NewBlackMan: Putting the “Run Away Slaves” Ahead of the Plantation: Parity, Race and the NBA Lockout


“Basketball and Chain” by Hank Willis Thomas


Putting the “Run Away Slaves” Ahead of the Plantation:

Parity, Race and the NBA Lockout

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

In wake of LeBron James’ decision to take his talents, along with those of Chris Bosh, to South Beach to join forces with Dwayne Wade, the NBA punditry has been lamenting the demise of the NBA. This only became worse with the subsequent trades of Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony to New Jersey and New York respectfully. Described as a league “out of control in terms of the normal sports business model” where player power “kills the local enthusiasm for the customer and fan base,” where superstars leave smaller markets with no hope of securing a championship, where manipulating players and agents have created a game dominated by “players whose egos are bigger than the game,” much has been made about player movement.

Commentators have lamented how players are yet again destroying the game from the inside, thinking of themselves ahead of its financial security and cultural importance. In “NBA no longer fan-tastic,” Rick Reilly laments the changing landscape facing the NBA. Unlike any other sport, the NBA is now a league where “very rich 20-somethings running the league from the backs of limos,” are “colluding so that the best players gang up on the worst. To hell with the Denvers, the Clevelands, the Torontos. If you aren’t a city with a direct flight to Paris, we’re leaving. Go rot.” In other words, this line of criticism have warned that “the inmates are running the asylum,” so much so that the league “is little more than a small cartel of powerful teams, driven by the insecurities and selfishness of the players who stack them.”

While such rhetoric erases history (of trades – players of the golden generation have certainly demanded trades; the same can be said for other sports as well) and works from a faulty premise that parity is good for the economics of the NBA (the very different television monies for the NBA and NFL proves the faultiness of this logic), the idea that the league needs more parity remains a prominent justification for the NBA lockout. “The owners believe that the league should be more competitive and that teams should have an opportunity to make a profit,” notes David Stern. Similarly, Adam Silver, deputy commissioner, argues, “Our view is that the current system is broken in that 30 teams are not in a position to compete for championships.”

Such rhetoric and Stern’s ubiquitous statements about the NBA needing a dramatic restructuring builds upon argument that the NBA’s future is tied to its ability to thwart players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, and potentially Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and others from taking their talents anywhere.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Putting the “Run Away Slaves” Ahead of the Plantation: Parity, Race and the NBA Lockout.

Megan Greenwell: “To End the NBA Lockout, David Stern Must Shut His Mouth – Business – GOOD


To End the NBA Lockout, David Stern Must Shut His Mouth

Megan Greenwell

Greedy bosses want to cut employees’ pay. The union tries to fight back. So the CEO, a longtime bully to organized labor, pats the workers on their heads with an admonition: You can’t possibly understand such complex negotiations. Let the grownups decide what’s best for you.

If this were Walmart, we’d all be outraged, but not when it’s millionaires fighting against billionaires in the NBA. Yet the paternalism is no less ugly because of the amount of money involved. And it gets uglier when you consider the racial undertones that necessarily lurk in an industry where every owner but one is white and 83 percent of the workers are black [PDF]. Lately, those tensions have been bubbling to the surface—most egregiously in the acidic condescension of Commissioner David Stern.

The lockout has already claimed the first month of NBA games, and the possibility of losing the entire season grows more likely every day. The players and team owners remain miles apart on how to structure the league’s salary cap and revenue-sharing agreement in the age of ballooning player contracts and a weak national economy. There are legitimate disagreements at work here, but that doesn’t justify Stern’s condescension toward the men who are ostensibly his colleagues.

Things started to heat up a week ago, when commentator Bryant Gumbel voiced what many people sympathetic to the players had been thinking: Commissioner David Stern is on a power trip that knows no bounds. Stern has “always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys,” Gumbel said, adding that Stern seems most interested in showing “how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in their place.”

It’s important to note, as Deadspin has, that “hired hands” are not the same as slaves, even in the context of a plantation. Gumbel didn’t “play the race card”; he correctly identified the power dynamic that has arisen from Stern and the owners’ fundamental misunderstanding of the value the players bring to a basketball league. Many people have said they refuse to sympathize with players making millions of dollars a year, but they, too, miss the point: Paternalism is paternalism, no matter how much money is involved.

Before the week was out, another prominent sports commentator had drawn fire for his own interpretation of the dynamic between players and owners. In a column largely critical of the owners, Bill Simmons wrote, “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.” This came on the heels of a piece in which Simmons argued that Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce shouldn’t have been allowed to talk in a meeting because they spent a combined total of three years in college—as if higher education was the main criterion for being able to represent one’s own interests.

Simmons’ labeling of basketball players as stupid—he later defended himself by tweeting that other athletes are equally dumb—has been roundly criticized, most eloquently by David J. Leonard on the New Black Man blog. But what struck me is not that a sportswriter thinks the players he covers have “limited intellectual capital,” but that the NBA commissioner agrees with him.

The same day Simmons wrote about players’ lack of higher education, Stern blamed National Basketball Players’ Association chief Billy Hunter—an attorney, not a basketball player—for misleading union members about the specifics of the owners’ proposals in an interview on The Dan Patrick Show. It was not the first time Stern had tried to bully Hunter and NBA players through the media, but on this occasion, he went further than ever.

Continue reading @ To End the NBA Lockout, David Stern Must Shut His Mouth – Business – GOOD.

Dave Zirin: The Sporting Scene: Economics, Race, and the N.B.A. Lockout : The New Yorker



October 24, 2011

Economics, Race, and the N.B.A. Lockout

Posted by Dave Zirin


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 cancelled, 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.

Continue reading @ The Sporting Scene: Economics, Race, and the N.B.A. Lockout : The New Yorker.

NewBlackMan: Is the NBA Lockout About Race?



Is the NBA Lockout About Race?

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

thought I would write a follow-up to my piece, “Bill Simmons and the Bell Curve: The ‘limited intellectual capital’ of the NBA’s Players” which has elicited a significant reaction.   It should be clear from the outset, I am not interested in conversations about individuals, intention, or motivation.  To paraphrase the always-brilliant Jay Smooth, the conversations should focus around what has been said, what has been done, and what all of this means in a larger context rather than the individual actors.  The discussion needs to be about how ideology, narrative, and frames operate within these larger discussions. 

One of the common responses to Bill Simmons’ commentary and more specifically the criticism directed at me for reflecting on the racial meaning in those comments has been that Simmons was talking about all NBA players, not just those who are black.  Given the racial demographics of the league and the racial signifiers associated with basketball, it is hard to accept the idea that “NBA player” isn’t a mere code for blackness.  In other words, blackness and basketball become inextricably connected within the dominant imagination, akin to Kathryn Russell-Brown’s idea of the criminal blackman.  Just as the “criminal Blackman” exists as contained identity within the dominant white imagination, the blackballer functions in similar ways. 
The process of both essentializing and bifurcating the black baller is evident in the very distinct ways that the white racial frame conceives of both white and black players, playing upon ideas of intelligence and athleticism.  Whereas the blackballer is imagined as athletic, naturally gifted, and physically superior, white basketball players are celebrated for their intelligence, work ethic, and team orientation.  In Am I Black Enough for You, Todd Boyd identifies a dialectical relationship between racialization and styles of play where whiteness represents a “textbook or formal” style basketball, which operates in opposition “street or vernacular” styles of hooping that are connected to blackness within the collective consciousness.   In both styles of play, notions of intelligence, mental toughness, and mental agility are centrally in play. 
A second and widely circulated denunciation against those critical voices has been our lack of fairness or the double standards of this portion of the discourse.  Whereas I honed in on Simmons’ comments, little has been made about those of Jason Whitlock (Bryant Gumbel has been the at the center of media commentary).  Lets be clear: the comments of Jason Whitlock, irrespective of intent, are worthy of criticism in that his recent commentary plays upon and reinforces dominant narratives and frames about race and blackness.  Looking at his comments, alongside with those of Simmons, further illustrates the ways in which ideologies are circulated, and how commentaries such of these cannot be understood outside of these larger contexts.


A belief in the superiority of white intelligence has been commonplace within American history.  This remains the case today. In one earlier study (during 1990s; see here for another source) about the persistence of racial stereotypes, the author found the following:

More than half the survey respondents rated African Americans as less intelligent than whites. Fifty-seven percent of non-African Americans rated African Americans as less intelligent than whites and thirty percent of African Americans themselves rated African Americans as less intelligent than whites. Sixty-two percent of the entire sample rated African Americans as lazier than whites and more than three out of four survey respondents said that African Americans are more inclined than whites to prefer welfare over work.

In a 2010 study about race and politics, researchers at the University of Washington found that stereotypes about blacks as it relates to intelligence, work ethic, and trust-worthiness remain prominent. Another recent study about race, politics, and stereotypes found that while there has been slight progress in terms of the rejection of longstanding prejudices, they remain constant within the national discourse. 

Continue reading (there is more) @ NewBlackMan: Is the NBA Lockout About Race?.

My newest piece @NewBlackMan: Bill Simmons and the Bell Curve: The “limited intellectual capital” of the NBA’s Players

Bill Simmons and the Bell Curve:

The “limited intellectual capital” of the NBA’s Players

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

Like many sports writers, Bill Simmons has used his columns this week to condemn NBA players, ostensibly blaming them for the cancellation of games. On Friday, he offered the following that put the onus on the players:

Should someone who’s earned over $300 million (including endorsements) and has deferred paychecks coming really be telling guys who have made 1/100th as much as him to fight the fight and stand strong and not care about getting paid? And what are Garnett’s credentials, exactly? During one of the single biggest meetings (last week, on Tuesday), Hunter had Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Garnett (combined years spent in college: three) negotiate directly with Stern in some sort of misguided “Look how resolved we are, you’re not gonna intimidate us!” ploy that backfired so badly that one of their teams’ owners was summoned into the meeting specifically to calm his player down and undo some of the damage. (I’ll let you guess the player. It’s not hard.) And this helped the situation … how? And we thought this was going to work … why?

Congratulations, players — you showed solidarity! You showed you wouldn’t back down! You made things worse, and you wasted a day, but dammit, you didn’t back down! Just make sure you tell that to every team employee who gets fired over these next few weeks, as well as to all the restaurant and bar owners near NBA arenas who are taking a massive financial hit through the holidays. I’m sure they will be proud of you.

Beyond trotting out the “angry black man” trope, which seems to be commonplace within the NBA punditry, and blaming the players for the forthcoming unemployment facing many employees within of the NBA, Simmons hinges his evidence about the incompetence of the players by citing the amount of formal college education of Piece, Bryant and Garnett. In other words, people are losing jobs and fans are losing games because the NBA is at the mercy of its stupid/uneducated black players. And, Simmons wasn’t done here, offering additional clarity about his comments in “Behind the Pipes: Into the Arms of the NHL.” Explaining why he started going to hockey games, Simmons once again returns to the lockout or better said the player caused cancellation of games. In this column (sandwiched in between his general arrogance, dismissive rhetoric, and overly simplistic analysis that presumes sports exists in his theoretical mind and not reality), he writes

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. And collectively, they should all be mortified that a 16-hour negotiating session, this late in the game, was cause for any celebration or optimism. In my mind, it was more of a cry for help.

Unusually Simmons offer some blame for the owners. As the intelligent ones, they have an obligation to fix the situation. Although they have the intelligence they allow the players, who lack intelligence, to have input in the situation. To Simmons, this is the source of the NBA’s problem.

The racial paternalism here is as striking as are his efforts to resuscitate the bell curve. What we are left with is an argument that the NBA faces a lockout because those who possess the requisite intelligence, who posses the proper fitness, have failed to control their inferior players. Michael Eric Dyson described such rhetoric as central to the history of American white supremacy: “Skepticism about black intelligence and suspicion about black humanity have gone hand in hand throughout the history of this country in feeding the perception that black people don’t quite measure up.” Writing about black male athletes and processes of representation, Ben Carrington invokes Frantz Fanon, who wrote about the incompatibility of blackness and intelligence within the white imagination. Carrington notes Fanon’s exploration of the ways in which blackness was conceptualized and envisioned through white supremacy:

When Fanon gives his white patients a word association test, it is significant to note how often his respondents mention either sports, or prominent black athletes of the period. Fanon informs us that the word, ‘Negro brought forth biology, penis, strong, athletic, potent, boxer, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Senegalese troops, savage, animal, devil, sin’. For Fanon, the black male was the repository of white fears, fantasies and desires, and of all of these constructions, there was one figure above all others that held a central place within the colonial imaginary: ‘There is one expression that through time has become singularly eroticized: the black athlete’.

In reading Simmons, it is clear that the black athlete remains both eroticized and demonized, a repository for white fears, fantasies, and desires, as well as a rhetorical space to articulate white fantasies, desires, and ideas about whiteness. It is no wonder that Simmons recycles the bell curve, explaining the lockout as simply a violation of nature or what happens when the intellectually inferior get to have input in a world where adults should make those important decisions.

Post script:

This is not a question of intent or even individuals, but the ways in which larger narratives and the white racial frame (stereotypes about
intelligence, athleticism) plays out within public discourse.  This is a discussion of the words, the ideology, and the history within them and how
they impact OUR collective discussions.  It is one of stereotypes and the assumptions that are embedded within our language.  It is the ways in which
race and a history of racism imprisons our assumptions and the ways that it impacts our collective imagination.  This is NOT a commentary on Simmons as a person or him at all but the words themselves, which have a larger social context, that carry with them assumptions and history.  Those assumptions, those ideas, and the ideologies guides my discussion and the ways in which those assumptions cloud both the discourse and policy inside and outside of the NBA

via NewBlackMan: Bill Simmons and the Bell Curve: The “limited intellectual capital” of the NBA’s Players.

Bryant Gumbel, the NBA Lockout and David Stern as “Plantation Overseer”

In what was a refreshing and inspiring end to the always-great 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.”  You can see the full transcript below.  I applaud Gumbel for speaking truth to power and disrupting the narrative that has demonized players and pushed the blame in their direction. Not surprisingly, his comments have evoked criticism and scorn: Example #1, Example #2, Example #3)

Even less surprising commentators have chastised Gumbel for inserting race into the discussions, as if race wasn’t central to the lockout, the media coverage, and its overall meaning.   Keep up the good work Bryant, keep challenging the sports media, which so often functions as communications director for the NBA and David Stern.  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.

Full Statement from Gumbel:

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.

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.