HBO host Bryant Gumbel made a few accurate points Tuesday in his rant against David Stern, especially the part about the NBA commissioner being “infamously egocentric.” But in trying to climb inside Stern’s head and assess Stern’s intentions, Gumbel invited questions about his own perceptions and motives.
Gumbel said that Stern “has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys. It’s part of Stern’s M.O., like his past self-serving edicts on dress code or the questioning of officials,” Gumbel said. “His moves were intended to do little more than show how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in their place.”
Comparisons between pro athletes and slaves or leagues and plantations are cringe-worthy and totally inappropriate. They diminish the horrific experiences of the Diaspora, forced labor, ripped-apart families, raped women, sold children, lynched men, etc.
The analogies are off-base, especially in sound bites. At least New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden used 300 pages to present a nuanced case in his book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete. But it’s still a stretch to modify “slaves” with “$40 million.”
Yes, there’s such a thing as mental slaves. So it stands to reason that mental slave owners exist, too. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert appears guilty of that mindset, based on the tone of his nasty open letter when LeBron James left for Miami. There’s definitely a sense that Gilbert viewed James as a piece of property, not a free man.
As commissioner, Stern is quick to wield power, serving as judge and jury on just about everything. He’s looking out for the league’s best interests using his order of importance: owners first, players second. And that has nothing to do with color unless it’s green.
Aside from the amounts of money involved, the NBA lockout is a typical dispute between management and labor. But more than 80 percent of NBA players are black, and virtually 100 percent of NBA owners are white, creating a dynamic that — along with the physical nature of the work — can hark back to images of bucks in the field and Massa in the big house.
But notice how those images don’t come to mind in the NHL, which locked out its players (virtually 100 percent white) and canceled the entire 2004-2005 season.
Makes you wonder if Gumbel is talking about his own perceptions of the NBA more than the commissioner’s view.