LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Athletes from the N.B.A., W.N.B.A., Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer took their boldest stand yet against systemic racism and police brutality, boycotting games on Wednesday in response to the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wis. The moves dramatically escalated a season of athletes demonstrating for social justice as some expressed doubts about continuing to play amid widespread social unrest.
The boycott was sparked by Milwaukee Bucks players refusing to come out of the locker room for their N.B.A. playoff game against the Orlando Magic, in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake. Two more N.B.A. playoff games scheduled for Wednesday night were quickly postponed, and players in other leagues followed suit, prompting numerous professional basketball, baseball and soccer games to be called off because athletes would not participate.
Players from the N.B.A. and the W.N.B.A. have long been at the forefront of protests in the sports world against racism and police brutality. But that evolved rapidly this year, after the police killings of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota, and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman in Kentucky, and as leagues took an extended hiatus forced by the coronavirus pandemic.
Even still, the Bucks’ boycott escalated the athletes’ demonstrations to new heights, a move that had virtually no precedent in N.B.A. history.
On Sunday, the police in Kenosha, Wis., shot Blake, 29, in the back several times as he tried to get into his vehicle.
In the days since, numerous N.B.A. players have openly debated the wisdom of continuing to play, questioning whether the platform provided by the league’s return was amplifying their message — or, rather, taking attention from the broader social justice movement.
Prime among those players was Milwaukee’s George Hill, who on Monday expressed frustration about playing amid the social upheaval across the country.
“We shouldn’t have even come to this damn place to be honest,” Hill said. “I think coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are.”
Some W.N.B.A. players, including Renee Montgomery of the Atlanta Dream, opted out of their seasons specifically to work toward social justice causes, including Black Lives Matter. On Wednesday, players for the W.N.B.A.’s Washington Mystics arrived for their game against the Atlanta Dream on Wednesday night wearing T-shirts that spelled out Jacob Blake’s name and had holes in the back to signify bullet holes.
A meeting to discuss next steps for N.B.A. players on the 13 teams still at Disney World was scheduled for Wednesday night, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.
“We weren’t given advance notice about the decision, but we are happy to stand in solidarity with Milwaukee, Jacob and the entire N.B.A. community,” Orlando’s Michael Carter-Williams said. “Change is coming.”
Players from the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors were already deep in discussions about boycotting the teams’ playoff game Thursday. A league spokesman, when asked about Thursday’s three scheduled games, said no determination had yet been made about the upcoming schedule.
In Major League Baseball, two games were called off because of the players: the Milwaukee Brewers hosting the Cincinnati Reds, and the San Diego Padres playing the Seattle Mariners.
The Brewers and Reds — in a league that has been typically slower than others to respond to social issues — chose not to play after meetings between players on both teams. The words “JUSTICE EQUALITY NOW” appeared on multiple scoreboards at Miller Park as some players spoke with one another on the field.
“Our community and our nation is in such pain, tonight we wanted 100 percent of the focus to be on issues that are much more important than baseball,” said Brewers reliever Brent Suter, the team’s representative for the players’ union.
In San Diego, Mariners players voted unanimously against playing and their Padres counterparts obliged. The Mariners have the most Black players of any team in M.L.B., a league that has seen the number of Black players dwindle to about 8 percent over the decades.
“For me, and many of my teammates, the injustices, violence, death and systemic racism is deeply personal,” said Mariners outfielder Dee Gordon, one of 10 Black players on the team’s opening day roster.
“Instead of watching us, we hope people will focus on the things more important than sports that are happening,” Gordon added in a post on Twitter.
The N.B.A. has been operating out of Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., since July 7, when 22 of the league’s 30 teams began residing in the league’s so-called bubble, designed to prevent the infiltration of the coronavirus. The league had suspended its season March 11 because of the pandemic.
Orlando’s players were already on the floor warming up for Wednesday’s scheduled 4 p.m. tipoff, but Bucks players refused to join them for Game 5 of the teams’ first-round playoff series. Orlando’s players ultimately decided to leave the floor with just under four minutes before the game. The game’s three referees soon followed suit.
While Bucks players remained in their locker room for more than two hours after the game was scheduled to begin, Magic players began filing onto their team bus at around 4:40 p.m.
Players from both teams largely refused interview requests.
“We demand change,” Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James said on Twitter, writing in all caps. “Sick of it.”
With players speaking out widely, the league decided not to enforce its nearly 40-year-old rule that mandates standing for the national anthem when players from the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans knelt for the playing of the anthem before the league’s first official game July 30. Both teams kneeling together for the anthem has been a feature of every game since, with only a few players and staff members choosing to stand. Numerous players and coaches have also used interview sessions with the media to speak out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Alex Lasry, a vice president with the Bucks and the son of the team’s co-owner Marc Lasry, said on Twitter: “Some things are bigger than basketball. The stand taken today by the players and org shows that we’re fed up. Enough is enough. Change needs to happen. I’m incredibly proud of our guys and we stand 100% behind our players ready to assist and bring about real change.”
The Magic, in a statement, said: “Today we stand United with the N.B.A. office, the National Basketball Players Association, the Milwaukee Bucks and the rest of the league condemning bigotry, racial injustice and the unwarranted use of violence by police against people of color.”
James Wagner and Sopan Deb contributed reporting.