Why NBA Players must stick together.
by Christian Waterman / @GetWise_1
This piece is dedicated to John Carlos, and inspired by William Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves.
White power. Black labor.
This complex has governed many arenas of American enterprise for centuries. It dates back to the Atlantic slave trade that decimated Africa and derailed the entire course of history for its people. Black life in America is defined by an everlasting struggle to attain power and, thereby, freedom.
We have been defiled, vilified and ruthlessly discriminated against. Fire hoses, house burnings, church bombings and cold-blooded murders are not ancient history. With the election of President Obama, some have rashly stated that America has burst forward into a joyous post-racial epoch.
As the NBA’s players—who have penetrated the mainstream and risen to the elite strata of our society—lock horns with their owners for the right to play, it’s very clear that race is as important as ever.
The NBA’s talent workforce is 78 percent African-American, while the League’s owners are 97 percent white. This dominance extends to every level: upper management, middle management and coaching positions. It is interesting to note, though, that the NBA is in fact the top professional league in terms of diversity: 26 percent of GMs, 33 percent of coaches, and 45 percent of assistant coaches are minorities, while women hold 42 percent of the professional positions in the League Office, according to the League’s Racial and Gender Report Card, which is prepared by UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
Very simply, though paid very handsomely, the NBA is run on the sweat of black “laborers,” for the greater profit of their “controllers,” who happen to be overwhelmingly white. The lockout is a fight over money, yes, but also over power. This battle has been waged throughout our history even outside the realm of sport. This time, the owners are miffed because their investments in black labor are coming back in the red.
The NBA lockout presents a rare, golden opportunity for athletes to unite and revolt against the hegemonic sport industry. As it drags on, more truths are being told about the underworld of sport, peeling back layers of this labor struggle to reveal its racial core. While the players have stood together and utilized social networks to voice their opinions, legitimate change has yet to be made.
When LeBron James exercised his right to free agency, he essentially walked off the plantation, besieged the master’s house and coolly gained his freedom in one fell swoop. The backlash LeBron experienced in the wake of his decision was ruthless and shocking, given that it was completely within the rules of game. Regardless of the blind, furious response, it was a calculated power move that that must be respected; from the train of thought that blacks were too dull to play quarterback, coach a team, or manage its operations, this was a shocking moment for the white power structure.
This past year has continued to confirm the power shift within the NBA to the players’ hands with Lebron’s transition to the Miami Heat and Carmelo Anthony’s trade from Denver to New York. By combining their talents and sacrificing a few millions, the Heat became a virtually unstoppable force, even with minimal strategy and cohesion. Carmelo Anthony seemingly strong-armed his way out of Denver, forcing a trade to his chosen destination. With heaping sums of money being thrown their way from every direction, NBA players have recognized their true value as commodities in the American marketplace.
Before its golden era—highlighted by the Bird-Magic rivalry—the NBA struggled selling its mostly African-American brand to white households; before Michael Jordan set the standard for apoliticism and neutrality, using a black athlete as a spokesperson for a commercial product was once unthinkable. Since then, David Stern has created a very lucrative, global phenomenon on the backs of a majority black labor force. During the lockout, the NBA has been exposed like a dilapidated housing complex. Owners, players and fans must explore new ways to consume, participate in and appreciate the beauty and the richness of the sport. Fans are getting unbelievable, organic basketball experiences for free or at heavily-discounted prices without the hyper-commercialized NBA structure.
Amar’e Stoudemire has received backlash for his “Let’s start a new league” remark, but as the owners continue to pout, the NBA’s entrepreneurs should certainly make a foray into the creation of a new basketball product. The NBA is intrinsically flawed and unequal, and any agreement the two sides come to will only worsen these matters. The players may want freedom of movement and the right to determine their own destinies, but that is impossible within a system where one human being is owned by another.
The slave-master complex extended onto the court last season, with referees given unprecedented control over the action. Players are not allowed to emote or display any passion, let alone protest a call, in fear of an instant technical foul. We saw Ken Mauer radically exercise his newfound power, calling five technical fouls within 10 seconds of a game. This is a bold statement by the NBA’s power structure that the players must be repressed.
The imposed dress code of 2005 was blatantly racial. The players’ fitted caps, du-rags, stocking caps, gaudy jewels were simply bad for Stern’s brand and he needed to whip them into acceptable shape. At the time, Stephen Jackson said the League’s ban on chains were a “racist statement” and an attack on the black culture. This issue of black style has been prevalent throughout the history of sport: white consumers are happy to accept the exceptional performance of black athletes, yet hold resentment against their cultural presence.
While they are united in this struggle, the NBA’s players must have an active discourse amongst themselves to determine what they truly want. More money? More power? More respect? Or do enough of them want to see reform in the communities they ascend from, while countless others succumb to the urban strife? Do NBA players want to see a monumental change in the sports-industrial complex that shifts the power from team owners to themselves? Or are they satisfied with being owned?
It is not enough for these powerful men to hold ground. They must remain united and push forward.
Christian Waterman is a writer and entrepreneur from Brooklyn, New York. His recently launched clothing line, Black Market Wares, strives to build strength through unity.