HILL AND THE BUCKS, through their silent withdrawing, made evident, once more, that only a black athlete can save us now.
Heidegger’s injunction, famous as it may be, Nur ein Gott kann uns jetzt retten is, of historical and philosophical necessity, vague, and, in truth, rather hopeless.
Nevertheless, like Heidegger, I cannot, as I have already said, pretend myself to be optimistic.
But in this moment, out of an admixture of desperation and with a profound regard for the tradition of transformative black athletes, all the while hedging my bets, it is patently obvious to me that only a black athlete can save us now. Heideggerian poetics in the service of the radical tradition that is black athletic activism. Muhammad Ali. Naomi Osaka. Lewis Hamilton.
Martin Heidegger was a keen football fan. In fact, it is said that he had a TV hidden in his office so that, in private, he could watch games. I am presuming, then, that Heidegger would join me in concluding that nur ein schwarzer Sportler kann uns jetzt retten.
In silence. Through resolute, unimpugnable, silence.
In the midst of all Trump’s Sturm und Drang, his racist tweets, above the clamor and the endless analyses conducted across print, television and social media, it was the Bucks’ absence and their silence that reverberated. That achieved resonance far beyond the confines of the bubble.
“Follow the Deer.” Listen, if you can make yourself, attend to the incisiveness of the silence. Work your way past the cacophony. Try to hear the pain, injustice, anger, hopelessness, loss, and the crushing sense of precarity that is black life in America. Listen to how it is speaking. Silently. As a powerful silence. Hear what it is struggling to say.
Understand silence as a last resort.
Understand silence as a powerful point of political departure.
Silence is portentous, portentously loud, or so it has proved.
Strange things happen in the bubble. The strangest of which is not, but I would like to pretend that it is, anyway, that James Harden (then of the Houston Rockets, now of the Brooklyn Nets) does the unthinkable.
He plays defense.
No, James Harden plays effective, game-winning defense in Game 7 of a playoff series.
In the bubble (only in the bubble?), James Harden blocks a shot.
So strange it shocks the average NBA fan and it leaves Harden’s opponent Chris Paul (Oklahoma Thunder) at a loss for words.
“James Harden? Defense?”
Only in the “bubble.”
Within hours, the athletes’ protest movement expanded. Rapidly. Across the United States. Within days, it found a receptive audience in Europe, particularly in England’s Premier League where, one hopes, it will provoke a series of questions about the relationship between English-based players and those clubs that have American-based owners. (Arsenal, Aston Villa, Fulham, Liverpool, Manchester United, among others.)1
First things first, however. On August, 26, Milwaukee’s Major League Baseball’s (MLB) team the Brewers decided not to play their game against the Cincinnati Reds. The Seattle Mariners, in solidarity, decided that they would boycott their game against the Los Angeles Angels. The L.A. Dodgers, scheduled to play the San Francisco Giants, found their own George Hill in the person of Mookie Betts, their African American outfielder. Like Hill, Betts announced to his teammates that he would not play that night. Betts was publicly supported in his decision by the Dodgers’ Curaçaoan closer, Kenley Jansen, L.A.’s ace starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who is white, and the team’s African American manager, Dave Roberts. Kershaw is a pitcher notoriously wedded to routine. Kershaw is a player who prepares meticulously for each start and, as a consequence, does not like to have his routine disturbed. Nevertheless, scheduled to pitch against the Giants on the night of August 26th, Kershaw made it clear that his attachment to routine in no way compared to the conditions that Betts—and black people in America—confronted as their lived reality. Before the cameras, Kershaw thus took his place in support of Betts, Jansen, Roberts and the broader cause for racial justice.
Even my preternaturally hapless New York Metropolitans (Mets) showed themselves to be, for a moment, redeemable. When history demanded it, up stepped the Met’s first baseman/outfielder, the African American Dominic Smith, as a spokesperson for the cause. At the postgame press conference on that August 26 evening, Smith, visibly moved, fighting back tears (not always successfully), lamented the condition of being black in America, unable to describe the pain that black people endure on a daily basis. The next day, the Mets and their opponents, the Florida Marlins, paused on their respective baselines for 42 seconds (in honor of Jackie Robinson, who wore number 42), took the field, then doffed their caps to each other. There would be no play at Citi Field, the Mets’ home ground, that day. A teary Smith was escorted off the field by his white team-mate, Pete Alonso, the first baseman—in fact, Alonso is the Mets’ first-base prodigy who had displaced Smith from his position. Around MLB, that Thursday, August 27, several more teams refused to play their games—Philadelphia at Washington, Boston at Toronto, Minnesota at Detroit, Baltimore at Tampa Bay, and Oakland at the Texas Rangers. In so doing, they gave voice to their opposition to racism in America. Among the teams taking a principled position, it may be the Oakland A’s who offered arguably the clearest denunciation of the status quo: “Social injustice and systemic racism have been part of the fabric of our lives for too long.”2