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Bob Hohler

How the nation’s athletes set off tremors when they showed us their unprecedented power to effect change

Leading the movement against social injustice throughout the world of sports were members of the predominantly Black NBA.
Leading the movement against social injustice throughout the world of sports were members of the predominantly Black NBA.Kevin C. Cox/Getty

The protesting athletes speak as if they can feel the knee on their neck or the bullets in their back, as if they were the young men and women who look like them who have been dying in the streets.

From coast to coast, Black sports figures stood together Thursday in unprecedented numbers to express rage and sorrow and to plead for progress in the nation’s bloody reckoning with racial injustice. Their protests interrupted the professional basketball, hockey, baseball, and soccer seasons but stopped short of ending them entirely.

In Foxborough, Patriots captain Devin McCourty echoed the sentiments of many Black athletes when he told reporters the deadly violence against Black people has left him feeling heartbroken and hopeless.

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“It’s just like no one cares,” McCourty said. “It has been brutal.”

In a series of rapid developments unlike any other in the history of American sports, athletes of all colors and ethnicities were turning away from their vocations, boycotting their games, and touching off tremors throughout their multibillion-dollar industries amid COVID-19-shortened seasons.

By nightfall, the National Basketball Association had postponed its playoff schedule for a second straight day, including Game 1 of a series between the Celtics and Toronto Raptors. The National Hockey League had scratched its Thursday and Friday playoff contests, including Friday’s Game 4 between the Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Red Sox then called off their game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Buffalo, after Jackie Bradley Jr., the team’s only Black player, announced he would boycott the event to protest police brutality. At least four other MLB games were postponed.

In the National Football League, numerous teams other than the Patriots canceled practices. So did the Boston College football team, allowing time for coaches and players — more than 50 of whom are Black — to discuss “bringing our community together and invoking change in our society,” the school said.

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Across the fractured nation, additional sports organizations and individual athletes effectively took a knee in solidarity.

Leading the movement were members of the predominantly Black NBA, all of whom were isolated in a social bubble at Disney World when a 29-year-old Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times in the back Sunday in Kenosha, Wis., by a white police officer — the latest in a series of shootings of Black men and women by police or white assailants.

Doc Rivers and Lou Williams take a knee before an NBA playoff game on Aug. 23.
Doc Rivers and Lou Williams take a knee before an NBA playoff game on Aug. 23.Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who is Black and whose father was a Chicago police officer, fought back tears as he said, “We’re the ones getting killed.”

Blake was reportedly left a paraplegic by the police bullets.

“We keep loving this country and this country doesn’t love us back,” said Rivers, who now coaches the Los Angeles Clippers. “It’s really so sad.”

President Trump, hours before he was to accept the Republican nomination to seek a second term in the White House, derided the NBA for its high-profile stance on social change.

“They’ve become like a political organization,” Trump told reporters Thursday. “I don’t think that’s a good thing for sports or for our country.”

Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, called the NBA protests "absurd and silly," and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, said the players were "fortunate" they could afford to "take a night off from work."

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Black athletes in America have a long tradition of standing up to prejudice. Track star Jesse Owens spoiled Adolf Hitler’s campaign to promote white supremacy at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin by capturing four gold medals. Jackie Robinson withstood years of racist vitriol after he broke baseball’s color line in 1947. So did Althea Gibson, who broke the barrier in women’s tennis in 1950, and Arthur Ashe, who became the first Black man to play on a US Davis Cup team, in 1963.

In 1967, when Muhammad Ali faced criminal charges for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, 11 of the most prominent Black athletes at the time, including Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was known as Lew Alcindor at the time, gathered publicly to support him.

A year later, track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists during the American national anthem after they won gold and bronze at the Mexico City Games, during a period of racial upheaval in the United States.

And in 2016, four years ago Thursday, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the anthem to protest social injustice, triggering a movement that grew slowly until the killing of George Floyd in May spurred many more of the nation’s Black athletes to action.

Yet never has a movement for racial equality rocked the country’s sports community like this. Anger over the Blake shooting intensified Tuesday, when a 17-year-old white youth shot and killed two white protesters in Kenosha soon after law enforcement officers allegedly thanked the rifle-toting counter-protester and tossed him a bottle of water.

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"[Expletive] THIS MAN!!!" Lakers superstar LeBron James tweeted. "WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT."

James attended a meeting Thursday of NBA players, who decided they would resume the 2020 playoffs, despite some pushing to shut down the entire season in protest. Afterward, James tweeted, “Change doesn’t happen with just talk!! It happens with action and needs to happen NOW!”

The Celtics said they planned to spend the night focusing on social justice initiatives rather than basketball. When they return to the court, they are expected to continue wearing jerseys that bear messages such as "Black Lives Matter," "Equality," and "Justice."

But the Celtics and players across the sports world are likely to make additional statements and gestures as their games resume. After the WNBA postponed Wednesday’s games, for instance, the Washington Mystics kneeled together on the court wearing coordinated T-shirts that spelled Blake’s name on the front and bore the image of seven bullet holes on the back.

There is also the prospect of NFL players boycotting games during the regular season, as New York Giants star Saquon Barkley and teammate Sterling Shepard said they may do to protest social injustice. After the Giants tandem spoke to reporters, the NFL and players’ union issued a joint statement saying they were united in anger and frustration over Blake’s shooting and in their commitment to "call out racism and injustice whenever and wherever it occurs in our country, but also to fight together to eradicate it."

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The NFL season is scheduled to open Sept. 10.

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Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.