Not a Question of Courage:
Anti-Black Racism and the Politics of the NBA Lockout
by David J. Leonard
Following an exhibition game in Philadelphia, Michael Tillery asked the following of Carmelo Anthony:
Michael Tillery: Carmelo I don’t know if anyone asked you this but the fans are wondering why there isn’t such of a…NBA presence…NBA players coming out and speaking on this issue (NBA lockout) publicly like in the NFL…like in other situations.
Carmelo Anthony: “We’re not allowed. We’re not allowed. I mean everybody has their own opinion…you hear people talk here and there…but nobody don’t really come out and say what they really want to say. That’s just the society we live in. Athletes today are scared to make Muhammad Ali type statements.”
Not surprisingly, his comments have led to questions about today’s NBA players, their resolve, their commitment, heart, and courage. For example, one blogger offered the following: “What does Carmelo mean by “we’re not allowed”? Who’s stopping them? Is Carmelo right? Do you think athletes are punks in the modern era as opposed to the way Muhammad Ali stuck his neck out for Vietnam? Maybe these guys should just man up and make changes!” Kelly Dwyer was similarly dismissive, questioning Anthony’s reference to Ali:
Oh, Carmelo. He’s not lying. He’s not wrong. But comparing Ali’s stand against a conflict in Southeastern Asia that had gone terribly wrong to a discussion over the sharing of actual billions of dollars in Basketball Related Income is the absolute height of absurdity. Yes, athletes today are scared to make Muhammad Ali-type statements (as is the case with most people that want to keep their jobs), but the application of an anecdote like that to a situation like the NBA lockout is completely and utterly wrong.
While folks in the blogosphere used Melo’s comments to incite division and to chastise the union for silencing its members, it would seem that his comments demonstrate the ways that race impacts the lockout while illustrating the potential efforts from the union to manage and mediate the racially based contempt faced by NBA players. As Michael Tillery told me, “The NBA more than any other pro league seems to have an image problem based more on race than anything. You could say the league is more popular when a white player is doing superstar things.” As such, you cannot understand these comments outside a larger of this large racial landscape.
To understand Carmelo Anthony’s comments require a larger context. His comments (and the lockout itself) are very much tied to the larger history of the NBA and race. For example, in wake of the Palace Brawl, the NBA implemented a series of draconian policies that sought to both appease white fans and corporate sponsors who were increasingly uncomfortable with its racial optics, all while disciplining the players to comply and embody a different sort of blackness. According to Michael Tillery, the brilliant commentator, “Since the Brawl and even going back to Kermit Washington’s punch of Rudy Tomjonovich, a case could be made that any outspoken player in any regard is influenced to be silenced simply to protect the NBA brand because of an apparent race disconnect.”
The owner’s intransigent position and demands for a hard cap (although at the time of writing the owners appear to have softened on this position, at least at a surface level), major reduction in player access to league revenues, and a myriad of others positions all seem to reflect a sense of leverage. In other words, the owners seem to be trying to capitalize on the contempt and animosity that has long plagued NBA players, a fact worsened by the assault on blackness that followed the Palace Brawl. In a brilliant interview with Michael Tillery, Ron Artest reflects on the public perception and demonization of NBA players that reflects larger racial animus and ideology: “The NBA is not a thug league. There’s a couple of players that grew up similar to rappers who have grown up. What are they going to lynch us for that too? It’s not our fault that we grew up that way. We are talented and smart.”
The lockout represents an attempt to capitalize on the perception of NBA players as thugs, as criminals, as greedy, and undeserving anti-role models. It appears to be an effort to convert the leverage and power that comes from the narrative and ideological assumptions so often linked to black players into greater financial power for the league’s owners.
In thinking about Melo’s comments and the overall reticence of players to speak about the current labor situation leaves me thinking that this is a concerted strategy to combat the advantages that the owners possess (the NBA version of a southern strategy). The union is most certainly trying to correct the public relations difficulties that faced in 1998 (and throughout its history), obstacles that emanate from America’s racial landscape.