David Stern and team owners need to address the racial power imbalance in the league.
In October, when an amicable end to the NBA lockout looked unlikely at best, Bryant Gumbel made headlines for criticizing the league's intransigence during negotiations. In a controversial commentary, he accused NBA Commissioner David Stern of acting like a modern-day plantation owner and "treating NBA men as if they were his boys."
Gumbel was roundly criticized for his comments and taken to task for unfairly labeling Stern a racist. After all, the NBA is made up of mostly black players who make millions of dollars. How could that happen if the guy in charge is a racist?
Then last month, as contract negotiations got even more heated between the players and the owners, NBA union attorney Jeffrey Kessler latched onto Gumbel's comparison and accused the league of treating players like "plantation workers." While that reignited the controversy and prompted Kessler to apologize, it failed to spark a real debate about the role that race plays in the NBA.
Now that an end to the NBA lockout is in sight, it seems that all parties are ready to forgive and forget, but that would be a mistake. Instead of ignoring the accusations of racism that were sparked by an ugly and protracted contract battle, the NBA should take this opportunity to explore the institutionalized racism in the NBA and to take steps to correct it.
The comparison between NBA executives and slave owners isn't a new one. It has actually been made on other occasions.
Following LeBron James' high-profile departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010, the Cavs' owner, Dan Gilbert, fired off a scathing tirade of a letter blasting James for being disloyal. In response, Jesse Jackson accused Gilbert of acting like a slave owner and treating James like a "runaway slave."
Also in 2010, Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor accused Don Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, of having a "plantation mentality." According to Baylor, who was the Clippers' general manager for 22 years, Sterling stated that he wanted "a white Southern coach coaching poor black boys." The accusation was part of a racial-discrimination lawsuit, which was subsequently dropped.
The problem with these accusations is that they miss the nuance of how racism looks in an environment like the NBA. Thus, the accusations have been directed at people instead of at the system in which they operate. The trap created by this misguided approach is that in order to agree that there are disturbing racial dynamics in the NBA, we have to agree that David Stern, Dan Gilbert and Don Sterling are all racists. This problem is not unique to the NBA. As a nation, when we sense racial discomfort, we immediately look for a racist. The reality of how racism works is much more complicated than that.
I don't have to think David Stern is a racist (and I don't) to be put off by the fact that in a league where the players are overwhelmingly black, only white men have held the office of commissioner.
I don't have to think Dan Gilbert is a racist (and I don't) to feel discomfort with the way wealth and power are accumulated in this country, such that rich white men feel the indefinite entitlement to the labor of young black men.
That is our flaw in understanding race in the NBA and, moreover, in the United States. Racism does not require a racist. This is perhaps the most insidious thing about institutionalized racism: It happens even when no one wants it to. I can point to systemic racism at play in the NBA without having to point to a corresponding racist who is to blame for it.
Eighty-six percent of NBA players are black, but only one team owner is. Talented white players are disproportionately credited with being "smart" players with "high basketball IQs," whereas black players are more often called "naturally talented" players, which makes the transition from league play to front-office work and coaching jobs an easier leap for white players than for black players. The majority of commentators (pdf), the people responsible for these descriptions, are white. The commissioner has almost unfettered power to determine punishments for players' infractions, and such an inherently subjective process is ripe for unconscious racial bias, an issue that can be corrected when the league and union negotiate the remaining minor issues.
The NBA cannot simply pretend that race doesn't matter because we'd prefer that it didn't. Moving forward, the league should operate in a way that is conscious of this power dynamic and show that while racism may seep into the institution, the people in charge are committed to combating its impact.
Maya Rupert, a 2011 The Root 100 honoree, is the federal policy director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, an LGBT-rights organization dedicated to fighting for rights on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families. Follow her on Twitter.