Do Black Lives Matter to James Dolan?

While the rest of the NBA issued strong statements of support for the social justice movement, the Knicks did not, and that has people inside and outside the team shaking their heads in frustration.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJuly 20, 2020

A wave of empathy and anger swept through the country in the weeks following George Floyd's death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Millions marched and protested, chanted Floyd's name, scrawled "Black Lives Matter" on signs and sidewalks and storefronts. As the movement gained momentum, NBA teams joined in, eager to stake a place on the right side of history.

The Minnesota Timberwolves were the first to issue a statement, declaring Floyd's death a tragedy and committing their resources to "influence change." Then came the Cleveland Cavaliers, with a forceful statement expressing "sadness, disgust and overall frustration." A flurry of teams followed. By June 2, 29 NBA franchises had weighed in, either through a team statement or public comments from a high-ranking official.

Only one NBA team remained silent: the New York Knicks. It was not by accident.

Knicks owner James L. Dolan viewed Floyd's killing, and the resulting discussion on police brutality and systemic racism, as inappropriate issues for his company to comment on. He said as much in a June 1 memo to Madison Square Garden employees, as first reported by ESPN's Pablo Torre.

"As companies in the business of sports and entertainment … we are not any more qualified than anyone else to offer our opinion on social matters," Dolan wrote. "What's important is how we operate."

The memo did not assuage the concerns of employees—including, notably, a loose coalition of Black employeeswho had pushed Garden executives to make a statement. To the contrary, Dolan's words only provoked more disappointment and anger.


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As Torre reported on Twitter at the time, employees and players were "furious"—a sentiment that has not abated in the weeks since then, according to subsequent reporting by B/R.

Nor has Dolan's position changed.

When the Garden at last issued a two-sentence statement, on June 9, the language was anodyne, generic, as if it had been lifted from a human-resources manual: "Every one of us has a role to play in creating a more just and equal society, where there is no racism, bigotry, violence or hate. We stand with all who act for positive change."

Consistent with Dolan's earlier memo, the statement avoided any political stance. It did not even vaguely allude to Floyd's deathor the racial-justice movement sweeping the countrythe presumed impetus for issuing a statement in the first place.

And it again ignored the concerns of Garden employees, who were pushing for something much more specific and substantive.

It is, of course, every business owner's prerogative to decide when and how and whether to take a political stand. But the NBA is defined by Black playerswho comprise 80 percent of the leagueand by Black culture, which begs a philosophical, perhaps even moral, question:

Do those who run the league, and are earning billions from Black talent, have an obligation to support their players' concerns? Especially when, in this case, they are literally concerns of life and death?

It's a question that feels more urgent now, in this moment of national self-reflection.

"In a real literal sense, they don't have any obligation to do anything," said Dr. Todd Boyd, who teaches race and popular culture at the University of Southern California. "I think it's more of a choice. But the choices institutions make, just like the choices that individuals make, have consequences."

The most obvious consequence? That the Knicks' silence might imply indifferenceto employees, to fans and to players.

"James Dolan and the Knick organization, they're telling you something by the statement that they make or do not make," Boyd said. "And it's important for us as a society to be receptive to what they're telling us, even if what they're telling us is they don't give a fuck. There's value in knowing that. And that's how it looks, in this moment.

"They may very well give a fuck," Boyd continued, "but their actions don't indicate that. So there's value in knowing that they are misreading the room, that they don't appreciate the significance of this set of events, that the position that they've taken is one inconsistent with perhaps the majority of players on their team and maybe the majority of players in the league."

In fact, the Knicks' position is inconsistent with the rest of the NBA, period.

The league has officially embraced the Black Lives Matter movement as it prepares to resume its season near Orlando. The phrase is inscribed on NBA courts and on team buses. Social-justice phrases will be sewn into player jerseys. For the next three months, the league will be using its powerful platform to amplify the movement.

As Commissioner Adam Silver said on a recent conference call, "We may be the most uniquely qualified organization in the world to effect change," because of the fame and influence of NBA players. "So I think this is incumbent on us not to lose this moment and this opportunity."

The Knicks remain the outlier in this discussion. While other franchises have pledged their support for social-justice causes, organized marches and empowered their employees to speak out, the Knicks' official policy remains one of passive silence.

That is disconcerting not only to Knicks employees, but to a number of Black executives, players, agents and others around the league who spoke to B/R.

"If you're going to have a diverse employment force, then in this situation you've got to represent them and speak out against this," said a Black team executive who has worked in the league for more than 20 years. "Otherwise, you're sending a message to them that you're ambivalent about it. Now you allow yourself to be questioned. And by the time you do come out and say it, then people doubt your sincerity."

The team executive and others interviewed for this story requested anonymity to preserve their working relationship with the Knicks.

As Boyd sees it, issuing a statement is, at minimum, a wise business practice, to send the right message to the public. But it goes way beyond that.

"The question is: How do you want to be seen morally?" Boyd said. "How do you want to be seen culturally? How do you want to be regarded? How do you want people to look upon your organization? I think a statement like this is a step in a direction of someone saying, 'We recognize what's going on in society, we recognize the majority of players who make up our league and we feel it's necessary to lend our voice to this effort.' Obviously, the Knicks do not feel that way."

The NBA will allow players to display messaging in support of social justice during the NBA's resumption at Disney World.
The NBA will allow players to display messaging in support of social justice during the NBA's resumption at Disney World.Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Which leads to a more practical concern: How a team's seeming disinterest in racial justice might hurt its credibility with players, its own and future free agents.

The Knicks made sweeping changes to their front office this year, in hopes of reversing a two-decade trend of ineptitude. They hired power agent Leon Rose from Creative Artists Agency to become team president. Rose in turn hired William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley, a noted power broker and player confidante, as a top assistant, along with respected front-office veterans Walt Perrin, Brock Aller and Frank Zanin.

But their task likely just got tougher, especially when it comes to wooing marquee players.

"I think it's a big black eye on the Knicks as an organization," said an agent whose firm represents multiple stars, referring to the club's silence. The agent, who is Black, added, "It will continue to be something that players look down upon, and it further explains why guys like Kevin Durant [passed on the Knicks]. You got all the resources and all the richness of the NBA, and still people don't want to associate themselves with it."

A player agent from another high-profile firm said his clients were "flabbergasted" with the Knicks' silence.

"How hard is it to put out a statement?" he said. "What's going to be really interesting is the players that truly matter, the ones that are the upper echelon of the league, when they are free agents, how are they going to look at this?"

A major test will come next July, when the free-agent class could include stars Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Rudy Gobert and possibly Anthony Davis.

The Knicks will be flush with salary-cap room, yet perhaps hindered by their poor reputation. In the frenzied competition for superstars, every detail matters—and every vulnerability will be hammered by rival franchises.

"Will these superstars look past this massive gaffe?" the second agent asked rhetorically.

Second-tier players might look past any concerns if the money is right, the agent said. "But the ones who tilt the NBA balance of scales, are they going to look at the Knicks' lack ofI don't know if it's humility or human decency or just being a human, someone that believes in racial equalitywill they look past that?"

Several Knicks players have either marched or spoken out on social media about the Floyd killing. And at least one key rotation player told team officials he "definitely wasn't happy with the Knicks" remaining silent on Floyd, according to a source who does business with the team. "I know there are others upset about it," he said.

Caron Butler, who played 14 seasons in the NBA, said players need to see some empathy from those who write the checks.

"To see that my players are hurt, and you not address ityou not take a firm stance saying that, 'This is injustice, and we stand with equality and we stand with our players'you're part of the problem," Butler said. "And this is not the first time that the Knicks organization, and specifically the owner, Mr. Dolan, haven't stepped up and just do the right thing. So it's glaring."

Several other retired players, including Etan Thomas and Kendrick Perkins, have echoed that sentiment.

Yet Dolan's handling of this issue was familiar to current and former Garden employees, who see some common threads. He relishes playing the contrarianto the point that he'll sometimes have staffers survey what other teams are doing, just so he can do the opposite.

"I don't know that anyone has ever accused Jim of caring about anyone else, or what anyone else thinks," one former employee said.

Dolan exudes a similar indifference toward his employees, said another former Garden staffer, who summed up the culture this way: "I know what the company expects of me, and what I expect of the company. The company doesn't care about you, or about me. The company is there to make money."

Nor does Dolan tolerate criticism or pushback, which is why the employees who first lobbied for a statement on Floyd have since retreated. Former Garden employees consistently describe an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, where everyone worries that speaking out could cost them their jobs.

Still, some defend Dolan's record on race, noting how often he has hired Black executivesfrom Isiah Thomas and Anucha Browne Sanders to Steve Mills, Scott Perry and Craig Robinsonand Black head coaches. On this count, the Knicks' track record is better than those of several other NBA franchises.

James Dolan's record of hiring Black executives such as Isiah Thomas and Steve Mills has drawn praise in many NBA circles, but the Knicks' measured response to the Black Lives Matter movement this year has some around the team upset.
James Dolan's record of hiring Black executives such as Isiah Thomas and Steve Mills has drawn praise in many NBA circles, but the Knicks' measured response to the Black Lives Matter movement this year has some around the team upset.GREGORY BULL/Associated Press/Associated Press

"He's always done right by Black people," said a former Garden employee who is Black. "Does it make up for the poor response? Not necessarily."

A Black player agent at a major firm also pointed to Dolan's hiring record, saying, "There's some white guys who would never hire a Black guy. His willingness to do that shows me he at least judges people on their quality and what he sees in their skill set, irrespective of their race. And that's important."

But, the same person added, "I'm not defending" the Knicks' silence on Floyd and Black Lives Matter.

In truth, these are fundamentally different issues. Hiring Black executives and coaches is the easy part, the bare minimum. As Boyd said, praising a company for doing so is giving credit for merely "doing the right thing."

"You're supposed to do the right thing," Boyd said. And, he said, hiring Black executives "does not give you a free pass to ignore these issues."

What Knicks employees were asking forwhat the Black community at large is seeking right nowis something more: respect for their humanity, their concerns, their life experiences and a commitment from white America to be part of the solution. That is what Dolan failed to grasp.

"If you can't put out a statement that truly supports racial equality, that supports Black Lives Matter, then all the things you've done mean nothing," one of the player agents said. "That is a simple thing to do."

Several NBA teams, in fact, stuck to simple gestures: a press release or a tweet from ownership (or a top executive) expressing outrage over Floyd's killing, sympathy for the family and a call for action. They included words like pain, sadness, anger, racism and injustice.

Although the San Antonio Spurs did not issue a written statement, they used their social channels to promote a video of coach (and team president) Gregg Popovich making an impassioned plea for racial justice, along with a series of videos featuring players, employees and team chairman Peter J. Holt.

Several teams specifically pledged their support for Black Lives Matter and police reform. And some owners took the extra step.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban held a town hall on racial issues and spoke openly about confronting white privilege. Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, in a CNBC appearance, stressed the responsibility of "white leaders" to work for racial justice and economic opportunities. The Sacramento Kings sponsored a protest march that began at their downtown arena, with owner Vivek Ranadive among the speakers.

Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, in concert with his Jordan Brand, pledged $100 million over 10 years to "organizations dedicated to ensuring racial equality, social justice and greater access to education."

Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai gave his tacit approval for Barclays Center to be used as a staging ground for Black Lives Matter protesters.

The Kings, Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons volunteered their arenas to become voting precincts in November—an effort to provide increased access to the polls at a time when the coronavirus and voter-suppression tactics could hinder turnout. Long lines at precincts have been a major concern in communities of color, which have also been disproportionately impacted by the virus.

The Los Angeles Lakers hired Karida Brown, an assistant professor of African American Studies and Sociology at UCLA, to become their first director of racial equity and action. They also joined several other teams in declaring Juneteenth a company holiday.

The words and deeds of NBA owners matterand players are keeping tabs on all of it, as Chris Paul, the president of the players association, noted in a recent conference call with reporters.

"We want to know how someone feels, especially if you're putting their jersey on," Paul said.

Eight weeks after Floyd's killing, only the Knicks franchise remains silent.

Longtime Knicks fan Spike Lee said on ESPN's "First Take" the Knicks' response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people reminded him of Donald Trump's responses to racial injustice as president.
Longtime Knicks fan Spike Lee said on ESPN's "First Take" the Knicks' response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people reminded him of Donald Trump's responses to racial injustice as president.Kathy Willens/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

What does Dolan think of the Floyd killing? Is he concerned about police brutality and systemic racism? Does he acknowledge these issues exist? Does he feel any obligation to the players who wear the Knicks uniform? Does he support the Black Lives Matter movement?

B/R emailed those questions, among others, to Knicks media-relations officials last week. They did not respond. A follow-up email and voicemail messages were also ignored.

Saying "Black lives matter" is not some radical position, and certainly not in 2020, with the movement swelling across the country. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, has said it. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose league effectively banned Colin Kaepernick over his protest of police brutality, has said it. Mike Krzyzewski has said it. Multiple NBA owners have said it.

In the WNBA, players for the Atlanta Dream are in open conflict with a co-owner of the franchise, Senator Kelly Loeffler, over her stated opposition to Black Lives Matter, raising questions about her involvement in a league whose values she clearly does not share.

To date, Dolan has simply been silent on Black Lives Matter, not opposed. His true feelings are, at best, ambiguous. There is, as of yet, no open conflict with his players or an organized movement to push him out of the NBAbut it's not hard to imagine.

Dolan's failure to speak up has drawn rebukes from celebrity fans from Spike Lee to Desus Nice, and from Democratic congressional candidate Jamaal Bowman, who called the Knicks "tone deaf" in an interview with the New York Daily News.

"New leadership is needed," Bowman, a lifelong Knicks fan, told the paper. "Whether it's at the ownership level, or some other level, man, that's all I'll say about James Dolan."

The concerns of devoted Knicks fans matter. The sentiments of Knicks employees and Knicks players matter. Recognizing the gravity of this moment matters. Black lives matter. And it matters that James Dolan can't bring himself to say so.

    

Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.

Beck also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.

Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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