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Past athletic boycotts involved sacrifice
Historically Speaking
James Finck
James Finck

It is often said that words matter. Historically speaking, this is often seen by using a particular word to connect to the past. The Whig Party chose that name because in the 1830s everyone knew that the Whigs in England were the ones who had opposed the King. By calling themselves the Whigs, they were criticizing Andrew Jackson by implying he wanted to be a monarch. 

Recently this idea has played out with a Twitter beef between certain sports writers and LeBron James. After the shooting of Jacob Blake, the Milwaukee Bucks announced they would not play their opening round game against the Orlando Magic. Quickly the rest of the NBA games were canceled as players refused to play in light of the most recent shooting. The NBA came out in support of the cancellations and announced the games would be played at a later date in the near future. In writing about the games, many writers referred to the canceled games as postponements. It was at that time that LeBron James tweeted, “Boycotted not postponed.”

Why does the name make a difference? Either way, postponed or boycotted, the games were all held two days later and the playoffs continued.

May I suggest that James, understanding the historical significance of boycotts, wanted to connect his actions to the past. By insisting what he did was a boycott, the current movement could be seen in a similar light as, say, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. James did not articulate his reasons for his Tweet, but there must have been a reason for his insistence he was boycotting.

To be fair to the journalists, they had reasons for their word choice. First, traditionally in sports a boycott has referred to players skipping a game or event while the game went on without them. When past NBA All-Stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elgin Baylor boycotted games because of racial injustice, the games were still played but without them. So when the NBA rescheduled the recent playoff games, to many it seemed more like a postponement. 

Secondly, though not required, to make a good sports boycott story, some amount of sacrifice is usually made. There are some excellent examples in history. In 1936, the Olympic Games were held in Hitler’s Germany. Hitler planned to use the games as a showcase for his achievements and show off he did. He built amazing venues and used the world’s captured attention to turn everything into a pageant of Nazi propaganda. He also showed off his nation’s athleticism by dominating the games and winning the most medals. Even while cautious of Hitler, most of the world arrived in Berlin anyway, not wanting to let politics ruin the games. However, there were some athletes who just could not bring themselves to ignore Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. 

One such athlete was Albert Wolff, a French fencer. Though Wolff had a chance to medal in the Olympics, as a Jew he simply could not tolerate Hitler’s Jewish views. Instead of competing, he gave up any chance of Olympic glory and remained at home. He never gave up on his Olympic dreams, however. In 1948, 12 years later, when the games commenced again after World War II, the now 42-year-old athlete finally got his chance to compete. Much older now and out of his prime, this time he represented his new home of America and had the honor to carry the flag in the Opening Ceremonies. It’s worth noting how Wolff spent his time between the two Olympics. Instead of sitting in his hotel suite for a few days, eating room service, he decided to enlist with the French army and left for the front, willing to die for his beliefs. He did not just fight; he earned his nation’s highest honor for bravery. Eventually, he was captured by the Germans and sent to a Jewish war camp. He managed to escape the camp and made his way to Portugal and then eventually the U.S. Once in America, he enlisted in the American Army and was sent back to the front in Africa to fight again.

There are other famous boycotts. The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Russia because of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. Many athletes who had trained for years for this one event were forced to give up their only opportunity to ever win a medal. There was some satisfaction for America, not the summer athletes, but for the winter ones. Later that year America did play in the winter games. That was the year when the American hockey team beat the Russians during the “Miracle On Ice” game, arguably the most inspirational American Olympic game ever. By not sacrificing even one game, James’ boycott does not seem to measure up for many. 

In the end it really does not matter what the game stoppage was called, the playoffs have continued and James looks poised to win his fourth championship. James wants to be seen as fighting for social justice like those who came before him. However, maybe it is the very fact that he might win that fourth title that some have questioned his choice of words and have denied what he did was a boycott.   

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or on Facebook.