NBA Players Are Refusing to Play, but Is it a Boycott or a Strike? Here's the Difference

In protest against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to walk onto the court on Wednesday for what would have been Game 5 of their NBA playoff series against the Orlando Magic. Their stance against the racial injustices that have been protested by millions over the last three months quickly reverberated through the sports world.

As other teams in the NBA joined the Bucks in solidarity, the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers went so far as to express their wishes to end the season now. A number of other professional sports leagues also followed suit shortly after. Within hours, three MLB games, three WNBA games and five MLS matches were called off (In a statement, the NBA said it's hoping play will resume either Friday or Saturday).

But there has been debate over what the actions of these athletes should be called. While a statement on behalf of the Bucks called the decision a boycott, others have argued what these players are doing is striking.

A boycott versus a strike

After The New York Times announced their Thursday cover for the paper's sports section, which featured the headline "BOYCOTT," New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The Times that their cover title was wrong. "You need to change it to STRIKE," she tweeted.

The Democratic representative noted the difference, tweeting that these athletes are on strike in "withholding labor" rather than boycotting or "withholding their $ /purchase."

The key distinction between the two terms is that boycotting is an action that consumers take, while striking is an action workers take.

"NBA fans may decide to boycott the the NBA to support players by refusing to watch the games, but what the players did was to strike," Jobs With Justice's research director Erin Johansson told Newsweek. Jobs With Justice is a nonprofit dedicated to fighting for workers' rights.

"The players withheld their labor in order to pressure management to meet their demands to address the serious issue of police killing Black people," Johansson said. "They went on strike for racial justice. This is the kind of brave action that workers have been taking all over the country during this pandemic to force those in power to address issues they care about, whether it's to have adequate PPE, sustainable wages, or to fight evictions."

NBA Court
An empty court and bench is shown with no signage following the scheduled start time in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 26, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The Bucks refused to play Game 5 in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Black. Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Wildcat strikes

Legally, these strikes are termed "wildcat strikes," Joseph Longo, an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School where he teaches sports law, told Newsweek.

"From a pure legal perspective, when an NBA player goes on strike it's usually coordinated through the players' association who represents them as a whole," said Longo, who is also an attorney and MLB agent. "When the union hasn't officially authorized it, it's been referred to, in labor work stoppages in the past, as a 'wildcat strike'."

Professional athletes aren't typically seen as union workers, but Longo explained that they are as much as a part of these labor organizations as workers in other industries.

"Sometimes it's hard to see that these people are a part of the union," he said. "They pay union dues. They go to union meetings. Just like regular union meetings. But sometimes it's hard to see that when their salaries are so big."

The reason it's been difficult to correctly name what has echoed throughout the sports world, is because these political actions on this scale have never been seen. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) does not have a definition for decisions like this. But that may change soon.

"We've now turned a corner in professional sports," Longo said. "The next time we have collective bargaining negotiations between the owners and the players' association, I think there might be some procedures and negotiations involving what a boycott is, what a protest is and get some definitions in there."

Colin Kaepernick kneeling
Eli Harold #58, Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline, during the anthem, prior to the game against the Los Angeles Rams at the Los Angeles Coliseum on December 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. Kaepernick began routinely kneeling during the national anthem in protest of systemic racism. Michael Zagaris/Getty

How will this change the world of professional sports?

Four years ago, NFL player Colin Kaepernick began advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement and protesting racial injustice when he refused to stand during the national anthem at a preseason game.

Since then, what has transpired in professional sports has been a call from athletes who are also demanding political change to end systemic oppression and police brutality.

When the NBA resumed its season this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, "Black Lives Matter" was painted onto the courts of the arenas in the Orlando 'bubble.' Players also supported the movement when they returned to the courts with various social justice messages on their jerseys.

"This is just a moment in labor history that we will look back on and say this type of work stoppage is here to stay," Longo said.

He noted this is not the first time athletes have changed labor laws.

"There's a great long history of athletes in the labor law movement of breaking these laws. Everything from free agency to work stoppages to increased pay to increased benefits. Athletes as part of labor unions have made great strides that have flowed into other labor unions," he said.

"There have been players who have sacrificed their careers to try and make change and this was a big risk — sitting out the game last night. They didn't know what was going to happen. The NBA has the right under the CBA to suspend them and fine them. For all they know, that was going to happen," Longo added. "It was a difficult decision for them to make."