BOYCOTT vs. STRIKE: Does it matter?
On Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play in their NBA playoff game against the Orlando Magic, in protest of racial injustice. Later that day, the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, and Portland Trail Blazers also called off their own games, and players and coaches were soon meeting in private to determine if they should cancel the whole season. (The teams have since decided to resume the playoffs.)
In reporting Wednesday’s blockbuster news, a number of outlets all seemed to use the same word to describe the players’ actions:
However, as other writers and plenty on Twitter correctly pointed out, the players were not boycotting the NBA playoffs. They were on strike.
Even Dictionary.com was asked to weigh in, which it did:
The news outlets, in this case, may not have made a mistake. After all, some of the players themselves, including LeBron James, referred to the action as a boycott, so the coverage may have followed their lead.
The literal definitions of the terms are hardly confusing, but it appears to be the connotations of those terms that has inspired many to push for clarification. A boycott is typically called for in protest of a policy or action of a company. (For example, President Trump asked his followers to boycott Goodyear following a slide purportedly from a company training video forbidding employees from wearing MAGA attire.) A strike is typically undertaken by employees against a company because of perceived negative treatment.
In this week’s case, the players were striking not in protest of treatment against them by the NBA, but in protest of the treatment of Black Americans by police departments. The players were essentially withholding their labor from all of us – Americans weary from five months of a pandemic and social strife, desperate for any form of live entertainment. The action is technically known as a wildcat strike – which comes without approval and guidance from the players’ union.
Though precise data is unavailable, Google Trends suggests that “boycott” was a much more prominent search term this week than “wildcat strike.” (“NBA boycott” appears to have far outpaced searches for “NBA strike” as well.)
So, a term widely used may not have been entirely appropriate for the situation. Does it matter? It probably only matters insofar as it reflects how the public at large perceives the action. It’s entirely possible that, had the story been widely reported as a strike from the beginning, support for the NBA players’ actions would not have been nearly as popular as it was. (In a YouGov poll, 57% of Americans surveyed said they supported the work stoppage, and only 28% opposed it.) It’s also possible that the usage of “strike” might have encouraged other workers, not just athletes, to take similar actions for the cause of racial justice. This is one of those times where it’s impossible to determine the butterfly effect of media. Would public opinion have been different if coverage was different? We’ll never know since it wasn’t.
A version of this story first appeared in Inside Media. You can find the full issue here.