Let me first start this off by giving my credentials for discussing this topic. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in both Modern Literature and History of the Americas and Africa. I am by no means claiming to be an “expert” on the topics of race, modern labor relations in America, and the NBA lockout as a whole.
However, a large part of my degrees in Literature and History were spent studying colonial/post-colonial theory, labor history and racial theory, so I do believe that I am more qualified to write an article on this difficult topic than most sports writers.
I know that many readers on this site have little to no interest in this topic. Some may just be sick of hearing about the NBA lockout, while others want to stay far away from any sort of discussion on race. To those people, I respect their opinions.
However, I feel that to ignore that racial and labor history play no part whatsoever in the modern sports world would be very naive. There are reasons a majority NBA players are black, most NFL quarterbacks are white and so on and so forth. However, I digress onto the topic at hand. That discussion is for another time entirely.
For those who do not know, sports expert Bryant Gumbel recently likened the current NBA lockout situation to slavery-like conditions on the HBO program Real Sports. In Gumbel’s opinion, NBA Commissioner David Stern has been acting very much like a plantation overseer “treating men as if they were his boys.” Gumbel also stated that Stern is “hell bent on demeaning the players,” and his current actions have been for the purpose of “keeping the hired hands in their place.” To hear the entire statement, listen to the video.
It goes without saying that any metaphor to slavery will come with a large amount of controversy. Making the connection of professional athletes’ situations to those of slavery compound things even further. To most, to even think that people such as professional basketball players, who earn millions of dollars every year, and whose paychecks are for more money than many humans around the world will earn in their entire lifetime, is utterly ridiculous and without warrant. There is a reason to this: It is true.
No matter how difficult things are for professional basketball players during this lockout and after its (eventual) end, their situation will only be a minute fraction to the situation of slavery. That being said, it is still important to take a close look at what Gumbel truly meant by his words.
The instantaneous response to Gumbel’s words was, by most, that in his likening of slavery to professional basketball he believed the important topic at hand to be race. After all, slavery in America was a race-based institution and formed mainly on the belief that one group of people were superior to another group because of each group’s respective race.
However, what allowed slavery to keep functioning as a system and to what Gumbel was actually referring in his statement boils down to one thing: power. Not race, but power. The power of one group of people over another.
The plantation system was based on “Benevolent Paternalism.” In layman’s terms, this basically means that one “parent” (the overseer) felt it was his or her duty to take care of all of the slaves because they lacked the ability to take care of themselves. This was used to justify slavery because the overseer argued that he or she was in fact performing a service by feeding, clothing, and housing his or her slaves and the work they performed for him or her was a just repayment for services provided.
The foundation for this belief that slaves could not take care of themselves was, in fact, race—a belief that black people were genetically and biologically inferior to whites. Needless to say, plantation owners focused more on the paternal aspects of this story. The slaves were all the overseer’s children, and he or she loved them and took care of them (or so the overseer believed).
Gumbel mentions this Benevolent Paternalism when he states that he believes Commissioner Stern is treating the players like boys and attempting to keep them in their place. At no time in his statement does Gumbel state that what Commissioner Stern is doing is based on race. Neither “black,” “white,” “African-American,” nor “race” can be found in Gumbel’s address. The thing about which Gumbel is speaking is power.
As of late, Commissioner Stern has been doing the rounds on popular media circuits in an attempt to raise awareness about the ongoing negotiations and to hopefully move things along and toward a deal, while expressing some doubt as to the speed with which a deal will be found.
During one of these interviews, October 14 on the Dan Patrick Show, Commissioner Stern stated that the NBA’s union leader Billy Hunter is providing false information about the negotiations to the players and attempting to galvanize the players, leading them away from siding with the owners in the situation.
The basis of any collective bargaining (negotiation between laborers and owners toward reaching a collectively agreed upon labor contract) is that both sides with bargain in “good faith.” By good faith, I mean that both sides will be willing to discuss and negotiate with one another, and that both sides ultimately believe that a deal can and will be found.
In discussing the current conditions of the collective bargaining between players and owners on a nationally broadcast radio show, Commissioner Stern is breaking his good faith. Labor negotiations should be kept private between both parties if both sides wish to quickly come up with a mutually beneficial and agreed upon deal. Slandering union leader Billy Hunter breaks this good faith even more.
According to Commissioner Stern, Billy Hunter is incapable of providing accurate information to the players he represents and telling players to take a staunch stance against the owners and not give in to their demands.
In other words, Commissioner Stern believes that with Billy Hunter representing the players a deal will be almost impossible to reach. That, my friends, is completely breaking bargaining in good faith. When one party bargains without good faith, no deal will ever be reached.
So what does this all have to do with power and slavery? Well, let me put it simply: Commissioner Stern does not believe the players and the people that represent them are capable of reaching a deal. The players should instead listen to what he has to say and sign the deal put forth by the owners. Commissioner Stern is right and the players are wrong. He knows what is best for the players and the players should shut up, give up and give in to demands. In theory, this fits the bill of Benevolent Paternalism quite snug.
Bryant Gumbel did not call Commissioner Stern racist, nor did he say that Commissioner Stern thinks of himself as smarter or better than the players because of a difference in race. He did, however, state that Commissioner Stern believes he knows what is best for the players and the players are incapable of creating a mutually beneficial and agreed upon labor contract.
In a way, this fits the definition of Benevolent Paternalism and Bryant Gumbel is correct in his metaphor. Commissioner Stern, the benevolent, paternalistic, overseer believes he knows what is best for his children (the players) and is on a mission to bring his plans to fruition. As a group, on their own the players have been unable to agree to any labor contract and it has caused the cancellation of the first two weeks of the NBA season, with more cancelled games a real possibility. It is not about race. It is about power and one party’s believe that they have an innate power over the other.
As right as Gumbel was in his metaphor of Commissioner Stern’s actions to Benevolent Paternalism, it is my personal opinion that no matter how bad the current labor situation is right now, likening it to slavery is disrespectful to those who suffered and died under its centuries of oppression, as well as to those in parts of the world who still suffer from it.
I believe that much of this public outcry against Gumbel’s words is warranted, and Gumbel could have avoided this situation entirely while still finding a way to get his message across. At the very least, he could have taken more time to explain what he meant by his metaphor. Spending only a minute and a half discussing something as enormous and emotion provoking as this was the wrong choice entirely.
He could have also likened it to a similar yet much less disrespectful situation, such as a parent’s control over his or her children. When I first heard Gumbel’s words I knew that he was referring to power and Benevolent Paternalism and not racism, but that is only because I am privileged enough to have studied these concepts and theories to a great extent.
Most people do not have the same experience I have in this situation, and (understandably) immediately believed that Gumbel was labeling Commissioner Stern as a racist. I may agree with Gumbel in his metaphor, but the fact remains that he should have gone about making this point very differently.
Gumbel’s words and Commissioner Stern’s recent actions are just fuel to the ugly fire that already is the current NBA lockout. I find it increasingly harder and harder to take a side in this debate, as any group of people that cannot decide on how to split up millions, if not billions of dollars is completely beyond me. I want to side with the players, as it pains me to see any group of laborers have to give concessions in labor bargaining. However, I see why the owners and Commissioner Stern are so upset at the players’ lack of willingness to negotiate.
Why so many teams in a league that annually generates billions of dollars continually lose money season after season is a mystery to me, and it is quite clear that some things do need to be changed. What is important and what we should take from all this—the moral of the story if you will—is that we should all watch what we say because we never know the powerful connotations behind our words, and that a lack of faith between two negotiating parties results in nothing being accomplished.