NBA lockout: Negotiations could be hijacked by racial perceptions


Billy Hunter, Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association, announces that talks have broken down Thursday. (Patrick McDermott/GETTY IMAGES)
Mike Wise
Columnist October 21, 2011

The owners “lied to you,” Derek Fisher said, moments after the players’ union president walked out of fruitless labor talks in Manhattan on Thursday night. And with that the mutual distrust and name-calling began anew.

Now the NBA is again facing the prospect of a bye year. Soon, it won’t be about money. Soon, the Rev. Jesse Jackson worries, it will be personal and irreconcilable and no longer about the color green.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“I hope it doesn’t degenerate into names and language that’s hard to take back once it’s started,” Jackson said from his Chicago office late Thursday afternoon. “If it goes down this road, that could amount to irreparable damage. If it goes away from labor negotiations, things could become irretrievable.”

I called Jackson to see what he thought of Bryant Gumbel’s portrayal of NBA Commissioner David Stern as a smug and pedantic bully in his dealings with the players during his closing remarks this week on HBO’s “Real Sports.” Gumbel’s commentary included the misguided characterization of Stern, widely known as the most forward-thinking, ethnically inclusive commissioner in modern pro sports, as a “modern plantation overseer.”

Gumbel’s language may have been over the top, but it shouldn’t obscure his larger point about perceptions possibly formed by players, many of whom might feel minimized by the condescending tone of the most powerful man in their profession.


NBA Commissioner David Stern talks with reporters Oct. 10. (David Karp/AP)

“Bryant certainly exposed a subtext of tension,” Jackson said. “He pulled the cover off a very sensitive issue: how we handle the race dimension of it. And I hope we would not have a my-way-or-the-highway attitude about this.”

Stern, of course, wants the race issue to go away immediately because he knows the union has jumped on the perception that bargaining talks have been racially tinged before. He knows that when NBA players think The Man is out to stick it to them — even if Michael Jordan is now “The Man” in a different incarnation — solidarity becomes less a financial issue and more of an emotional one.

But in the NBA, as color-blind a sports community as I’ve ever been around, race is undeniable, always a subtext. Just look at the negotiating table: On one side sit the owners, all Caucasian males apart from Jordan, ranging from mid-40s to soon-to-be octogenarians. Across from them sit their 20- and 30-something employees, almost 84 percent of whom are African American males.

The older white men are now asking the young black men to take a pay cut in order to cover their purported losses, upward of $280 million a year. Given that, it’s almost ridiculous they call “basketball-related income” the elephant in the room.

Once race becomes a factor in the discussion, it begins to tinge perceptions of everything and everyone.

Spurs owner Peter Holt, who heads the owners’ labor relations committee, has been one of Rick Perry’s top 10 donors the past decade, giving the Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate more than $500,000 in political contributions.

A sports owner making contributions to the governor of his franchise’s state might be seen as logical self-interest. But through a racial prism, it can be viewed as Holt being pals with a guy whose family’s hunting camp had the n-word painted on a rock near the entrance for years.

Clippers owner Donald Sterling is a real-estate mogul who owns 10,000 apartment units in Los Angeles and Orange counties, so his being the subject of a housing-discrimination suit might not be a huge surprise. But when former employees deposed in discrimination cases say Sterling did not want to rent to blacks or Latinos because they “smell” — claims his lawyers call “absurd” — that could make his African American players wonder what he really sees across the negotiating table.

And when jilted Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote an open letter after LeBron James bolted Cleveland for Miami in 2010, Gilbert could have been an owner rallying his deflated customer base. But through a racial prism, Gilbert looked like a white owner labeling a black employee who honored his seven-year contract an ingrate — or, as Jackson said in the wake of Gilbert’s letter, “a runaway slave.”

“Gilbert unleashed a whole body of language on him that was so violent and so threatening,” Jackson said Thursday afternoon. “That’s why I used the language I did.”

He added: “I don’t know how widespread it is, but there is a sense of ownership in [NBA] contracts. It’s not just that you have an amiable, mutually agreed-upon contract. There’s a power attached to the person who gives one out.”

I asked Jackson if he felt Gumbel owed Stern, who is clearly doing the owners’ bidding, an apology.

“I think both of them should have a conversation,” he said. “Bryant is a very level-headed person and very good journalist. I don’t know what pushed him to that level. But I do know we need not massage that pain; we need to resolve it.”

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