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The NBA strike and what does it take to keep stories in the news

I was talking with someone about that NBA strike and he asked if I thought it was pointless given that they went back to work the next day. My take on it was, no, I think that doing a temporary strike was good tactics. Not necessarily for economic reasons—I have no idea about that—but from a political perspective. Assuming the strike was a way for the players to show their concerns about problems with the police, I think it was savvy for them to cancel one day but not the whole season.

Why do I say this? My thoughts here have nothing to do with sports or labor relations or policing and everything to do with news reporting, which is typically driven by news. Sometimes a news organization will do a crusade and try to drum up enthusiasm about an issue on its own, but usually news reporting requires new news, things like court dates, congressional hearings, protests, or . . . labor disputes. My theory is that if the NBA players just canceled the rest of the season, that would be it. A big news story and then then the next day it gets forgotten, just like we’re no longer talking about Steve Bannon or that Russian dude who got poisoned. We’ll talk about them again when they’re in the news again, if/when there are legal proceedings, but no new news means no news. We’d just move on and start talking about the football season. But the temporary strike, that’s perfect: it gets the headlines, but now the NBA playoffs are resuming, so we’re continuing to talk about the NBA, and now every conversation about the NBA includes a conversation about the NBA strike and, from there, the police.

Even big news stories can disappear from view when there’s no drip, drip, drip of new news.

I’m sure there must be research on this general topic.

P.S. Erik Loomis makes a similar point:

What even players who wanted to end the season such as LeBron James didn’t quite get is that the power that they have is inside that bubble. If they leave and go home, the energy dissipates and the media moves on and players start getting ready for next year.

25 Comments

  1. John Williams says:

    My impression is that strikes with a fixed duration (one day, three days, etc.)are pretty common in Europe. You get make your point, but it doesn’t cost too much, and if your strike shuts down public transporation or something like that, the public doesn’t get too pissed at you.

  2. Matt Skaggs says:

    The following excerpt was written by “Marc w” and posted on the website USSMariner (the “Ms” are the Mariners):

    “The Milwaukee Bucks kicked it off when they decided to essentially go on strike and potentially forfeit a playoff game after the shooting of Jacob Blake and then the killing of two protestors last night. It was in their back yard, and they decided that playing would allow too many people to tune out Kenosha and instead watch a majority of black players play a game from the relative safety of the Orlando bubble. The rest of the league followed suit. Then, the Milwaukee Brewers decided to do the same thing, and not play tonight’s scheduled contest with the Reds. Once that happened, and probably a bit before then, the M’s decision not to play tonight in San Diego seemed like a fait accompli. The M’s Black players have tried to keep the focus on issues of social justice, and this is probably the best way they could turn their activism into something concrete.

    Many on social media are excoriating teams, saying that this strike isn’t concrete action at all, and won’t help Blake walk again. But it’s much more than a statement or kneeling before the anthem. They, like the NBA and WNBA, wanted to believe that these things – BLM patches on the uniform, or BLM written in the dirt of the pitcher’s mound, or pre-game ceremonies – might help inform people on the fence, might help make a case to the millions of fans tuning in. And they now don’t believe that these things are enough, because they pretty self-evidently aren’t. At that point, they can either produce counter-programming to the news from Kenosha, from Minneapolis, from all over the country, or they could withhold it.

    Here’s Dee Gordon on twitter just a little while ago:

    ‘Instead of watching us, we hope people will focus on the things more important than sports that are happening.’

    I have had my problems with the M’s as an organization, and have been somewhat skeptical about their step-back rebuild. But I am incredibly proud to be an M’s fan today.”

    I thought this was very well written.

    • Anonymous says:

      “There are serious issues in this country. For me, and for many of my teammates, the injustices, violence, death and systemic racism is deeply personal. This is impacting not only my community, but very directly my family and friends. Our team voted unanimously not to play tonight.
      Instead of watching us, we hope people will focus on the things more important than sports that are happening.”

      It’s a good thing than there were no more important things than sports happening on the next day and people could enjoy the game that had been postponed.

      • Andrew says:

        Anon:

        See Phil’s comment below. Every day of the year there are more important things than sports. Still, I’m a sports fan. Sports are an important part of life, even if they’re never the most important part. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for athletes or entertainers to (a) use their media power to draw attention to causes that are more important than sports and entertainment, and (b) entertaining people by doing what they do best.

        If you disagree with the players’ stance, that’s another story. They’re taking one position on the issue, and you could take another position. If you disagree with them, you could well be annoyed by the effectiveness of their media strategy.

    • jim says:

      Matt, thanks for providing this. Explained in this way the strike makes sense to me. But players could do *ALOT* more, and much more constructive things, than they’re currently doing to help the plight of black folks and push back racist attitudes.

      LeBron is moving in the right direction with his offers to pay for college for any black student that wants to go. But alot could be accomplished if leaders like LeBron and Russel Wilson get out there and really promote education and encourage people to pursue careers in business and science. Instead of having football and basketball camps, some of these guys should lead coding and science and business camps. Instead of visiting Children’s hospital, they should fund entrepreneurs. Some of that is happening but not nearly enough.

  3. Esteban says:

    “Assuming the strike was a way for the players to show their concerns about problems with the police…and now every conversation about the NBA includes a conversation about the NBA strike and, from there, the police.”
    Maybe, but it is equally plausible that some may view this curtailed NBA “strike” and the reporting of it negatively, as being a largely reflexive stunt that will hurt the league in the longer term.
    Based on the expected salary losses from the unplayed games, the 25% voluntary reduction, and, most importantly, the player escrow, it is possible that cooler player/agent/union fiscal heads prevailed, and in relatively short order, once the full economic impact was calculated and shared collectively among the players. As an example, Bron stood to lose ~21% of his salary if the rest of the season were to have been boycotted. Even after being scaled appropriately, not many of us could financially afford to take such a political stand, and perhaps not even LJ could, once he did the math. Thus, it begs the question as to the overall impact and, more importantly, the consequences of this event.
    My hunch is the news reporting will not focus on this aspect of the conversation, as a potential factor in how such a highly publicized strike could have been settled so quickly, and without any apparent negotiations.

    • Andrew says:

      Esteban:

      I agree with you that the economic factors are worth considering. As usual a strike causes short-term loss both to workers and to owners. In this case the economic and political factors were aligned: the short-term strike was low cost and high impact. As you say, canceling the season would’ve incurred a much higher cost to players and owners; in addition, in my above post I argue that canceling the season would, paradoxically, have had less of a political effect as it would’ve taken the NBA out of the news. This way they have the best of both worlds.

  4. Conor says:

    Some of the dearly missed Deadspin writers who are starting their own place next month decided to publish a few posts on this, I think you’d appreciate Burneko’s take particularly https://mailchi.mp/cdcb2b8fbe10/three-blogs-about-the-nba-strike

  5. Any good cause is at risk of being increasing dismissed if they continually over-reach.

  6. Cedarkey says:

    ( “…everything to do with news reporting, which is typically driven by news.” )

    news-reporting is driven by news ?

    that’s an unhelpful statement unless we have a clear definition of “news”.

    with 8 billion people on the planet engaged in millions of diverse activities — how much genuine news do we get from American media ?

    (~ how many Americans are even moderately interested in that NBA Players strike?)

    • Andrew says:

      Cedarkey:

      I wrote it in a circular way on purpose. My point is that news outlets have implicit rules for what counts as news. To stay in the news you need repeated new things happening.

      Regarding your last point: Most Americans are not interested in most sports news. But news outlets run lots of stories. For a story to be worth reporting, it does not need the interest of a majority of the audience. Different people read different stories in the news.

  7. Phil says:

    I’ve long felt that Colin Kaepernick made a poor choice by kneeling during the national anthem before every game. I think it would have been more effective if he did it only in the week that another black man had been killed by the police: If he always kneels it’s just a continuation of the same story, but if he only does it sometimes then it’s a new story every time. But the story, even his story, is so much bigger than this now, perhaps he had it right all along.

    • Andrew says:

      Phil:

      And it’s so hard to figure out the right thing to do while it’s happening. Politics is tough. For example, in group decision making I think it’s good to be a “swing voter”: if half the people in the group want to do A, and half want to do B, and you’re undecided, then everybody needs to convince you. In contrast, if you always state a strong position at the beginning of the debate, then, sure, you might convince somebody, but only through the power of your argument and your example; your vote itself is no longer up for grabs so you have no voting power. It would be as if you started a negotiation by telling people right away whether you’re gonna say yes or no. It seems that Kaepernick put himself in the already-decided category at the beginning, whereas the current NBA players have managed the trick of taking a strong stance while remaining unpredictable and newsworthy.

      I also saw this article about how the WNBA served as an icebreaker for the recent NBA activism. That seems like an important point too.

    • jim says:

      “perhaps he had it right all along.”

      I strongly support racial justice but I don’t think Kap had it right. I think he polarized the issue.

      While I see the purpose of the recent strike, I doubt think this kind of activism will solve the problem. The problem is that many people in broader society perceive some groups as being associated with crime. As long as that perception has even a remote ring of truth discrimination will continue whether it’s legal or not so making it “more illegal” is at best a partial solution.

      Celebs from disadvantaged communities need to take a much bigger role in promoting education.

      • Phil says:

        jim,
        I don’t think there’s a way to keep this issue — by which I mean the general issue of racial injustice — in the public eye without polarizing the issue.

        “Celebs from disadvantaged communities need to take a much bigger role in promoting education”…I wouldn’t disagree with this (although actually I don’t have much idea how much celebrities from disadvantaged communities do in this area) but this really trivializes the problem and puts the entire burden of the solution on the people who are disadvantaged.

        • jim says:

          “this really trivializes the problem and puts the entire burden of the solution on the people who are disadvantaged.”

          I don’t agree that it “trivializes” the problem.

          I do, however, agree that it puts the burden of solving it on the people who are disadvantaged. That’s unfortunate. But they have the most to gain by solving it and the most incentive to solve it. Legal solutions have failed time and time again. Is there a reason to think that they will work now? What’s different about now?

          Is keeping it in the public eye solving it? In the last two years I’ve read books about James Madison, US Grant, and Gettysburg.
          This issue has been in the public eye for nearly 200 years.

      • dhogaza says:

        “I think he polarized the issue.”

        This implies you think it wasn’t polarized before. Simply not true.

        • jim says:

          “This implies you think it wasn’t polarized before. Simply not true.”

          You’re right: it has always been a polarizing issue. Over the last few decades though it’s been more quiet. Kap definitely dialed up the volume. But as I noted above to Phil, the volume has been dialed up before and it didn’t help much.

  8. jonathan says:

    The flip side of your model is the motivation has limits: if the NBA players dont play, what would be the effect? If you believe the story would fade fast, you’re saying the effect of that action is either not important or not visibly important (though it might be a harbinger of something, whatever that might be). So, if they threaten, the belief is they can threaten again, and thus use whatever leverage they may have on opinion to more potential effect.

    • Andrew says:

      Jonathan:

      I think that once the season’s over, it will be harder for NBA players to get in the news. Right now, there are lots of NBA news stories anyway, everyone’s looking for a fresh angle, so the strike is newsworthy. To get more attention going forward, they don’t necessarily need to threaten to strike; they could come up with other creative ways to draw attention to the issue.

      • jonathan says:

        Yes, ‘they’ could but this, like any group, is driven. It appears some of the big names are leading this. I assume because they see their fanbase as being both white and international. And I assume some players would worry more about their less secure futures, given that most NBA players are relatively fungible. Kaepernick is the big example: it isnt that no team could use him, but no team wants the media circus. I’m not sure any team could stand have hundreds of reporters at every practice. Or worse, every time the starter has an issue or is slightly hurt, the accusations that he’s not being played, etc. It’s not like he was Peyton or Tom; Colin was or is a relatively fungible commodity of backup QB, with two negatives, that he needs a specific kind of offense and that he comes with a cargo ship load of baggage. If I were a fungible NBA type, I dont know how I’d think.

        It’s interesting to me to see echoes of very unusual examples. I used to research diaries of people in the West. There are some from people who lived as natives. I cant remember the details of the diary, but it described discussions among groups of the Kansas about white people. They divided into 3 general groups. Those who felt their time on earth was done, that the Great Spirit had abandoned them in favor of these others. Those who felt they could and should accommodate somehow so they could survive, meaning they did not want to conclude what God intended. And those who felt God wanted them to strike out, either to bring about their end or because God would then protect them now that the Spirit has been summoned by their actions. It’s amazing how many times such conversations must have happened over the centuries. Beliefs about meanings of actions.

        (Weird thing is I only found this diary because he described the gauntlet, meaning the torture they’d subject noted captives to. The gruesomeness attracted enough attention that it popped up in a mention. The best part was describing the conversations among the groups of men about the future. I could picture my family members confronting that in Russia in similar and often worse stark terms.)

        Anyway, I think guys at the near to James level, see managing their celebrity differently in this era. They see it not merely as a platform but as a lever to force change by threatening to withdraw their participation. I’m not sure they’re right. Part of me hopes they’re wrong because change through intimidation is rarely good, and successful intimidation doesnt appease but encourages more.

        • Joshua says:

          Jonathan –

          > because change through intimidation is rarely good,

          Citation needed.

          I can think of tons of what might be considered counter-examples. For example, world the Civil rights movement not validly be considered causing change through intimidation (as distinguished from LeBron bringing about change by not playing), or not good?

        • Joshua says:

          Jonathan –

          >I assume because they see their fanbase as being both white and international.

          I think that not much of what’s driving this is because the players see their fan base and international. From what they’ve said, they have done this because they felt a personal motivation to speak out as black men. In my view, and based on what they have said, they feel an obligation to their community.

          It’s interesting to see people speculating for their reasons, as distinguished from what they’ve said their reasons are.

          > And I assume some players would worry more about their less secure futures, given that most NBA players are relatively fungible.

          Yeah – and I think that is a wrong assumption. The NBA has been on a fairly long-term and particularly dramatic trajectory of “player empowerment,” which has been manifest at many levels, including trade and contract interactions. The players talk about this explicitly, and quite a bit. I see this action as a continuance of that trajectory. They are not prioritizing their concerns about maintaining their value as a commodity, but actually they’re focusing on better understanding how to leverage their value as a commodity – not just in terms of their financial remuneration, but also in terms of their quality of life and in terms of their voice in their communities.

          > If I were a fungible NBA type, I dont know how I’d think.

          They have been very explicit about their personal feelings about this issue, about their feelings as black men. It’s condescending, IMO, to assume that their thinking is anything different than what they’ve said that it is. I’m sure that their financial standing is an element that many of them are considering, but those concerns are in a context.

          > Anyway, I think guys at the near to James level, see managing their celebrity differently in this era. They see it not merely as a platform but as a lever to force change by threatening to withdraw their participation.

          They aren’t merely interested in leveraging change – they’re also interested in expressing their personal reactions. They’ve been explicit. And some of the most vocal would fit well into your “fungible” category, such as Van Vleet, or George Hill, or Tobias Harris, or even white “fungible” players like Kyle Korver, or JJ Redick, or Enes Kanter, or a player towards the end of his value as a player such as Rich Paul….

          An interesting essay by Kyle Korver – from back in April of last year..

          https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/kyle-korver-utah-jazz-nba

  9. jim says:

    “I’m not sure they’re right. Part of me hopes they’re wrong because change through intimidation is rarely good, and successful intimidation doesnt appease but encourages more.”

    That’s a great sentiment, Andrew.

    I have a tendency to pop off about things be a smart-ass. I guess that’s a form of trying to intimidate people. I don’t pay much attention to sports and I don’t care if the NBA plays or not. But I have watched a few games and listened to a few interviews with LeBron. That guy is one of the most intelligent dudes on the planet. I feel like whatever he does, his intentions are good and he’s honest. And I think my popping off and his are driven by the same thing: frustration that change is so slow.

    But the discussion here makes me realize that maybe being a smart-ass isn’t really the answer. Thanks for that. I’ll work on it.

  10. OliP says:

    Given all the effort spent by the NBA and the NBA Players’ Association on drawing attention to BLM in the bubble I agree that it would have been counter-productive to cancel the season. The players all wear BLM warmup tees, mostly have BLM statements in place of names on their shirts, the commentators frequently refer to this effort, the advert outtakes (at least the ones I see as an international viewer through the NBA app) often highlight the issue, there are BLM decals on the court, coaching staff have prominent ‘Coaches for Racial Justice’ badges on their tees etc etc. I can’t believe that influential players like Chris Paul who helped come up with all these ideas to promote racial justice would have been happy with a cancelled season.

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