The good news: NBA owners and players are talking, an encouraging sign after both sides had displayed a frustrating lack of urgency.
The bad news: HBO host Bryant Gumbel started talking, a discouraging sign after fans and media had displayed a refreshing decrease in bigotry.
That’s not to suggest the total absence of bigoted views toward the NBA and its players, of whom more than 80 percent are black. The battle against stereotypes and assorted preconceived notions is never-ending, in sports and every other aspect of life.
In his recent rant against David Stern, Gumbel seemed to fall victim to the very attitude he ascribed to the NBA commissioner. Gumbel accused him of doing a poor job with the lockout — a valid point from fans’ and players’ perspective.
But Gumbel also used slave imagery, which immediately sent his otherwise solid arguments to the discount bin.
He said Stern is “a commissioner who 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 and 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.”
I’m certain Stern doesn’t wish to be viewed in that light, as some sort of slave master keeping the captives in line. I’m also certain that most NBA players don’t appreciate Gumbel’s analogy, likening them to bondservants.
Yes, race is an issue that always has bubbled just beneath the NBA’s surface, whether through the players’ choice of drugs, music and hairstyles, or jewelry, clothes and “body art.” Many enter the league as non-conformists who prefer a counter-culture — like hip-hop — that’s largely frowned upon by the establishment.
The NBA’s corporate culture stands in stark contrast to its most visible workforce. It’s like hippies and militants being star bankers on Wall Street; the two don’t mix easily.
But invoking the atrocities of slavery, history’s most horrific example of American-on-American cruelty? That’s as bad as comparing someone to Hitler, a definite no-no.
New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden took a stab in his provocative book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete. Over the course of 300-plus pages, Rhoden offers a layered, nuanced case for daring to use “$40 million” as a modifier for “slave.”
It’s still a stretch, but at least Rhoden provides plenty of grist in chewing through the history of black athletes.
Clearly, Gumbel’s opinion is colored by color, influenced by the NBA’s overwhelmingly white owners and overwhelmingly black players (who happen to engage in extremely physical work). Wonder if he thinks the same of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, whose mostly white owners locked out their mostly white players and canceled the entire 2004-05 season.
Stern’s actions are dictated by color, true, but only green. The more money he makes for the league, the more he takes home for himself. As with any commissioner, the owners are his top priority because they sign his check.