Why experts say the NBA protest is a strike, not a boycott

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks during the team's statement to the media on August 26, 2020 at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

On Wednesday, the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic to call attention to police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

"We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable," said the team in a statement. "For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform. We encourage all citizens to educate themselves, take peaceful and responsible action, and remember to vote on Nov. 3."

Other athletes from the NBA, WBNA, NFL, MLB and MLS also protested by refusing to play scheduled matches, which may be rescheduled. 

The collective actions have sparked conversations about police brutality and racial injustice — as well as how such collective actions are described. 

When the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court, many labeled the actions a "boycott," including the Washington Post and The New York Times

Famous athletes such as LeBron James also used the phrase "boycott." 

But others, such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have pointed out that such actions may be more accurately described as a "strike."

"A boycott is where consumers stop buying a product as a protest," explains Alexander Colvin, a labor and employment researcher and dean of the ILR School at Cornell University. "A strike is where workers stop work as a protest. The NBA, WBNA, MLS, and other sports stars are engaged in a strike, not a boycott."

Colvin continues, "What is confusing some people is that they are focusing on the object of the protest, rather than the type of action being taken. A strike could be focused on winning higher wages or it could be focused on making a political protest; either action would be a strike since they both involve workers stopping work to make a point."

According to AP Style, a boycott is "an organized refusal to buy a product or service, or to deal with a merchant or group of merchants."

For instance, in 1955 civil rights activists coordinated the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested and fined for refusing to give her bus seat to a white man. During the boycott, an estimated 40,000 Black bus riders — the majority of Montgomery's bus riders — stopped using the public bus system. The boycott put financial pressure on the city and called attention to the unequal treatment of Black citizens.

The Supreme Court ultimately forced the Montgomery bus system to integrate by upholding a lower court's decision on December 20, 1956 and after 381 days, the boycott officially ended. 

Members of the Atlanta Dream, Washington Mystics, Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks gather together at the Feld Entertainment Center on August 26, 2020 in Palmetto, Florida to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Ned Dishman | Getty Images

A strike, however, is defined as "a concerted work stoppage, interruption or slowdown by a body of workers." 

By this definition, the players' protest by refusing to play is in effect a strike. If the fans refused to go to or watch games, that would be a boycott.

For instance, in 2019, some 30,000 teachers in Los Angeles County went on strike for six days, impacting an estimated 600,000 students

During this time, the district teacher's union negotiated for a 6% raise, a gradual decrease in class sizes and more counselors, librarians and nurses.

Still, some athletes say the current movement goes beyond a single definition. 

"This is not a strike. This is not a boycott. This is affirmatively a day of reflection, a day of informed action and mobilization," said WNBA player Nneka Ogwumike in a statement

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