Revised: Oh, These Poor, Billionaire Owners

by September 28, 2011

by Dave Zirin / @EdgeofSports

By the time you read this, the lockout could be over. Also, by the time you read this, I could be dunking right after finishing my four-minute mile. The owners have locked the doors and will not reopen them until the Players Association can, to quote David Stern’s own words, “guarantee profitability” for every team. Stern’s favorite subject these days is how the billionaires he represents are just losing money hand over fist. These are the wronged parties: the hard-working, exploited, victimized chief executives sacrificing their hard-earned fortunes just to overpay their ungrateful players and provide us simple fans with entertainment.

SLAM readers who resign themselves to the sports page shouldn’t be fooled. What Stern and company are doing is just the sports page wing of an all-out public relations offensive on behalf of the trampled-upon-rights of your friendly, neighborhood billionaire. Pass the Alka Seltzer. Poverty might be at a 20-year high. Public workers, like teachers, firefighters and postal workers, are being laid off in droves. Our infrastructure may be rotting. Yet billionaires pay fewer taxes than ever and a broad based call has gone out for them to pay their share.  As billionaire Warren Buffet has said, he actually pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. The “wronged billionaire,” who is just trying to create jobs in between carrying our economy, has become been created out of whole cloth to stifle, confuse and silence our rage. As one “wronged billionaire”, Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said recently, “Economic Success has somehow become the new boogie man; some in the Democratic party are now casting about for enemies and business leaders and anyone who has achieved success in terms of rank or fiscal success is being cast as a bad guy in a black hat. This is counter to the American Dream and is really turning off so many people that love American and basically carry our country on their back by paying taxes and by employing people and creating GDP.”

Ted Leonsis also claims to be losing money by the boatload. The problem is that it’s all an artfully crafted lie. Leonsis and other NBA owners might be losing money on the team, as bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell recently explained, but that’s just one part of the story. It doesn’t take into account the mammoth tax breaks, the publicly funded arena, and the immediate real estate that surrounds their home base.

Factor those in and, well, there’s a reason why Ted Leonsis is a billionaire. To create the Verizon Center in the heart of DC’s Chinatown, residential housing was razed, businesses were shuttered and families were priced out of the neighborhood. Now instead of Chinese families, we have Starbucks and Chipotle with Chinese lettering above their blaring signage. As for “carrying the country” on his back, Leonsis might want to thank his army of minimum wage Verizon Center workers for keeping his ample frame in fancy suits. Behind every great fortune is truly a great crime.

The owners of the NBA and David Stern have failed. They’ve failed to be accountable to the communities they’ve raided and to the players they’ve willingly and happily put under contract. For them to cry about how put upon they are in a country where almost 20 percent of the population can’t find work is obscene.

This is why Gladwell, who is no radical, ended his column by writing, “We have moved from a country of relative economic equality to a place where the gap between rich and poor is exceeded by only Singapore and Hong Kong. The rich have gone from being grateful for what they have to pushing for everything they can get. They have mastered the arts of whining and predation, without regard to logic or shame. In the end, this is the lesson of the NBA lockout.”

He’s right. I choose to stand with Zach Randolph. Z-Bo said, “I’m definitely supporting the union. And we all should. This is something I’ve never been through so it’s frustrating, but all of the players should stick together. If that’s a sacrifice we have to make (in order) to make it better for the future then, yeah, I’m OK with it.”

I’m not OK with this lockout. I’m not OK with missing hoop. But I’m less OK with billionaires who lie about their losses because they want a few dollars more.