit its ability to participate in society. The kind we’re most familiar with are consumer boycotts, with one recent example being calls for a Goya boycott, which resulted in counter calls for a “buycott” from conservatives who approve of Goya CEO Robert Unanue’s praise of President Trump. Facebook advertisers have also recently instituted a boycott against the social media network for not doing enough to address hate speech and misinformation spread on its platform. As in the case of Facebook, a boycott doesn’t always come from individual consumers refusing to buy a product — the point is that people or groups with power ostracize someone or something until certain demands are met.
While the intended impact of boycotts may often be economic, threatening the target with reduced profits or market share, they can also focus on hitting public opinion and social standing. In the past, there have been cultural and academic boycotts directed at South Africa during apartheid, in which artists, scholars, and academic institutions were encouraged not to interact with those in South Africa.
There have also been numerous sports and sports-related boycotts throughout history. Practically every Olympic games is boycotted by a few nations for political reasons — the most famous of which was the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, led by the U.S. and joined by several other countries in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. More recently, NFL fans have threatened to boycott the league for finally supporting Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem before football games. In 2018, when Nike released a pro-BLM ad starring Kaepernick, videos of people boycotting the company by burning their Nike shoes went viral on social media.
What counts as a strike?
A labor strike is a form of work stoppage that’s organized by a group of workers, such as a union. Since sports players in the NBA, WNBA, MLB, and MLS are obviously employees of these leagues, refusing to play games and voting to cancel the playoffs altogether is a labor strike, not a boycott.
You don’t have to be a member of a union to strike, but a strike is, by default, a planned action with particular demands that need to be met for it to end. When unionized workers start a strike without informing or receiving official approval from union leadership, that’s called a wildcat strike.
If you work in the private sector, you have the right to strike. There are limitations to when and how, though. Many collective bargaining agreements (the contract signed between a union and an employer) specify that employees can’t go on strike, which is why strikes are often organized to begin right after a contract expires. But wildcat strikes generally aren’t a protected type of strike under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Since NBA players are unionized but didn’t receive the approval of their union,the National Basketball Players Association, before striking, what they’re engaged in right now is technically a wildcat strike. Their collective bargaining agreement also has a no-strike clause, meaning that their actions have even higher stakes.
The NLRA also limits for what reasons a worker can strike; it needs to be either in protest of an economic factor, such as low wages, or unfair labor practices, such as facing discrimination or retaliation for union involvement.
If you work in the public sector, or certain essential industries like transportation, your ability to join a NLRA-protected strike is further limited. Protections for teachers’ strikes, for example, vary state by state. Healthcare workers who plan to strike must give at least ten days notice. But whether a strike is legally protected is separate from whether it’s righteous — workers still engage in strikes knowing that they may be retaliated against for it, and 2020 has seen a surge of wildcat strikes from essential workers like never before. Sometimes, workers can participate in a “sympathy strike” in which they refrain from crossing the picket line of the striking workers. This is protected by the NLRA, with some restrictions.
There are also ways to avoid officially going on strike. Workers sometimes organize sick-outs in which they all call in sick to work; at other times, especially if the work stoppage is shorter than a strike (which can last years), workers might organize a walkout that involves them leaving their workplace at a specified time, and sometimes not even for the full workday. Calling it a “walkout” can also be a way to protect yourself if you’re not legally permitted to strike. On June 1st, Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout for the day because the company refused to remove inflammatory posts made by Trump that called for violence against Black Lives Matter protestors.
And while we usually see worker strikes and walkouts, in rare cases, a company can essentially refuse to work or provide services too. This is called a “capital strike”, and it almost happened last week when Uber and Lyft threatened to pull out of California over a new law that enforces treating their drivers as employees, not freelancers.
In short, sports players right now are striking, not boycotting. But of course, a boycott can be an integral part of a strike. One of the most successful consumer boycotts in recent history was a grape boycott in 1965 that was spearheaded by a huge coalition of grape farm workers in California striking due to poor working conditions and low pay. Five years later, grape workers were unionized. It’s possible sports players going on strike for the Black Lives Matter movement may inspire fans to boycott games, or any participation in the fandom, in hopes that concerted pressure from our most powerful cultural institutions forces American leaders to get serious about ending police brutality.