Photo courtesy A. Sherrod Blakely.
Q&A with A. Sherrod Blakely, NBA reporter and COM lecturer
By Marc Chalufour
On Wednesday, August 26, the Milwaukee Bucks went on strike. While their opponent in the National Basketball Association playoffs, the Orlando Magic, warmed up on the court, the Bucks stayed in their locker room. Three days earlier, 35 miles south of Milwaukee, a Kenosha, Wisc., police officer shot a Black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Daily protests followed, and two protesters were shot and killed. “Our focus today cannot be on basketball,” the Bucks’ official statement read.
That statement also demanded that law enforcement and lawmakers be held to the same high standards as professional basketball players and that the Wisconsin State Legislature reconvene to address police accountability. And the Bucks urged everyone to vote in November.
A. Sherrod Blakely, a College of Communication lecturer in journalism, covers the Boston Celtics and the NBA for NBC Sports Boston and has been in touch with players and personnel inside the bubble. He spoke to us about a remarkable week in professional sports—and what he expects will happen next. Just before our interview, the NBA and NBA Players Association announced that the playoffs would resume on Saturday, August 29. That agreement included provisions for the creation of a league-wide social justice coalition and the use of NBA arenas as polling locations for November’s election.
COMtalk: What were your thoughts when the Bucks decided not to take the floor the other night?
A. Sherrod Blakely: I was surprised that an NBA team would take these particular measures, but I wasn’t sure what would happen next. I think their goal was to shine a bright light on some of the issues that they had been talking about extensively prior to going into the bubble [and] they have done exactly what I think they intended, which is to keep the focus on those issues and not the game of basketball.
There’s a long history of athlete activism, from John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics to Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem in 2016. Given that America is still grappling with the same issues of racism, what power do professional athletes actually have?
What we’re seeing is athletes taking greater ownership of being part of this process and this pursuit of change in the way that we are policed, the way that we are governed. They are using their platforms, which are ginormous, to elevate those conversations and challenge society in a way that I don’t think a lot of athletes over the last 15 to 20 years have done. That means Twitter and Instagram, and whenever there’s a microphone in front of them, making sure that they are directing the focus toward systemic change. There is a false narrative that these NBA players are the ones who are going to bring about the change: “How can they possibly do that, so why should I get behind them?” My response is that’s exactly why you get behind them. They’re going to need allies.
What do you see as the role of the sportswriter in this moment?
The role of a sportswriter is to remember who you are at your core, and at your very core, you’re a journalist. Now, for Black journalists, it gets tricky. For most Black journalists, particularly those of us in sports, we’ve often had to find that balance between connecting with these athletes, but not letting that relationship appear as though it is anything beyond professional. That’s really difficult to do at times like this because the very issues that they’re fighting for are issues that I also want to see consistently elevated in the discourse surrounding sports. At the end of the day, no matter how much money those players have, no matter how many bylines I get, no matter how many awards, we are Black men and women and that is the problem: we’re seen as just that. That’s a big part of what a lot of these players are talking about and why a guy like Doc Rivers is breaking down crying about this country not loving us as much as we love it. I don’t know why that is difficult for some people to understand, but it speaks to another layer of issues that this country is dealing with.
A longer version of this interview was published by BU Today. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.