Not About a Salary, but a Racial Reality: The NBA Lockout in Technicolor
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
With the NBA lockout reaching a new low (or a return low) with David Stern’s announcement of the cancellation of the first two weeks, the class of pundits have taken to the airwaves to lament the developments, to asses blame, and offer suggestions of where to go from here. Not surprisingly, much of the commentaries have blamed players for poor tactical decisions, for wasting any potential they may have had over the summer, and for otherwise being too passive. Take Harvey Araton, from The New York Times, who while arguing that the players will need to take risks in order to secure leverage, speculates about a potential missed opportunity:
If it sounds unrealistic to suggest that the modern player might have considered striking first — or at least threatening one before last spring’s playoffs — that is only because the tactic has become virtually anathema, which is a mighty curious weapon for a union to concede.
While on the phone, Fleisher looked up the language in the expired collective bargaining agreement on Pages 264-265 that prohibited players from impeding N.B.A. operations. But supposing the players had gone ahead and walked out on the eve of the playoffs after they’d all been paid their regular-season hauls?
Fleisher guessed they would have opened themselves and their individual contracts up to a court action. Or maybe the owners — petrified at the thought of their profit season being flushed — might have agreed to a no-lockout pledge for the start of this season. Who knows? But sometimes risk begets reward.
While abstract at a certain level, the argument makes sense. Had the players been more aggressive, had they taken steps earlier, had they capitalized on past leverage, the situation might be different. Yet, we don’t live in an abstract world. The realities on the ground precluded such steps (see here for my past discussion). If the efforts to blame players, to demonize them as greedy, selfish, and out-of-touch during a LOCKOUT is any indication how the public might have reacted to a player strike, especially one starting at the playoffs, the strategy suggested here is pure silliness.
Moreover, it fails to understand the ways in which race operates in the context of sports and within broader society. The public outcry against LeBron James for exercising his rights of free agency, the condemnation of Deron Williams or Carmelo Anthony for deciding that they wanted to play elsewhere, and the overall vitriol directed at players illustrates both the impossibility of any player leverage and the ways in which race undermines any structural power the players may enjoy. The owners possess the power of the racial narrative that both guides public opinion and fan reaction.
We can make similar links to the larger history of African American labor struggles, where black workers have struggled to secure support from the public at large because of longstanding ideas of the lack of fitness/desirability of African Americans in the labor force. In other words, fans, just as the public in past labor struggles, see the black body as inherently undeserving and thus any demands for fairness, equality, and justice are seen as lacking merit. On all counts, the commentaries fail to see the ways and which blackness and anti-black racism constraints the tools available to the players.
Even those commentaries that ostensibly exonerate the players in highlighting David Stern’s strategy of throwing the players under the proverbial racial bus (his race card) with the hopes that the public will ultimately turn against the players (mostly there already) erases race from the discussion. For example, in “Stern ducks, lets NBA players take hit,” Adrian Wojnarowski highlights the difficulty facing NBA players and how that reality guides the intransigent position from the firm of Stern and owners. “So, there was the biggest star in the sport waddling onto the sidewalk on 63rd Street in Manhattan on Monday night without the kind of big-stage, big-event scene that the commissioner always loves for himself in the good times,” he writes. “He knows the drill now: Step out of the way, and let the angry mobs run past him and the owners. Let them chase his players down the street, around the corner and all the way to the lockout’s end and beyond.”