'Strike?' 'Boycott?' What to call it when athletes won't play, and why it matters

By BEN STRAUSS | The Washington Post | Published: August 28, 2020

The front of the New York Times sports section on Thursday commemorated a historic day in sports, when three NBA playoff games, along with games across Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the WNBA, were postponed because athletes refused to play, in protest over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man in Kenosha, Wisc.

The image was simple: an empty court in the NBA bubble in Orlando. The headline was one word: "Boycott." And the backlash, once the Times tweeted the image Wednesday night, came quickly.

"You need to change it to STRIKE," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter.

Ocasio-Cortez spread her frustration around the media, responding to a tweet by The Washington Post that also called the action a "boycott," though the story itself used "strike."

"NBA players are courageously on strike (withholding labor), NOT boycotting (withholding their $ /purchase)," she wrote. "The diff is important bc it shows their power as *workers*."

Others piled on. In New York magazine, Sarah Jones and Chas Danner offered their own critique of sportswriters who referred to the day's events as a boycott. "The term," they wrote, "is inaccurate, and dampens the political thrust of the Bucks' protest."

"Boycott," they wrote, refers to consumerism, not labor action. Using it undermines the fact that athletes are using the power of their labor to demand civic change. Instead, the writers argued, we should call it a "wildcat strike," which refers to workers walking off the job without consent of their union and outside the terms of their collective bargaining agreement.

In a statement, a Times spokeswoman defended the headline. "The players are not on strike against their employers; they are protesting a shooting," the spokeswoman wrote. She then referred to the dictionary definition of "boycott:" "a decision to not use or buy products or services in order to show support for a cause."

The certainty of New York lawmakers and periodicals aside, there's no simple way to label what the players are doing. In interviews with eight labor lawyers and academics on Thursday, only two said "strike," traditional or wildcat, was the best way to describe the athletes' protest. One said "boycott" was correct.

The only consensus was that the players had done something unprecedented.

It's not a traditional strike, said Wilma Liebman, a former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board, because workers weren't withholding labor amid bargaining for concessions from their employer. It wasn't a wildcat strike either, she said. Since the players appeared to have the backing of both their union and their bosses — the NBA Players Association and several teams sent statements of support — it was neither type of strike, Liebman said.

Instead, Liebman said, she would refer to what the players did as both a "boycott" and a "walkout." The players were at work, having arrived at the arena, but then chose not to play.

"A boycott, I tend to think of as when you're trying to enlist the public in a cause," Liebman said, echoing the Times' explanation. "The players were making a public statement that's beyond the terms of their employment."

But Craig Becker, former general counsel for the AFL-CIO, agreed with Ocasio-Cortez. "Any time you withhold labor, it's a strike," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's for non-economic reasons or a political cause."

He cited the famous strike and boycott orchestrated by Filipino American grape workers in the 1960s. Led by Cesar Chavez, the workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions. But they also urged consumers to not buy grapes in support of their cause.

"The boycott was a call for consumer action," Becker said. By contrast, he said, "the NBA players are not saying to fans, 'Don't come to our games.'"

Gary Kohlman, a labor attorney and the former general counsel for the NBPA, said the players' action had the appearance of a wildcat strike, but he agreed with Liebman. Since the action was ultimately blessed by the union and league, "strike" didn't fit. His vote: "walkout."

Asked if that undermined the power of the labor moment, Kohlman said he had a more precise term: "player-driven work stoppage."

Three law professors agreed on another, more precise phrase: "political strike." What the players are doing is reminiscent of the longshoreman, a group of unionized workers who unload ships at America's ports and, at various points in history, have stopped working for political reasons. They refused to handle any South African goods over Apartheid; refused to unload Soviet cargo after the country invaded Afghanistan in 1980; stopped work for a day in opposition to the Iraq War; and stopped for nine minutes over the police killing of George Floyd.

"I understand the spirit of wanting to call it a strike because it sounds more militant than boycott," said Ileen DeVault, who teaches labor history at Cornell University. "It feels more in tune with the Black Lives Matter movement, which it is. But it's difficult to define."

Which is why, says Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School, labeling what happened may be less important than describing what happened, and why.

"We tend to think about strikes as about wages and benefits," Sachs said. "Those are very important, but this was about something much bigger than that, something involving the character and future of the country. So you can call it whatever you want, but the name seems less important than the meaning of what happened."

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