Why NBA Owners' $300M Pledge Isn't Enough for Players' Fight Against Racism

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterAugust 29, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, left, talks with Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul (3) during a timeout in the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

In early August, the NBA's board of governors agreed to contribute $300 million over the next 10 years to economically empower the Black community.

Three hundred million dollars to help overcome systemic racism, in reaction to the police killing of George Floyd and other forms of racial injustice. What more could players ask of the league's 30 ownership groups?

That sounds like an enormous financial commitment. But there's a key word there: reaction.

Shocked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday, players have again bargained for more. This time, not just big checks, but action.

Collectively, they've demanded—and earned—real, tangible action from NBA owners and partners and employees.

"It's paramount that these owners get out there and not just stand behind or besides us, but get in front of us," former NBA player-turned-activist Caron Butler told Bleacher Report. "Get in front of us and say, 'This is not only your fight. We've been seeing you guys fight this fight for far too long, and we want change as well.'"

On Friday, the NBA and NBPA together announced that every team—provided they own their arenas—will "work with local elections officials to convert the facility into a voting location for the 2020 general election."

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Players and the league will also work with network partners to create advertisements "dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity."

A new social justice coalition will be formed—made up of players, coaches and team owners—to focus on several issues, including "advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform."

"I don't think this is an issue that money will solve," former player and commentator Greg Anthony told Bleacher Report. "I don't think money will, quite frankly, have a lot to do with it. You can't purchase how someone thinks."

The NBA's pledge of financial resources is a start. But fighting institutional racism can't just be an annual expense in a profit statement.

"We need more from everyone. It's not just going to be a check," Butler said. "We need people to get out there and sacrifice and have some uncomfortable conversations about social change in America right now."

The pressure from players has clearly worked. Earlier this month, Andre Iguodala, vice president of the National Basketball Players Association, posed a pointed question to USA Today's Mark Medina: "Is it a marketing ploy, or are we just doing it to build relations? In the grand scheme of things, that's $10 million per team, and that's essentially a tax. ... This can't be a one-time thing."

Players were right to be skeptical. NBA owners support a wide range of policies and politicians. Many do not align with the players' interests.

Many owners who are contributing $1 million per year to the NBA's program also have sent significant sums to politicians and political action committees with conflicting agendas.

On ESPN's The Jump, Richard Jefferson said the days of exploiting Black labor for profit are coming to an end.

"When you start to look at who owns these teams...and if they're going to invest their money in something that is completely counter to what 'Black Lives Matters' is ... when you know that the NBA is predominantly Black, and if your views don't necessarily align with those views, then that means you're purely in this for the money," Jefferson said.

Police violence and profiling against Black citizens is a human rights issue that hits home for too many players.

Bucks guard Sterling Brown wrote about his experience with Milwaukee Police, "who kneeled on my neck, stood on my ankle and tased me in a parking lot."

Thabo Sefolosha suffered a broken leg at the hands of the New York Police Department. The wing was forced to miss the playoffs. The city settled Sefolosha's subsequent lawsuit for $4 million.

Even top Black executives are not immune to racism on the job. Toronto Raptors President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri was shoved twice as he attempted to enter the court by security guard Alan Strickland, a sheriff's deputy in Alameda County, after the Raptors won the 2018-19 NBA championship in Oakland.

"We need action more so than ever from ownership. Legislation was passed to provide police accountability. Removing special protections from the officers [qualified immunity] so you can push for justice," Butler said. "We have to make sure we invest in rapid-response programs and keep the police unions in the spotlight. [All] that has to come from more than just the players. It has to come from ownership and their relationships with elected officials."

It's a question of basic dignity. Not which political party aligns with your personal finances.

There's a growing sense around the league that team owners who support President Donald Trump foster mistrust among players. It's no wonder players might feel like team owners are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. New York Knicks owner James Dolan pledged $300,000 to Trump Victory, a fundraising committee supporting Trump's 2016 campaign, per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

Bondy also detailed that the late Richard DeVos, owner of the Orlando Magic, contributed $70,000 to the same cause. His daughter-in-law, Betsy DeVos, is Trump's Secretary of Education.

Josh Harris, majority owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, whose Apollo Global Management loaned Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner $184 million in 2017, met with Kushner several times "and discussed a possible White House job," per Stephen Braun of the Associated Press.

Trump called Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta "a friend" in May, per Ben Golliver of the Washington Post.

But Dolan, Harris and Fertitta are real people with connections to policymakers and changers. These are the kinds of ties the players want the owners to utilize to further societal change.

Will owners embrace their opportunity to persuade friends in power? Are billionaire hearts and minds being convinced?

"This is not changing one's view politically per se. It's just trying to create a dynamic where one's social conscience is much more in tune with how we treat the human race," Anthony said. "That we view everyone equally and that everyone's life is of significance and importance.

"When you hear 'Black Lives Matter,' it's because unlike any other ethnicity in America, no one's really gone through the pain and struggles that African Americans have over the course of history in this country."

Looking ahead to November, LeBron James has made the fight against voter suppression a personal priority, helping to form More Than a Vote, focusing on increasing turnout, making voting more accessible and countering voter disenfranchisement.

James, along with fellow NBA player Trae Young, WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith and former NBA player Jalen Rose, is working to inspire people to register to vote, especially those in the Black community.

Several teams had already pledged support, offering their arenas as voting sites, including Fertitta and the Rockets.

What more can NBA owners do? Perhaps steal a page out of the Baltimore Ravens' playbook. The NFL team recently called for the arrest and charging of the officers who shot Blake and Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville police in her own home. They also urged Senator Mitch McConnell to bring the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 to a vote, along with several detailed and vital police and prison sentencing reforms.

That's the template of what the NBA can do, beyond subsidize the NBA Foundation.

There's more.

Even with an "A+ on the issue of racial hiring," the league still has a disproportionately low number of Black general managers and head coaches. The country still has a lot of catching up to do, and the NBA is no exception.

Also, the NBA shouldn't be using police officers as event security, highlighted by the attack on Ujiri after last year's Finals. Instead, it should develop and staff arenas with vetted personnel who have gone through league sensitivity training programs to provide a safer space for players, executives and fans alike.

Commissioner Adam Silver and the owners of the league's 30 teams couldn't solve America's systemic racism in a day, a year or even a decade.

But they do have the resources to help—significantly more than the players. Most players have a few short years to get what they can. For every James, there are hundreds of guys who get little more than a few years in the league.

Twenty-two billionaires own at least 20 percent of an NBA team, per Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes. Steve Ballmer of the Los Angeles Clippers is the league's wealthiest owner. He can and should be a leading voice in this fight.

"We need real police accountability. Give citizens data to do so," Ballmer tweeted Wednesday. "Let's have criminal justice reform that keeps all people safe but not senselessly imprisoned or afraid."

Last year, the NBA and NBPA generated and split a record $7.7 billion in revenue. If the two truly are partners, the league needs to fight with the players off the court and outside of arenas and practice gyms.

Butler said he wants teams to put as much effort into affecting societal change as they do into scouting for the draft.

"You see [teams] go into the war room [on draft night]—they pretty much know everything about these players. They're doing interviews—they know about their families, their dads, their backgrounds," he said. "We need that type of intel and that type of commitment from owners about social justice issues."

            

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.