NewBlackMan: Not About a Salary, but a Racial Reality: The NBA Lockout in Technicolor

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.”

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Not About a Salary, but a Racial Reality: The NBA Lockout in Technicolor.

NewBlackMan: Not a Question of Courage: Anti-Black Racism and the Politics of the NBA Lockout



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.

Continue reading NewBlackMan: Not a Question of Courage: Anti-Black Racism and the Politics of the NBA Lockout.