Struggle in the Bubble: The National Basketball Association’s Response to Player Activism in the 2020 Bubble

Click name to view affiliation

Drew D. Brown University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA

Search for other papers by Drew D. Brown in
Current site
Google Scholar
PubMed
Close
https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1914-4878 *
,
Lisa Doris Alexander Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, USA

Search for other papers by Lisa Doris Alexander in
Current site
Google Scholar
PubMed
Close
https://orcid.org/0000-0003-0947-4803
, and
Thabiti Lewis Washington State University, Vancouver, WA, USA

Search for other papers by Thabiti Lewis in
Current site
Google Scholar
PubMed
Close
Restricted access

The National Basketball Association (NBA) restarted its 2020 season by playing in a “bubble.” At the same time, a new wave of the “Black Lives Matter” movement was in full swing. Many players joined the movement with their own forms of activism, which the NBA responded to in various ways. This essay explores the NBA’s responses to player activism by using Critical Race Theory’s concept of “Interest Convergence” to analyze the gestures organized by the NBA and highlight the role race, racism, and capitalism played in the NBA’s responses. Overall, this essay argues that in order to capitalize on the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in the interest of its bottom line, the NBA engaged in three types of responses: compromise, acquiescence, and co-opt/manipulation.

  • Collapse
  • Expand
  • Agu, N. (2021, September 26). All the NBA team owners and their net worth. Just Richest. https://justrichest.com/all-the-nba-team-owners-and-their-net-worth/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Agyemang, K.J.A., Singer, J.N., & Weems, A.J. (2020). “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”: Sport as a site for political activism and social change. Organization, 27(6), 952968.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ali, M. (2014, August 14). My enemy is white people [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KKCDoUocXk

  • Andrews, D.L. (1996). The fact(s) of Michael Jordan’s blackness: Excavating a floating racial signifier. Sociology of Sport Journal, 13(2), 125158.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Andrews, M. (2020, August 26). Game balls are being put away, as the Bucks decide to boycott game 5 against the Magic. Twitter. https://twitter.com/malika_andrews/status/1298716542469672960?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1298716542469672960%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fslate.com%2Fculture%2F2020%2F08%2Fmilwaukee-bucks-boycott-nba-playoffs-jac

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Barkan, S. (2011). Sociology: Understanding and changing the social world. Flat World Knowledge Incorporated.

  • Bell, D.A. (1980). Brown v. board of education and the interest-convergence dilemma. Harvard Law Review, 93(3), 518533.

  • Bell, D.A. (1992a). Faces at the bottom of the well. Basic Books.

  • Bell, D.A. (1992b). Race and racism in American law. Aspen Law and Business.

  • Boyd, T. (2008). Young, Black, rich, and famous: The rise of the NBA, the hip hop invasion, and the transformation of American culture. University of Nebraska Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brown, D.D. (2016). Ballers without blackness: The suppression of black cultural agency in the NFL. In D.J. Leonard, K.B. George, & W. Davis (Eds.), Football, culture and power (pp. 4458). Routledge.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brown, K.A., Lewis, N., Barnidge, M., & Boman, C.D. (2022). Black lives matter to the NBA: The impact of sport fanship and political affiliation on the perception of the NBA’s racial justice initiatives during the 2020 playoff bubble. International Journal of Sport Communication, 16(2), 121135.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brown, S., & Brison, N. (2017). More than an athlete: Constitutional and contractual analysis of activism in professional sports. Arizona State Sports & Entertainment Law Journal, 7(2), 249290.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chaves, M. (1996). Ordaining women: The diffusion of an organizational innovation. American Journal of Sociology, 101, 840873.

  • Coakley, J. (2015). Assessing the sociology of sport: On cultural sensibilities and the great sport myth. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 50(4–5), 402406.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Conway, T. (2020, August 27). Report: Some NBA owners weren’t in favor of BLM on courts in Orlando. Bleacher Report. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2906540-report-some-nba-owners-werent-in-favor-of-blm-on-courts-in-orlando

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cooper, J.N. (2021). A legacy of African American resistance and activism through sport (global intersectionality of education, sports, race, and gender). Peter Lang Inc.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cooper, J.N., Macaulay, C., & Rodriguez, S.H. (2019). Race and resistance: A typology of African American sport activism. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 54(2), 151181.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cooper, J.N., Mallery, M., Jr., & Macaulay, C.D. (2020). African American sport activism and broader social movements. In D.D. Brown (Ed.), Sports in African American life: Essays on history and culture. McFarland Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cramer, L.M. (2019). Postracism mythology: NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s “heroic” banishment of racism from the NBA. Communication & Sport, 7(3), 271291.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cunningham, G.B., Dixon, M.A., Singer, J.N., Oshiro, K.F., Ahn, N.Y., & Weems, A. (2021). A site to resist and persist: Diversity, social justice, and the unique nature of sport. Journal of Global Sport Management, 6(1), 3048.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Davis, G.F., King, B., & Soule, S.A. (2022). Do social movements improve corporate behavior? A discussion and research agenda. Rutgers Business Review, 7(2), 139152.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2013). Critical race theory: The cutting edge. Temple University Press.

  • Feinstein, J. (2021). Raise a fist, take a knee: Race and the illusion of progress in modern sports. Little, Brown and Company.

  • Feldman, D. (2020, August 5). NBA postpones playoff games. ProBasketballTalk | NBC Sports. https://www.nba.com/news/nba-playoff-games-postponed

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Feldman, D., & Helin, K. (2020, August 26). Bucks-Magic, Rockets-Thunder, Lakers-Blazers postponed amid boycotts. ProBasketballTalk | NBC Sports. https://nba.nbcsports.com/2020/08/26/bucks-magic-rockets-thunder-lakers-trail-blazers-game-5s-postponed-amid-boycotts/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Frederick, E.L., Pegoraro, A., & Sanderson, J. (2018). Divided and united: Perceptions of athlete activism at the ESPYS. Sport in Society, 22(12), 19191936.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gamson, W.A. (2014). Social movements and cultural change. In J.A. Goodwin (Ed.), The social movements reader: Cases and concepts (pp. 383385). John Wiley & Sons.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • García, F. (2018). Inside the NBA: Black dandyism and the racial regime. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 51(2), 103136.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Garner, R. (1996). Contemporary movements and ideologies. McGraw-Hill, Inc.

  • Garrett, D.E. (1987). The effectiveness of marketing policy boycotts: Environmental opposition to marketing. Journal of Marketing, 51(2), 4657.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Giridharadas, A. (2019). Winners take all: The elite charade of changing the world. Vintage.

  • Goldner, M. (2004). The dynamic interplay between Western medicine and the complementary and alternative medicine movement: How activists perceive a range of responses from physicians and hospitals. Sociology of Health & Illness, 26(6), 710736.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Haerens, M. (2018). The NFL national anthem protests. ABC-CLIO.

  • Haislop, T. (2020, August 26). NBA bubble, explained: A complete guide to the rules, teams, schedule and more for Orlando games. Sporting News. https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nba/news/nba-bubble-rules-teams-schedule-orlando/zhap66a9hcwq1khmcex3ggabo

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harris, D., & Henzel, C.K. (2018). Politics and protest in sports. ABDO.

  • Harrison, J.S., & Freeman, R.E. (1999). Stakeholders, social responsibility, and performance: Empirical evidence and theoretical perspectives. Academy of Management Journal, 42(5), 479485.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kaufman, P. (2008). Boos, bans, and other backlash: The consequences of being an activist athlete. Humanity & Society, 32(3), 215237.

  • Kim, K., Yoo, J., Han, J., & Kim, M. (2022). Analyzing the voice of recipients of CSR activities from #NBATogether campaign: Analyzing Twitter posts and comments through critical discourse analysis lens. International Journal of Applied Sports Sciences, 34(1), 2334.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • King, B.G. (2008). A political mediation model of corporate response to social movement activism. Administrative Science Quarterly, 53(3), 395421.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lewis, T. (2010). Ballers of the new school: Race and sports in America (pp. 150). Third World Press.

  • Lewis, T. (2015, November 11). Enter the real power of college sports. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

  • Maloney, J. (2020, June 14). NBA players divided on resuming season amid protests. CBS Sports. https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/nba-players-divided-on-resuming-season-amid-protests-heres-what-some-stars-have-said/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McCarthy, J.D., & Zald, M.N. (1977). Resource mobilization and social movements: A partial theory. American Journal of Sociology, 82(6), 12121241.

  • McCoy, D.L. (2022). Black student-athletes, contemporary student-athlete activism, and critical race theory. New Directions for Student Services, 2022(180), 3949.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Merriam-Webster. (n.d.-a). Boycott. Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 15, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/boycott

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Merriam-Webster. (n.d.-b). Strike. Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 15, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/strike

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Merriam-Webster. (n.d.-c). Wildcat strike. Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 15, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wildcat%20strike

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Meyer, D., & Staggenborg, S. (1996). Movements, countermovements, and the structure of political opportunity. American Journal of Sociology, 101(6), 16281660.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • National Basketball Association. (2020, October 10). NBA Board of governors launch first-ever NBA Foundation with NBPA to support black communities and drive generational change. NBA.com. https://www.nba.com/news/nba-board-governors-launch-nba-foundation-official-release

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Newsham, C. (2019). Analyzing social movement theory and sport: Exploring the presence of athlete activism in Brazil and the United States [Dissertation, Mount Holyoke]. Mount Holyoke Institutional Digital Archive. https://ida.mtholyoke.edu/handle/10166/5719?_ga=2.255937292.688817339.1642228834-1363620853.1642228834

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Oliver, C. (1991). Strategic responses to institutional processes. Academy of Management Review, 16(1), 145179.

  • Owens, J. (2020, August 29). Giannis Antetokounmpo explains how Bucks walkout of NBA playoffs unfolded. https://sports.yahoo.com/giannis-antetokounmpo-explains-how-bucks-walkout-on-nba-playoffs-unfolded-005506248.html

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Paine, N., Enten, H., & Jones-Rooy, A. (2017). How every NFL team’s fans lean politically. FiveThirtyEight. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-every-nfl-teams-fans-lean-politically/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Park, M.K. (2021). “Stick to sports”? First amendment values and limitations to student-athlete expression. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 99, 515537.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Reuters. (2020, August 26). Milwaukee Bucks read statement on “racial injustices” to explain boycott. https://www.yahoo.com/now/milwaukee-bucks-read-statement-racial-001816700.html

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schuster, B. (2020, August 29). George Hill says he didn’t tell Bucks teammates his plan to protest for game 5. Bleacher Report. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2906817-george-hill-says-he-didnt-tell-bucks-teammates-his-plan-to-protest-for-game-5

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shelburne, R., Spears, M.J., Wojnarowski, A., Andrews, M., & Lowe, Z. (2020). Inside the hectic hours around a historic NBA boycott. ESPN. https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29750724/inside-hectic-hours-historic-nba-boycott

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Spears, M.J. (2020, October 12). “Black lives matter, people”: How the NBA’s social justice efforts dominated the season. The Undefeated. https://theundefeated.com/features/how-the-nba-social-justice-efforts-dominated-the-season/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Spencer, N.E. (2004). Sister act VI: Venus and Serena Williams at Indian Wells: “Sincere fictions” and white racism. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 28(2), 115135.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Swidler, A. (2000). Cultural power and social movements. In L. Crothers & C. Lockhart (Eds.), Culture and politics: A reader (pp. 269284). Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Thomas, M.B., & Wright, J.E. (2021). We can’t just shut up and play: How the NBA and WNBA are helping dismantle systemic racism. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 44, 115.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zucker, L. (1991). The role of institutionalization in cultural persistence. In W. Powell & P. DiMaggio (Eds.), The new institutionalism in organizational analysis. University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 674 674 64
Full Text Views 197 197 21
PDF Downloads 236 236 8