The NBA is Violent.

On August 26th of 2020, amidst the bubbled NBA playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic refused to play. As a response to the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the walkout marked the tipping point for NBA players following a series of inflammatory events involving the police and unchecked acts of violence- specifically against those in the Black community.

Following nationwide and perhaps even further-reaching protests made in response to the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police, players in the NBA found a moment to express their frustrations. By refusing to proceed with the playoff series that was truncated by the Coronavirus pandemic- a global event that has thrust millions into physically, mentally, and economically perilous circumstances, and in the United States, one that has disproportionately affected people of color- players disrupted the normative flow of production.

The response was mixed. Some supported the act of solidarity fomented by the NBPA, while others questioned the purpose of depriving the public of playoff basketball. Though the answer to the latter isn’t uniform- some utilized this moment as a period of bereavement, others anger, etc.- the effect it had was a bit more singular. Regardless of individual intention, the act of refusing to play drew attention to the general cause. Players of the national basketball association -of which over 80% are Black- feel there isn’t enough being done to combat systemic racism in our society. Irrespective of TV contracts or economic implications, those that produce exercised their control and chose not to.

But what the walkout also underlined is the ever-narrowing scope of actions with which a marginalized group can express frustrations, injustices, etc. Following the refusal, the NBA, like many other top-level pro sports leagues across the globe, adopted symbols and linguistic practices used by socially progressive movements. Among other things, ‘Equality, Prison Reform,’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ adorned the jerseys and material trappings of the playoffs.

What much of this action seems to be suggesting is that the NBA is taking a stand on violence- particularly that which is committed against Black Americans. Yet, as progressive as adopting slogans of equality may seem, it actually works to devalue and sanitize the rhetorical practices of the people in question. By ensuring that the extremes of what is being asked for falls under the aesthetic purview of the league in question, the NBA and its management staff have muzzled the necessary acts that can work to dispel the issues in question. Whether intentional or not, the NBA and sporting institutions writ large are robbing their most influential actors of an essential revolutionary faculty.

Oxford’s definition of violence is as follows; behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.

This definition, however rudimentary, is predicated upon a traditional view of violence. To invoke Micheal Foucault’s classic example of overt power — the regicide being paraded through the streets, torturously torn limb from limb as a punishment for his transgression — abides by this interpretation. However, what might serve us better in combating ossified powers is a more ambiguous and metaphysical definition. To borrow from contemporary philosopher and political theorist Slavoj Žižek, his definition puts violence into two distinctive categories; subjective and objective. The delineating factor being that subjective violence maintains a clearly identifiable perpetrator. From Ben Weiss’ piece on the matter for notevenpast.org:

The Black Lives Matter movement successfully catalyzed a confrontation with one instance of objective violence in western society. Who is culpable for the systemic issues that disproportionately affect African Americans is the question much of the public sought to not only find an answer to but create a solution for at the height of unrest/pandemic lockdown. However, what the movement has slowly but surely become hamstrung by in the proceeding months is an actuation of subjective violence. What something like adopting progressive slogans does is that it robs the linguistic act of its power. Saying Black Lives Matter transgresses the boundaries of normative language because it implies that they previously have not. It not only posits an affirmative message that maintains its own meaning and demands understanding in and of itself, but it forces a confrontation with what it implies. That powerful implication, however, is being eroded by the institutions that supposedly support the cause.

In a sense, violence is contingent on the terms that define it. To take Foucault’s example perhaps a bit too literally, the regicide understood the direct and indirect implications of his act of violence. Killing the King would provide meaningful material change for him and those around him, but the attempt in and of itself, irrespective of its success, maintains its own value. It disrespects and challenges the existing structure so that any question of authority begs a response. In this case, the rhetorical bodies are playing on the same field, subject to the same objects of change. In the same way that the regicide communicates the need for revolutionary change by acting violently, so too does the Monarch seek to horrifically annihilate its opposition.

Alas, for however horrific these communicative acts may seem, what the NBA and other leagues imply with their progressive sloganeering is even more so. It’s as if the conditions that inspired the regicide to act in such a way- being subjected to a society of oppression for the sake of a few families living in decadence- were placated because the castle was adorned with banners that read ‘serf lives matter.’ The maintenance of faculties that allow for a sense of transgression must always be maintained because although they may change with their situations and rhetorical landscapes, the public’s need to contest those oppressive means will not.

This maintenance of relevant transgression is critical in something like Colin Kaepernick’s revolutionary act. Before much of the world had seen the need to adopt slogans that are fast becoming little more than something a social media intern ticks off a checklist, his act of kneeling during the national anthem transgressed the social norm. It took the anthem for what it actually suggests every time it’s played- undying allegiance to country. Kaepernick, feeling his community didn’t fall under the implications set forth in the anthem, chose not to pledge. The act maintained its transgressive status because it failed to adhere to normative social practices- ones established and defined by institutions like the NFL. It did not simply sign on the dotted line. It actively disagreed and responded to the implications therein.

A few years on and Kaepernick’s original gesture finds itself reciprocated in a different environment. One in which the issues he sought to address are certainly more discussed than when he began, but ultimately risk being meaningfully overlooked. Following the ongoing protests and social movements, the NFL, Premier League, and the NBA have all adopted variations of the kneel. But, as time goes on, it feels more like a social nicety than a meaningful statement.

These leagues, regardless of intention, have moved the goalposts of change. They’ve ensured that however radical an act could have been at inception, it falls neatly into the packageable narrative of today. Nefarious or not, this reconstitution of rhetorical efficacy is why the very concept of violence must be reframed. It is subjectively violent for a governing body, sporting or otherwise, to remove the effectiveness of an action that belongs to the individual even if it isn’t immediately discernible.

Violence, then, must be understood without the negative connotation much of its use has accrued because violence has almost always begotten meaningful change. Violence isn’t merely the physical act of harm, but the transgression of boundaries that beset a condition.

Continuing the use of once-revelatory statements and acts becomes easier when amalgamated by a system of power. To say it’s no longer effective to kneel during the anthem or don BLM garb isn’t for me to suggest, but the undeniable reality is that some of these rhetorical acts are being used as marketing tools. They still start conversations and alert those who are unaware of the necessity of an issue, but they fail to disrupt their environment in the same way they did at inception.

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves what it is to be meaningfully violent. We cannot imagine that substantial change can, in any way, be attained through the systems that be when it is those very systems that have allowed and even perpetuated the injustices people are seeking to rectify. Senseless violence, just like a senseless employment of any act, is precisely that. But that does not mean violence, as a whole, is invalid. So be wary of the silence. Be wary of the sloganeering. For it is the amelioration of outrage that quells the fires of change.

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