Last Tuesday evening, at the end of HBO’s “Real Sports,” Bryant Gumbel referred to David Stern, the commissioner of the N.B.A., as a “plantation overseer.” Coming at a point when the players have been locked out for four months, negotiations are at a standstill, and a substantial part of the season has already been canceled, the remarks added to a simmering debate.
How can the horrors of the slave trade possibly be compared to a billion-dollar labor negotiation? It’s a fair question, but the metaphor, and the conflict it evokes, is as old as professional sports itself. In the nineteenth century, a white player named John Montgomery Ward was described as leading a “slave revolt” against Major League Baseball. In 1964, Muhammad Ali said that he would “no longer be a slave.” Five years later, the baseball player Curt Flood called himself “a well paid slave” because of his inability to exercise free agency (for which he went to court, and lost both the case and his career). Contemporary athletes such as Larry Johnson, Anthony Prior, Warren Sapp, and Adrian Peterson have used the formulation. It’s been deployed by players to describe a feeling of being condescended to—of being treated as boys instead of men—and of lacking control of their own livelihoods.
In the N.B.A., where every owner but one (Michael Jordan) is white, and eighty-six per cent of the players are black, racial tensions have been unspoken but tangible—as illustrated by a scene two weeks ago. David Stern was sitting across the negotiating table from a constellation of the league’s stars. He then became, per his usual style, openly contemptuous of the players “inability to understand” the financial challenges faced by ownership, according to ESPN’s Ric Bucher. He rolled his eyes. He took deep breaths. He then pointed his finger repeatedly toward the face of the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade.
Wade, who is twenty-nine, is one of the most popular faces in the N.B.A. among fans. He interrupted Stern. “You’re not pointing your finger at me,” Wade said, according to Bucher. “I’m not your child.”
Most immediately, Gumbel’s comments looked at David Stern’s management style through a racial lens. That is, in a sense, tragic, since Stern’s résumé has all the trappings of a racial progressive. He’s served on the board of the N.A.A.C.P. He’s led a league that has long had the best record in terms of hiring people of color as coaches and executives. Even in ownership, the N.B.A. is the only major sport in which a person of African descent sits in the owner’s box. But none of that has protected him from the latest accusations. These dynamics didn’t develop overnight, and for that he bears most of the blame.
Over the last decade, Stern has built reservoirs of bad will. After an infamous 2004 brawl between members of the Indiana Pacers and fans of the Detroit Pistons, Stern said that he had a responsibility to “the ticket-buying fan” to clean up the league. He instituted a dress code.
He created a list of verboten establishments where players couldn’t socialize when on the road. He set age limits on when players could enter the league. He met with the Republican strategist Matthew Dowd to discuss how to give the league “red state appeal.” When he had the N.B.A.’s official magazine, “Hoop,” airbrush out Allen Iverson’s tattoos, it was seen as an attack on the “hip-hop generation” of players. Yet Stern did little to reach out or correct the record.
For N.B.A. fans, the most maddening part about this should be that the suspicion of Stern means that no one on the players’ side trusts either him or the financial figures he has been pointing to in negotiations. The league is coming off of the most profitable season in its history, but Stern insists that as many as twenty-three of its thirty teams are losing money. Players don’t believe him, especially as his solution to “the crisis of team profitability” is to take back money that is going to them. Stern refuses to consider a solution that would involve his owners sharing television revenue, as N.F.L. teams do.
All this bad feeling also meant outrage when, for example, the sportswriter Bill Simmons, writing for Grantland, asked last week:
"Where’s the big-picture leadership here? What’s the right number of franchises? Where should those franchises play? What’s worse, losing three franchises or losing an entire season of basketball? What’s really important here? I don’t trust the players’ side to make the right choices, because they are saddled with limited intellectual capital. (Sorry, it’s true.) The owners’ side can’t say the same; they should be ashamed. Same for the agents."
The phrase “intellectual capital” had uglier echoes than Simmons may have intended. In response to criticism from several corners, Simmons posted a clarification, noting that:, "If we’re relying on someone to create a new economic model to save the league, don’t expect it to be the players; it’s outside their means. That’s what I wrote. I would have written the same thing about NHL players, NFL players or MLB players…."
In other words, he was doubting the big-picture savvy and economic acuity of athletes, not simply black athletes. I spoke to several N.B.A. players on the negotiating team who didn’t want to comment but made clear that they weren’t assuaged by the explanation.
We have reached a point where no one would be surprised if more, or all, of the season were lost. Dirk Nowitzki, after throwing out the first pitch in Game 3 of the World Series on Saturday, talked to reporters about playing in Germany; a number of prominent players, like Deron Williams and Ty Lawson, are already abroad. There was also word that players might form an independent league in which, as SI.com reported, “players would organize unofficial versions of the games that are being lost.” Carmelo Anthony, of the Knicks, said, “It’s possible. It’s very possible, with all the relationships and connections players and agents have…. At the end of the day, with all the guys Nike and the Jordan Brand have, they are very powerful.”
Some sportswriters, such as ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, have openly mocked this idea, saying that players have “expenditures and lifestyles … that don’t lend itself to ponying up money to start a league.” But that doesn’t take into account the unhappiness of the players. Are they angry enough now to start their own league—or at least try—and, in effect, occupy the N.B.A.?
[Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]