The NBA’s New Emperor

There’s a new commissioner, but professional basketball is just as exploitative as ever.

(Wm. C. Greene / World Telegram & Sun)

Earlier this year, David Stern stepped down as commissioner of the National Basketball Association, a post he had held since 1984. Stern’s reign was impressive in a certain way: revenues went through the roof, and he expanded the league into a global juggernaut. Basketball is now the second most popular sport on the planet, as league executives consistently remind advertisers.

But Stern left another legacy, one marked by unmistakable racism.

The league was becoming a hard sell in the 1970s, with many white Americans associating it with flamboyant black players, their afros and creativity a far cry from set shots and pre-shot-clock offenses. The television numbers were so low that, in 1980, CBS elected to air the Finals on tape-delay. David Halberstam notes, “[The NBA] was seen as far too black and the majority of its players, it was somehow believed, were on drugs.”

The intermingling of anti-black animus in sports and politics was apparent.

As Matthew Schneider-Mayerson comments in his article, “’Too Black’: Race in the Dark Age of the National Basketball Association”:

Although there is no official data about the racial composition of the league’s fans, evidence from various sources. . .suggest that white fans constituted the majority of the NBA’s paying fan base…Thus, perhaps, we should not be surprised that the NBA, with three out of every four players African-American and increasingly embracing styles that carried political connotations, should lose fan support just as black political projects (such as affirmative action) were losing their mainstream sympathy.

This racial anxiety had been somewhat assuaged by the arrival of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, college rivals who continued their battles in the professional league, each taking control of their respective conference. Johnson was, of course, black, but his gregarious personality and ever-present smile, helped shift the face of the Laker franchise away from that of the brooding, politically active Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In a Los Angeles Times column titled, “Lakers Smile? It’s Magic,” Jim Murray wrote, “The Lakers need somebody to dispel the gloom. This is not a team, it’s a wake. They go about the game as somber as a coroner’s inquest.”

Then the tension was essentially eradicated with the ascent of Michael Jordan, a transcendent player whose skills on the court were only rivaled by his successes as a brand. Jordan’s on-court style may have evoked the creativity of players from the 1970s, but he was anything but polarizing. When asked why he didn’t endorse Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat who ran against North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in 1990, Jordan explained, “Republicans buy shoes too.”

Stern’s vision of perpetual post-racial growth hit an abrupt snag on November 9, 2004 at The Palace of Auburn Hills. During a game between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers, Pacer forward Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace) charged into the stands to confront a fan who had pelted him with a soda.

Artest had been lying on the scorer’s table, after delivering a hard foul to the Pistons’ Ben Wallace. By the time he waded into the crowd to search for the fan responsible, things had gotten out of control. More fans began throwing things at the players, and fights broke out on the court. It was a night like no other in NBA history.

Stern’s wrath was definitive: he suspended Artest for an entire season, a move that eviscerated the Pacers’ hopes of winning the title that year. The Pacers’ Stephen Jackson, who was suspended for thirty games as a result of his part in the fight, explained to Grantland in 2012:

A lot of people just think I was being a thug in going in there. My whole thought was, my teammate is in the stands fighting and I’m going to be there for him. I knew as soon as I took the first step to go into the stands that there was going to be consequences behind it, no question. But I can deal with those consequences knowing that my teammate is here alive and healthy, [rather] than me standing on the court watching him, worrying about my career and money and he’s sitting over there bleeding to death.

Once again, Stern’s league had a public relations problem. Debates raged throughout the mainstream media about the “culture” of the NBA. Less than a year after “The Malice in the Palace,” Stern instituted a mandatory dress code for all NBA players, requiring them to wear business attire while doing anything on behalf of the league or arriving to a game. The decree took aim at gear regularly associated with hip-hop culture: hats, baggy jeans, t-shirts, and Timberlands were out.

Jason Richardson, then a Golden State Warriors guard, was not happy. “One thing to me that was kind of racist was you can’t wear chains outside your clothing,” he said. “I don’t understand what that has to do with being business approachable. You wear a suit, you still could be a crook. You see all what happened with Enron and Martha Stewart.”

Richardson’s concerns were more than justifiable. As David J. Leonard writes in his book After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness, Stern’s dress code, “would come to embody the NBA’s most systematic effort to alter its image in order to bring back its red state fans and corporate sponsors. According to an NBA official, the dress code was designed to appease corporate anxieties about the league’s hip-hop image and protect the NBA’s economic future.”

Few people believed that any of these conflicts would shift when Adam Silver became commissioner in February 2014. A former litigation associate, and NBA employee since 1992, Silver always seemed groomed to continue the policies of Stern. He was unanimously selected by the NBA Board of Governors; nothing suggested his tenure wouldn’t be entirely predictable.

But Silver was confronted with a crisis almost immediately. In April, a recording of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks surfaced. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” he told a female friend.

For years, Stern, Silver, and the rest of the NBA had put up with Sterling’s rampant bigotry. He wasn’t disciplined by the league in 2003, when the Housing Rights Center of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against him for making racist remarks about Latino, Korean, and African-American tenants. (“Black people smell and attract vermin,” Sterling allegedly said.)

There were no fines from the league in 2006, when Sterling was sued by the Department of Justice for engaging in racist renting practices (although he did end up paying nearly $3 million to settle the claims). And there wasn’t any action from the league in 2009, when Hall of Fame player and former Clippers executive Elgin Baylor sued Sterling for employment discrimination, claiming that Sterling had instructed him to fill the Clippers with “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach.”

While Sterling’s connections to structural racism were brushed aside by the league, his public denunciations of African Americans spelled trouble. Faced with the NBA’s biggest image problem since the Pistons/Pacers brawl, Silver acted swiftly. He fined Sterling $2.5 million, the maximum fine allowable in the NBA. He then, essentially, cleaved Sterling from the Clippers, barring him from attending games and forcing him to sell the team.

Silver’s response was praised by practically everyone around the game, with many suggesting he had ushered in a new era for the NBA. At Slate, Jack Hamilton wrote, “The commissioner came off as a man with a ferocious respect for basketball and, infinitely more importantly, the people who play it. NBA players, Silver’s words and actions affirmed, are not beneficiaries of paternalist largesse, they are not cogs in the addled fantasies of billionaires, they are not ‘the help.’”

This view was seemingly shared by Clipper point guard and NBA Players Association president Chris Paul: “In response to [the] ruling by the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver, my teammates and I are in agreement with his decision. We appreciate the strong leadership from Commissioner Silver and he has our full support.”

The Sterling ban was historic, but it’s hard to imagine that Silver had any other choice given the public outcry. It’s interesting, and distressing, that he readily got such a ringing endorsement from the Players Association, having fleeced them, along with Stern and company, less than three years before during a contract dispute that resulted in a 2011 owners’ lockout.

Stern was the consummate anti-player commissioner: his tenure saw four lockouts and a collective bargaining process that rendered the players union one of the weakest in professional sports. During the 2011 lockout, many criticized the NBA’s handling of labor relations, including the racial undertones of its approach.

“David Stern, in my opinion, is not a racist. But you don’t have to be a racist to be an overseer,” Boyce Watkins wrote during the strike. “Stern wouldn’t care if the players in the NBA were white, black or any other race, since capitalist exploitation is designed to enslave anyone who is not positioned to fight back. But what Stern fully understands is that it’s easier to be a capitalist overseer when controlling black men than for any other group of people.”

On an episode of HBO’s Real Sports, Bryant Gumbel was even harsher:

[Stern’s] efforts were typical of a commissioner who 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 MO. Like his past self-serving edicts on dress code or the questioning of officials, his moves are intended to do little more than show how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in their place.

During contract negotiations in 2005, Stern pressed to raise the league’s age limit to twenty. He didn’t succeed, but he did manage to get the union to bend: In exchange for salary cap modifications, it was increased from eighteen to nineteen. The union’s capitulation prompted strong criticism from players like Jermaine O’Neal, an Indiana Pacer forward who transitioned from high school to the NBA, without a hitch, in 1996. He pointed to race as “the reason why it’s coming up” and wondered why an eighteen-year-old could go fight a war, but not play basketball for a living.

Some might view Adam Silver as a welcome alternative to Stern, but his priority remains the same: raising the age limit from nineteen to twenty and prohibiting high school players from entering the draft. “If those players had the benefit to play for some of these great college coaches for longer periods of time,” Silver explained during this year’s All-Star weekend. “I think it would lead to stronger college basketball and stronger NBA ball as well.”

There’s little evidence to substantiate this claim. In fact, according to an analysis done by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, the NBA actually does a better job developing players than the NCAA.

Raising the age limit has more to do with control of players than concern for them. Even if NBA teams did benefit from seeing an extra year of tape of young players, it would hardly justify blocking youthful talent from entering the workforce. Players, many from impoverished areas, are forced to either play college ball — where their labor will go unremunerated while their schools make piles of money — or take their talents overseas and make far less.

At a certain level, this also benefits the NBA, as they get to showcase their future product on a global market before locking the player down in their own league. This frequently generates unnecessary problems. Take the case of Chicago Bulls superstar Derrick Rose. In 2007, Rose was one of the hottest high school prospect in the country, but was required to attend college for a year because of the NBA’s age restriction.

Rose chose to play for the University of Memphis, under the tutelage of coach John Calipari. “For coaches like Calipari, a lot has changed,” DraftExpress report explained at the time. “While playing in Conference USA isn’t going to draw elite recruits to Memphis, the NBA age limit sure will. Calipari has been landing Derrick Rose types for years… He has NBA experience and NBA connections.”

Calipari also has quite a bit of money. Under the terms of his new contract, he makes $5.2 million a year before bonuses. Calipari’s teams have long been associated with varying degrees of impropriety — which doesn’t make him notable within the NCAA, but does underscore the corrupt nature of big-time college athletics.

Rose’s one year at Memphis was no different. His low test results facilitated the need for a flukey SAT score. According to the NCAA, someone else took the test for Rose in order for him to get into Memphis. The school’s wins from that season, have been expunged from NCAA record books.

Rose is from Englewood, Chicago, home to one of the highest homicide rates in the country. The average income for the neighborhood is less than $12,000, and almost 30% of its residents lack a high school diploma. “When I was younger, I used to cry about how rough it was,” Rose told a Chicago paper. “I just wanted to be old enough to get me and my family out of there.” In 2011, Derrick Rose won the NBA’s MVP award. As a result of the NBA’s contract restrictions regarding young players, the twenty-one-year-old was the 126th highest-paid player in the league.

Support for the age limit, and its potential increase, is fueled by cultural assumptions about the mental capacities of black youth. There’s no debate about teenagers entering professional golf, tennis, or hockey. No discussions about whether they should be forced to attend college so they can become upstanding adults before being allowed a living.

Although not as well remembered as Curt Flood’s fight for free agency — the St. Louis Cardinals centerfielder’s efforts brought about the demise of the reserve clause, under which players were essentially team property — the story behind the eligibility of young players in the NBA is a compelling one.

In 1969, after averaging over thirty points per game for the University of Detroit, Spencer Haywood wanted to go pro. When the NBA prevented him because of his age, he joined the American Basketball Association instead. In his first year, Haywood won Rookie of the Year, MVP, and broke the ABA’s rebounding record. Haywood then joined the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics, despite the league’s restrictions. After signing Haywood, the team launched an antitrust action against the NBA, and the Supreme Court granted them an injunction. The ruling declared that if Haywood was,

Unable to continue to play professional basketball for Seattle, he will suffer irreparable injury in that a substantial part of his playing career will have been dissipated, his physical condition, skills, and coordination will deteriorate from lack of high-level competition, his public acceptance as a super star will diminish to the detriment of his career, his self-esteem, and his pride will have been injured and a great injustice will be perpetrated on him.

Haywood came from Silver City, Mississippi, where his mom picked cotton for $2 a day. He joined her in the fields at the age of five. “No matter what was happening in Birmingham or even in Jackson, we were still black,” Hayward once wrote, “and our lot in life was to serve the White man and to try to stay alive.”

Almost fifty years later, Haywood might be largely forgotten, but the economic structure he helped change remains eerily similar. Debates about labor fights in professional sports are frequently dismissed by mainstream America — and even many on the Left — as mere cases of “millionaires vs. billionaires.” But the disputes are much more complex than that.

If the Sterling situation proves anything, it’s that professional sports owners are unnecessary parasites; the Clippers have had no problems adjusting to his absence. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers are a publicly owned franchise, and they are consistently successful, more proof of how owners could easily be subtracted from the sports world.

In the NBA, the battle for control is between the workers — who frequently come from disadvantaged backgrounds and play professional basketball for an average of six years — and owners who made an additional $3 billion off the most recent collective bargaining agreement. For progressives, picking sides should be easy. And, despite his swift handling of a racist owner, it’s just as easy to see which one Adam Silver is on.