What’s in a Name? The ‘Plantation’ Metaphor and the NBA
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
Several weeks back, at the conclusion of HBO’s Real Sports, Bryant Gumbel took David Stern to task for his arrogance, “ego-centric approach” and eagerness “to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men, as if they were his boys.” Highlighting the power imbalances and the systematic effort to treat the greatest basketball players on earth as little more than “the help,” Gumbel invoked a historic frame to illustrate his argument.
If the NBA lockout is going to be resolved anytime soon, it seems likely to be done in spite of David Stern, not because of him. I say that because the NBA’s infamously ego-centric commissioner seems more hell-bent lately on demeaning the players than resolving his league’s labor impasse.
How else to explain Stern’s rants in recent days? To any and everyone who would listen, he has alternately knocked union leader Billy Hunter, said the players were getting inaccurate information, and started sounding Chicken Little claims about what games might be lost, if players didn’t soon see things his way.
Stern’s version of what’s been going on behind closed doors has of course been disputed. But his efforts were typical of a commissioner that has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men, as if they were his boys.
It’s part of Stern’s M.O. Like his past self-serving edicts on dress code or the questioning of officials, his moves were intended to do little more than show how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in place. Some will of course cringe at that characterization, but Stern’s disdain for the players is as palpable and pathetic as his motives are transparent. Yes the NBA’s business model is broken. But to fix it, maybe the league’s commissioner should concern himself most with a solution, and stop being part of the problem.
Not surprisingly, his comments have evoked widespread criticism and scorn. Even less surprising, commentators have chastised Gumbel for inserting race into the discussions, as if race isn’t central to the lockout, the media coverage, and fan reaction. As evidence, the response to Gumbel, and the ubiquitous efforts to blame the lockout and the labor situation on the players through racialized language (see here for example – h/t @resisting_spec), illustrates the ways in which race and hegemonic ideas of blackness operates in this context.
Also revealing has been the response to Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer for the NBA players Association, who similarly described David Stern’s treatment of the players. He told the Washington Post: “To present that in the context of ‘take it or leave it,’ in our view, that is not good faith. Instead of treating the players like partners, they’re treating them like plantation workers.” While his comment elicited some backlash along with an apology, the vitriol and the level of indignation didn’t match the reaction to Gumbel.
Beyond the power of white privilege in this regard, what has been striking has been the references to history by the anti-Gumbel/Kessler crowd; much of the criticism at Gumbel and Kessler has focused on their historic amnesia. That is, their comments, while being inaccurate, unfair, and infusing race into otherwise colorblind situation, are disrespectful towards the history of slavery in America. References to slavery in this context betray the violent history of American slavery. In “Occupy the NBA: A Plea from an Avid Basketball Fan” Timothy Jones takes Gumbel to task for the historic slight here:
I’m appalled that anyone would compare this situation to slavery. I have great respect for Bryant Gumbel, but his quote that David Stern sees himself as a modern day plantation overseer is not only disrespectful to our ancestors, but it also did nothing to help this situation. Stern may not be handling this situation well, he may not have the best interest of the players in mind, he may be a mean person (I really have no clue), but I do know that brothers making millions of dollars are nothing like slaves on a plantation.
Charles Barkley agreed, referring to Gumbel’s comments as “stupid” and “disrespectful to black people who went through slavery. When (you’re talking about) guys who make $5 million a year.” Likewise, Scott Reid questioned the use of such an analogy given history: “The point is that too many people inappropriately use slavery and enslaved people to make points about things that are nowhere close to comparison. All of these casual slavery analogies do nothing but diminish one of the worst crimes against humanity in human history. Comparing enslaved Africans, or anyone else for that matter since slavery still exists for many enslaved people, is not only absurd, it is just plain disrespectful to the memory of the millions who perished under the worst kind of injustice.”
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