When the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for their scheduled playoff game against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night, in protest of the police shooting of a Black man named Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., they were not alone. On Wednesday and Thursday, not only were NBA playoffs and WNBA games delayed, but athletes from Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer also refused to take to the field; football practices were nixed and hockey games postponed. And the Bucks’ decision to strike was also part of a longer history of intersecting race and labor struggles in the NBA. In fact, decades ago, another Milwaukee Buck, legendary guard Oscar Robertson, played a key role in establishing the political power of basketball players—and without his earlier actions, the current team would likely have been unable to make this week’s powerful statement.
Back in the 1970s, Robertson became the face of a major antitrust lawsuit against the league. After years of legal wrangling, the NBA finally chose to settle out of court in February 1976. Previously, when an NBA team drafted a player, they acquired the exclusive right to sign him, and then, thanks to the reserve clause, the player remained effectively bound to that team until it decided to trade or release him. The settlement virtually swept away pro basketball’s reserve clause, setting the stage for unrestricted free agency. Although there were 13 other named plaintiffs, both Black and white, as National Basketball Players Association president, Robertson’s name appeared first and became identified with the suit. The fact that the suit had a Black face attached to it was significant. Alongside other suits attacking the reserve clause such as Curt Flood v. Bowie Kuhn, et al. and Bob Mackey et al. v. NFL, Oscar Robertson et al. v. NBA came to represent the shifting racial and labor politics of professional basketball, and pro sport more generally, in the ’70s.
The story began a few years earlier, in 1967, when the establishment of the rival American Basketball Association (ABA) opened up an opportunity for the growing number of Black professional ballplayers to sidestep the NBA’s draft and reserve systems, which had, for years, kept the players underpaid and under the thumb of the team owners. The talent war between the leagues also helped to lift the informal racial quotas that had heretofore limited the number of African Americans on NBA teams. Black players took advantage of the situation to demand contracts that were both more lucrative and more secure. However, instead of being seen as shrewd businessmen, Black players who exerted their power were criticized for being greedy, disloyal and ungrateful—a narrative that continues to plague the likes of LeBron James and others who choose to exercise their right to move.
Reports of a merger agreement between the NBA and ABA spurred the players to lodge their lawsuit in April 1970. The Robertson suit charged the NBA with “conspiring to restrain competition for the services and skills of professional basketball players” through the college draft, the reserve clause and other informal practices of boycotting and blacklisting. The players’ suit also argued that the NBA and ABA sought “to effectuate a non-competition agreement, merger or consolidation.” In taking away the option of a second league, while upholding the existing draft and reserve systems, a merger would not only “impair [players’] competitive bargaining powers,” but also “bind the players involuntarily to one team for their entire pro basketball career.” In May 1970, a New York District Court granted the NBA players’ request for an injunction against the merger until the players’ grievances were addressed. After the suit was settled in February 1976, the two leagues finally merged that June.
At the time, the league’s players, a growing percentage of whom were Black, saw the struggle against the reserve clause as more than just a labor struggle. It was a racial struggle that could radically reshape the balance of power between the white team owners and the majority-Black players. They would no longer have to just shut up and play, with little say in the trajectory of their careers or their working conditions.
In the 1970s, some Black activists questioned whether basketball was a distraction from the Black freedom struggle. They argued that Black players who spent their time entertaining white folks only hindered the movement. They criticized the players for not being political enough. Yet, as the players pointed out, many saw their situation as emblematic of the need for change. In a 1972 interview with Black Sports—a short-lived, Black-owned magazine that covered Black athletes for Black readers—superstar New York Knicks guard Earl “the Pearl” Monroe acknowledged, “You have a lot of players who want to do a lot of things, but they’re not in the position. People have to realize that if I’m a professional basketball player, and I can’t do too much other than play professional basketball, I’m going to have to do something to try to keep my job, like keep my mouth shut.” This was especially true for fringe players. Economics played a big role in how overtly political a Black professional athlete could be. After the Oscar Robertson case gave more economic power to the players, they also gained a greater ability to speak out.
More recently, with the emergence of Black Lives Matter off the court, Black NBA players have shown just how powerful that speech can be. In 2012, LeBron James posted a photo on social media of the Miami Heat wearing hoodies in honor of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, whose killer was acquitted. Players league-wide wore “I can’t breathe” shirts during pregame warmups in 2014 to raise awareness about Eric Garner’s death, after police put him in a banned chokehold on the streets of New York City. In 2016 at the ESPY awards, James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul spoke out about police brutality and racial injustice in America. Now, in the NBA bubble, players are wearing uniforms donning political and social messages, rather than their names.
In recent years, the NBA has emerged as the major professional league most concerned with social justice. Rather than go against the very powerful players’ association, the NBA has decided to embrace its players’ political statements. But if the NBA has a progressive reputation, that’s because the players made it so. And, if players today can simply refuse to play a game in the name of racial justice, it is because their forebears made them more secure as workers.
Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present
Theresa Runstedtler is an associate professor of history at American University who is currently writing a book about race and basketball in the 1970s.