Concord’s Luke Bonner says NBA players made an impact by not playing

  • KEVIN GUTTINGUMass basketball players Tony Gaffney, left, and Luke Bonner, answer questions from reporters about the departure of head basketball coach Travis Ford to Oklahoma State during a press conference in the Green Room of the Mullins Center Wednesday.

  • Luke Bonner talks about the exploitation of college athletes on Feb. 19, 2016. Monitor file

  • Luke Bonner talks about the exploitation of college athletes in Concord on Friday, Feb. 19, 2016. ELIZABETH FRANTZ

  • Luke Bonner referees a 3-on-3 boys basketball tournament game during Rock On Fest in downtown Concord on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Published: 9/2/2020 9:44:28 AM

Concord native Luke Bonner has been working to empower athletes for years.

He advocates for college student-athletes’ rights through the College Athletes Players Association, which he co-founded in 2014. He’s written about player empowerment for and has spoken on the subject at places like the University of New Hampshire Law School, Harvard Law School and NPR.

So, when the Milwaukee Bucks flexed their rights and decided not to come out of their locker room last week for an NBA playoff game as a protest against racial injustice following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc., it was an especially meaningful moment for Bonner.

“I thought it was amazing when that happened,” Bonner said. “Obviously, I have a background in the whole player empowerment movement, so to see, more or less, a wildcat strike happen in real time, it was basically witnessing history. And feeling the effects of the power that the players had as the labor body was really moving to me.”

Casually dropping the term “wildcat strike” into a conversation gives some insight into the depth of Bonner’s understanding when it comes to labor. The NBA itself and multiple media outlets referred to the Bucks’ decision not to play as a “boycott,” which refers to an individual or group withholding money from another individual or group. What the players did was withhold their labor, which is the definition of a strike not a boycott.

A “wildcat strike” is when a group withholds its labor without consent from its union. Since the NBA collective bargaining agreement bans strikes, last week’s action was unauthorized, hence the term wildcat. It also means that the Bucks were willing to break their own rules to stand up for their beliefs and protest the systemic racism in this country that has led to the killing of Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other Black people.

“As a 7’ tall relatively athletic human being who dedicated my entire life to basketball from ages 11 through 27 and never suited up for an NBA team, let me tell you how hard it is to become an NBA player ... it’s hard! And to be willing to sacrifice any piece of your finite NBA playing career after making (it) to that level in support of the greater good, certainly not easy ... that’s a selfless/admirable act, not entitlement,” Bonner wrote on Twitter on Aug. 27 in support of the strike and in response to its critics.

Like he said, Bonner never made it to the NBA – he played in what is now the NBA G League for the Austin Toros and in pro leagues in Hungary and Lithuania after playing Division I college basketball at West Virginia and UMass. But, as most New Hampshire basketball fans know, he has some tight NBA connections.

His older brother, Matt, played in the NBA for 12 seasons and won two titles with the San Antonio Spurs. Yet the more relevant connection to the Bucks’ wildcat strike and its aftermath is with his older sister Becky, who is the director of player development and basketball operations for the Orlando Magic, the team the Bucks were supposed to be facing in the Aug. 26 playoff game in the NBA bubble in, coincidentally, Orlando.

“Having a family member directly involved in the whole bubble experience and down there has been pretty fascinating,” Bonner said. “The bubble was historic to begin with, and then that moment happened and having her be part of that game is pretty incredible.”

While Becky was unavailable to comment for this story, the NBA and its front offices quickly responded to the players’ strike (which included three games last Wednesday and three more on Thursday before play was resumed on Saturday) and their request for action last week.

In a joint statement released on Friday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBA Players’ Union Executive Director Michele Roberts announced that NBA arenas controlled by team owners will be used as polling locations in the upcoming general election. That statement also said the league will work with players and broadcast partners to, “create and include advertising spots in each NBA playoff game dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity,” and it announced a plan to, “immediately establish a social justice coalition, with representatives from players, coaches and governors, that will be focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.”

Even if those were the only actions brought on by the strike, it would have been worth it, but the impact will likely extend past this present moment. Past sports protestors like Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists at the Olympics, Muhammad Ali refusing to join the armed services and Colin Kaepernick kneeling during national anthems all took what was considered controversial action at the time to protest racial and social inequality and are now recognized as pioneers and heroes. The NBA players who went on strike last week, especially the Milwaukee players, may eventually be remembered in a similar light.

“What they did was really impactful,” Bonner said, “and I don’t know that we’re going to fully comprehend the level of impact immediately.”

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