Since the NBA officially locked out its players on July 1st, the question people seem to be asking more than any other has been, “How could this be a race issue?” It’s always asked the same way: rhetorical, and with just enough combativeness behind it to hint that the person doing the asking has an argument waiting for you: how no American sports league has been more ethnically inclusive and color-blind than the NBA, how there are more black front-office executives in basketball than anywhere else, and how no sport has effectively promoted so many African-American athletes to the world to the point that many could wait out the lockout playing in Europe or Asia because of the crowds they would draw. All of which is true, and fantastic, but distracts from the larger reality: that this lockout, at its core, is a power struggle between the owners and the players. And when the narrative of that struggle is of a group that is 95% white trying to tighten its grip on a labor force that is 85% black, the better question is, “How could this not, on some level, be a race issue?”
For years leading up to this work stoppage, the NBA has, in one indirect way or another, taken steps to deal with an image that threatened to become too Black for mainstream acceptability. When Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson went into the stands in Detroit in 2004, the NBA dramatically strengthened the fines and punishments to instigators of on-court fights. When Allen Iverson began wearing too many white T-shirts and fitted caps in 2005, the league responded with a dress code. When players like Kwame Brown threatened to create an influx of poorly conditioned, poorly developed high-school graduates straight to the professional level, the NBA made sure that everyone coming into the draft had to have at least a year of college under their belt. Collectively, hidden under the euphemism of the “thug culture” that needed to be eradicated, these steps read like a prolonged attempt to put the largely African-American workforce in its place. They could play basketball and make their money, but they were going to do it within the framework the league and the owners would create for them. In each case, through the ineffective protests and complaints, the players adhered and framework held.
The difference is that this lockout is a white-collar problem, not a blue-collar one. The money on the line is the kind of money that will decide who is going to be in control of the league going forward, and for a long time, even though the players controlled a majority of basketball-related income (a contentious point in the new negotiations), there was little question which side was running things. White men manipulated the financial future of their black employees for their ultimate financial gain, and that was just the way things went for generation after generation of players and owners.
Except that this generation of players has the chance to write its own narrative in a way their predecessors didn’t, and this is where the league’s system has worked against itself. One of the great successes of the NBAunder commissioner David Stern, one that was as much a calculated decision as it was a happy accident, has been its ability to turn certain players into global superstars and household names by marketing individual players more strongly than the league’s elite teams. It was a strategy that proved successful beyond the league’s wildest dreams, but it also served to make certain athletes bigger than the league itself. The superstars who have entered the NBA in the past decade are the ones who watched Michael Jordan rise to this level twenty years ago, and it taught them that control over their careers is there for the taking. The owners’ framework, which had been starting to show cracks, shattered completely last July when LeBron James hijacked an entire TV network to announce that he was finished summoning owners to state their pleas to him and decreed that it was to be Miami Heat where he would spend the next six years of his basketball life. The message of “The Decision” from the league’s elite to the owners was simple: We are the demand, we call the shots now, and we will play where we want to play. One year later, the owners have shown that the message was received, and that they recognized “The Decision” as the apex of a movement that needed to be curbed immediately. The NBA was ruled by a small group just as it was supposed to be, only it was LeBron and his friends, not them, who were at the top of the mountain.
But there is a dark side to having so many high-profile players when the time to ask for more, and now the system begins to work in the owners’ favor again. No other league has an icon phenomenon like the NBA. It is almost non-existent in the recently locked-out NFL, contained almost exclusively to several quarterbacks, none of whom could be described as “bigger than the league.” With those few exceptions, football players had no trouble identifying as a single class during the lockout, disenfranchised workers risking their livelihood and their long-term health every week while still being forced to essentially live year-to-year. The trade-off for having only a few athletes rise above the rest in name recognition was that when the players’ union cried solidarity, it was believable. The NBA players’ union, with all of its icons, has a problem there.
Because icons, especially black icons, face their own special brand of criticism, backlash, and a near-inevitable desire from fans to tear down the men they once indulged in building up. Not to mention that complaining about anything is off the table forever. The NFL owners wanted to demolish the players’ union just as badly as their NBA counterparts do now, only this time the narrative isn’t about greedy old men trying to become even richer at the expense of a mostly nameless set of players. Instead, to large numbers of people, it is about entitled athletes, whom they know for a fact have it all, who somehow have the nerve to ask for more. The world has gotten to know the faces of the NBA to a degree greater than those of any of the other American sports, and feel no sympathy for them. LeBron, Kobe, Wade, Carmelo, and others have become the straw men who shouldn’t dare cry poverty in an age of 9 percent unemployment.
The racial politics of the lockout fall in line with a long history of African-American labor movements that failed to gain support from the populace. Whether it was the struggles of black railroad workers to become legitimized in the early 20th century, the discrimination that kept many black laborers out of powerful unions for decades or a million other examples in between, there is too strong a precedent for an American public that views the black labor force as inherently unworthy of the right to complain about the system. The decreased visibility of Stern and the owners during these negotiations makes it all the easier for them to go after the faces of the NBA and indict their greed as the cause of all these problems. The players, for their part, could not have responded worse; two weeks ago, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce reportedly interrupted a productive negotiation on the division of basketball-related income to abruptly break off talks on behalf of the union, a move decried as a sabotage of the first real progress the two sides had made. Then were was the union’s “Let Us Play” Twitter campaign to rally public support for the players, an attempt that got somewhat derailed when Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin tweeted that his wish that his detractors would “catch full blown Aids and Die!” The public was unmoved.
The real problem with “Let Us Play” is the same one that has been plaguing basketball players, particularly the superstars, throughout this entire process: the perception of unearned entitlement. They have been unable to advance past the racial fiction of the lazy, undeserving workers partially because of the nature of their sport and the opportunities it provides for the team concept to be overshadowed by individual stardom. Although theNFL is another predominantly black league (though less so), the nature of football makes it much more difficult for one player to rise above his team’s play, and when it does happen, the player in question will usually be a white quarterback. What’s more, NBA players do not have the built-in sympathy cards that football players possessed during their lockout, namely the issue of playing with non-guaranteed contracts (which, to many, justified their salary complaints) compounded with the recent emphasis on just how violent a game football really is (it is worth wondering how popular support during the NFL lockout, almost unanimously in the players’ corner, would have been allocated had the collective bargaining agreement expired one year earlier after 2009, when the economy was still reeling but the focus on concussions had yet to gain the kind of momentum and attention it did during the 2010 season).
The last thing Stern and the owners want is for the lockout to become an overt race issue—a perspective which, were it to become popular, would undoubtedly mobilize support for the players. Yet it is hard to ignore the fact that race-baiting sound bites like the controversial analogy from journalist Bryant Gumbel, who compared the commissioner to a “modern plantation overseer, treating NBA ‘men’ as if they were his ‘boys,’” play right into their hand. Gumbel never explicitly turned his invective into an extended metaphor for slavery, choosing instead to refer to the players as “hired hands.” Nonetheless, someone with his experience in public perception should have no trouble understanding that even the most indirect comparison of a multimillionaire to slavery will result in “woe is me” backlash twentyfold, serving only to cancel out the altogether reasonable point about the commissioner’s pattern of abject condescension. “If he’s saying NBA players are slaves,” reads the most popular comment on a ProBasketballTalk.com thread dissecting the incident, “bring back the plantations and I’ll sign right up.”
If this sounds more than a little sinister on the part of Stern and his owners, it should. They are not encouraging popular opinion to turn against the players, but nor are they preventing unfair conclusions from being reached. By capitalizing on latent anti-black sentiment to generate support for his side, the commissioner has shown that the icon strategy will work out for him after all. His superstars will continue to sell tickets for him, appear on billboards for him, create ratings for him, and likely do it all for less money when the dust settles on this lockout. Hopefully, for LeBron James’s sake, he’ll enjoy his time in Miami, since getting there may have cost the players a chance to run the NBA for years to come.
Tim is a junior. You can reach him at email@example.com.