Here’s the Difference Between Boycotting and Striking — and Why It Matters

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Even though Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Playoffs was meant to be played on Wednesday, August 26, 2020, the AdventHealth Arena at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, remained empty. The Milwaukee Bucks refused to play in the wake of the police’s attempted murder of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday, August 23. The Orlando Magic, the Bucks’ competitors in the playoffs, followed suit, and, within a matter of hours, athletes across the NBA, WNBA, Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball refused to play games. In the world of tennis, U.S. Open defending champ Naomi Osaka led the charge to shut down her sport for the day, too.

The NBA’s athletes made headlines by delaying play, but when news outlets reported on the situation a new controversy struck: Was the refusal to play a boycott or a strike? Although various NBA athletes and the Bucks’ management staff used the word “boycott,” that may not have been the right choice of words. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY; @AOC) even called out The New York Times, tweeting, “You need to change [the boycott headline] to STRIKE.” So, what is the proper terminology here — and why does it matter?

What Do “Strike” and “Boycott” Mean?

According to Dictionary.com, a strike is defined as “a concerted stopping of work or withdrawal of workers’ services, as to compel an employer to accede to workers’ demands or in protest against terms or conditions imposed by an employer.” Meanwhile, the site notes that boycotting, when used as a verb, means “‘to abstain from buying or using’ in an effort to take a stand or make a statement.”

Photo Courtesy: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Even with their definitions on hand, the two words seem similar, so it’s not hard to understand why folks use them interchangeably. However, they aren’t synonyms. There’s a difference for a reason, and it all boils down to who is taking the action. That is, an employee strikes, but a consumer boycotts. Pretty simple, right? If it’s that straightforward, how, exactly, did the term “boycott” make the front page of The Times?

In a follow-up to the controversy surrounding the word choice, The Times interviewed a few experts, including Thomas Lenz, a labor lawyer and law lecturer at the University of Southern California. “Asked about players’ use of the word ‘boycott,’ Mr. Lenz noted that calling it a ‘strike’ could have legal and financial ramifications,” Derrick Bryson Taylor wrote. This is so because NBA stars have no-strike clauses in their collective bargaining agreements with the league. Luckily, the league sided with the players’ decision, but, in a way, the use of the word “boycott” alleviated any potential issues with a breach of contract, allowing viewers to focus on the players’ support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

What Is a “Wildcat Strike”?

Some have argued that the NBA players were trying to raise awareness — not exact demands from the league — and that “boycott” still feels more apt. But Lenz rejects that notion, telling The Times that, most specifically, “It’s a wildcat strike in the sense that we didn’t know…this was going to happen” beforehand.

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Photo Courtesy: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Long story short, Ocasio-Cortez was technically right. Time to change that headline. Words matter. Professional athletes weren’t just abstaining from play as a stunt; they were making a powerful, unified statement. Ahead of the U.S. Open, Osaka perhaps put it best in regards to athletes striking and finding other ways to leverage their platforms. “[B]efore I am an athlete, I am a Black woman,” she tweeted (@naomiosaka). “…I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.”

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