‘Blackballed’ Director Mike Jacobs Talks The Donald Sterling Scandal And The Power Athletes Possess

Player empowerment has been a defining characteristic of the NBA over the last decade or so. In a league where individuals can sometimes transcend the game itself, basketball players possess power that does not necessarily exist in other sports. As a collective, basketball players are capable of sparking gigantic, sweeping change, something that was prominently put on display when Donald Sterling was banned from the league in April of 2014.

The saga is highlighted in Blackballed, a 12-part docuseries on Quibi directed by Mike Jacobs. Plenty of focus is given to the contents of the damning tapes in which Sterling repeatedly made racist remarks and the fallout, but the series also focuses on wider trends in basketball like player empowerment, along with a collection of major moments that occurred in the years leading up to the saga — like the election of Barack Obama and the death of Trayvon Martin — that highlighted the role race plays in America. The series includes features with a number of individuals that were directly impacted by the scandal, including a collection of former Los Angeles Clippers players, head coach Doc Rivers, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

The first three episodes of Blackballed debuted on Sunday evening. Prior to its release, Dime spoke with Jacobs to discuss the documentary, where power lies in basketball, and Blackballed‘s importance in pushing back against the desire for athletes to stick to sports.

How did this documentary come about?

So my longtime producing partner, Chris Gary, and his producing associates, District 33, they had a tape with Doc Rivers on it where they had sat down with him, just informally at his house, and they had shot this pre-interview with him where he kind of walked us through what he had to go through during this time period. And I had never heard that side of the story before. And I said to the guys, “I can’t believe you have access to Doc and he’s willing to share this side of the story. I’d love to be a part of this,” and they felt like I would be a great director for it.

And so very, very quickly after seeing that tape, Quibi was green-lighting the project and they needed a director and they put me up for it. It all happened extremely fast because we also had to make sure that if we were going to get the players, that we got them during the offseason, and so we really had July and August of last year to make a big push for getting as many of the players as we could. So it all moved extremely fast.

Heading into this project, how much of all of this did you remember? Because so much has happened in the year since, but it was pretty unique in just how massive of a moment it was, kind of at that intersection of sports and culture.

Exactly, and that’s how I remembered it. I’m an avid NBA fan. I was certainly watching the NBA playoffs in 2014. And I remember clicking on that link and hearing Donald Sterling’s words and just being as shocked and disgusted as everyone else, and then remembering like, “Oh God, that’s right. They banned him.” But I didn’t really know more than that. And then all of a sudden, five-plus years later, you kind of forget the times in which we were living in, who was the top of the NBA, all of those different bits and pieces come back to you. So I was aware of the sensational nature of the story, but I was not aware at all of what the players really had to deal with. I don’t think anybody was, and that was why this was such a rare opportunity as a filmmaker was because I was granted access to these players and their desire and willingness to share their side of the story, in most cases, for the first time ever.

There were some press conference moments where they spoke a little bit about it, but they’re in the middle of the playoffs. So this was an opportunity to say, in hindsight, I just could ask questions and be a good listener and say, “What did this mean to you guys?” And there was, “Okay, what happened on which day?” And then there was the sort of emotional truth around how this made them feel and how this made them feel as basketball players and as people.

One thing kind of off of that, that was really interesting to me, and I had no idea about this — Clippers players when Doc first warned that something was happening, they didn’t learn the specifics of it, it seemed like they basically just went, “This is going to be a storm that we can weather” before they worried about the tape and its contents. Did you get that sense as you were talking to guys?

Exactly. First of all, things were happening so fast for them. They’re literally in between playoff games in a really contested series and this tape comes out and they need to react. And how they react, all of a sudden, becomes as important, if not more important, than the action itself, than the tape itself.

And so now all of a sudden, the pressure has shifted completely from Donald Sterling, who, of course, plenty of people were saying awful things rightfully about him, but now all of a sudden, there’s this whole other pressure placed on these players, who already have enough pressure at their feet because of the playoffs, to respond and respond correctly and in a unified voice and with nuance and all of those extra elements are placed on top of them, as far as how they were going to react to this, alongside with how Doc was going to react to this. So it very quickly became an extremely complicated set of circumstances in which these players had to deal with.

The first episode, it highlights some of the cultural factors leading up to this, whether it’s something like Obama’s election, Trayvon Martin, or whether it’s something like how athletes were getting away from the Michael Jordan approach to being a brand that shies away from all this stuff. With how you got into this and you got to learn about all of this, could you speak to how you think all of that played a role in the way that things eventually unfolded?

That’s the other really important part of this story is that, and it’s all embedded, is that this story took place in America in 2014. And what was going on in America in 2014, you cannot separate that from Donald’s words and how they were perceived and how these athletes responded. And so just specifically, I think people forget that the Donald Sterling scandal happened right in between the shooting of Trayvon Martin and then Ferguson later that summer, and also the killing of Eric Garner. So you have this really heightened awareness around these issues that are happening in the African-American community. You also have the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and an African-American president.

So all of that, all of those layers are baked into this Donald Sterling scandal. And that’s what made it, I think, such a richer, deeper exploration that we really had to be earnest in our exploration in the film about getting right. The tone of that, the contextualization, just a historical contextualization was important to get right along with the right kind of tone in how we talk about these issues around race in America. Especially when it relates to the power dynamics in professional sports and basketball and white ownership and a predominantly African-American workforce. All of that stuff is just layered in.

You have Chris Paul as the head of the Player’s Association. Players all across the league are in lockstep. LeBron gets a shout for how powerful his voice was in all of this. And Jamele Hill used the word “checkmated” in saying that they checkmated the league. In talking to guys on the Clippers, did you get a feeling that players believed they had power they needed to use to spark change here?

Wow, that’s a really good question. I’m not sure that they were… Part of the case that we make in the film was that this experience ushered in and kind of cemented the influence and the power that these players were starting to realize they had. And so, as you mentioned, when we open the film in the first episode, we talk about how NBA players were affected by the killing of Trayvon Martin. And they started to tweet about it and they started to write notes on their shoes and commemorate his legacy, and there’s cover of magazines with hoodies on with Dwayne Wade and his sons. So this generation of NBA players from the, let’s say, 2010 to today, this was the beginning of that new generation of talent becoming more politically aware.

And by 2014, when this happened, I think it kind of was a flash point in taking the mantle and saying, “We are powerful, we do have a voice here, and we’re going to speak out against injustice.” And they really never looked back. Now, in the moment, did they realize the power they have? I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone could really answer that. I think that they knew that if they were united and they were strong — and also let’s not forget that the words that Donald [said], this was not a difficult case to adjudicate. The words that he said, and it was all there on tape, there was no way to spin it. There was no multiple sides of it. Maybe in today’s media, they would figure out a way to spin it. I don’t know.

But back then, in that moment in time, there was really only one way you could perceive what he said and it was ugly. And it laid bare some deeper truths that had been apparent about Donald Sterling for a long time that were finally on tape and that were exposed to the world. And so it was to a certain extent, I guess, you could argue that it was a little easier for the players to rally around. On the other hand, when it comes to power and speaking out, there’s still a risk. So I’m grateful that the league responded to these players in the way that they did. And the league also was disgusted by the tape, so of course they should be commended for also realizing the right thing to do and doing it.

I think after our scandal ended is really where we are today, which is that these players have … they’re even more emboldened to speak out and their platforms are now filled with issues around social justice that both affect them directly and/or just affects communities and issues that they care about. And they don’t have to speak up, but when they do, they know now that they feel comfortable doing so because, in our case, the league had their back — and rightfully so the league had their back — but that hadn’t always been the case in professional sports. In fact, it’s really rare. So it’s a tough one to answer directly.

It actually leads into a question about another quote that really stuck out, which is that someone said that Donald Sterling is a creature of the David Stern era. It really stuck with me, especially considering how everyone expected the NBA to react in a certain way, and then it does the complete opposite thing. After being around this, how much did it drive home that this was a moment that the NBA kind of entered a new era?

Yeah. That’s such an important part of this is the fact that Adam Silver had really only been commissioner for a very short period of time, and here he is faced with this really difficult situation. There were a lot of ways for him to get this wrong and he got it right, to a certain extent, maybe in the face of other commissioners and other leagues, or even as far as the commissioner he replaced — David Stern had a different way that he ran the NBA. Now, it was also because it was different time. So, again, that context of time, we talk about The Last Dance, right? And Michael Jordan’s relationship with Stern, I imagine was really good, they were both getting a lot out of their relationship and it was good for both of them.

That was a different era of the type of voice that an athlete and a superstar is going to have, and it was a transcendent one. He completely created the blueprint for the NBA athletes of today. Now the NBA athletes of today have taken that superstar blueprint, but they’ve also added their personal political feelings or their thoughts on social injustice, and there’s also social media. So there’s just this access and this platform and this expectation that they’re going to share. In some cases, they’re just going to share the benign stuff about their everyday life, like what they’re having for dinner, or how much they’re lifting during a workout. And in other cases they’re going to talk about, as most recently, the killing of the jogger, Ahmaud Arbery.

So it’s a different era and the tools of communication are different. And so yes, you can look back and say we don’t know how David Stern would have handled this situation, but we’re grateful that Adam Silver handled it the way he did. And what he showed with the decisions and the choices that he made was that I’m going to support a new generation of NBA athletes who are very motivated to use their voice, to speak against injustice. Even when the case against injustice is really obvious like this one, it still was, I’m sure, an extremely difficult position that the league office and Silver was in.

I have two final questions here. One is that I couldn’t help but think throughout the entire doc, how it shows that the whole “stick to sports” phrase is both not tenable and it can legitimately be a hindrance to making positive change. Just in your own words, how important is athletes holding and using the power that comes from the platform that they’re given? Kenny Smith had that great quote about how only 5,000 people have ever stepped on the NBA court.

Yeah. The stick to sports crowd, first of all, it’s just kind of a lazy argument intellectually. So I just barely even can pay credence because it just is not doing any work towards understanding and appreciating the fact that sports has always been political, in small acts and big acts. Now, in our case, in our film series, it’s a big political act. They make a big political statement and they have every right to do so. But smaller political statements throughout the eras have always been a part of sports. By the very nature of inviting athletes to the White House is a political statement. The national anthem is a political statement, the different types of advertising, the whole thing is laden with politics. And so you cannot separate sports from politics.

And then you take that to predominantly communities of color where a lot of our professional athletes are from. It has to be political because these communities face these issues on a regular basis. It’s real for them. It’s real and every day for them and they don’t have the privilege of getting to say, “Let’s just stick to sports.” That’s just not a part of who they are as people. And so for me, it just was always connected. And I think that this modern era of professional athletes speaking out, and specifically more so in the NBA than in other leagues, is for the betterment of society in order to have these conversations, to speak truth to power, to shed light on injustice, and also to just have a conversation.

The conversation can get nasty out there. It could be uncomfortable, it can be difficult. Having it on social media allows people to say things that maybe they wouldn’t say in person, but the conversation still has to happen. And ultimately, that’s what my hope that a film series like this can do is just continue that conversation, show that we have a lot of work to do, show that there were people who worked really hard to get this right, to fix a wrong, to fix an injustice and do it the right way, and show leadership and show people that you cannot separate politics from professional sports. And it’s a place that oddly becomes a zone, a platform where these conversations can happen on a larger scale than where they can happen in other places in everyday life.

Professional sports gives us sort of a safer excuse to have these conversations in a lot of ways than people can have in their personal lives. And I think that it’s a healthy part of sports and it’s inseparable from popular culture. Black culture is popular culture. And so it’s inseparable to have these conversations where you try to put politics in one bucket and sports in the other.

My last question, you mentioned you’re a big basketball fan. Basketball is a pretty, I don’t want to say pretty unique sport, but it always seems to be involved in these big cultural moments in one way or another and sometimes forms these big cultural moments. Are there any other of these moments at the intersection of sports and culture that you’d be interested in exploring in this type of medium again someday?

For sure. That’s what I’m loving so much about The Last Dance and about our film series Blackballed, is it’s just such a reminder about how big a part the NBA plays in pop culture and in our entertainment and in some of our best athletics as a country and really globally. And so I love that about basketball and I love that about the NBA. And yeah, this was obviously such a big story. So as a filmmaker, a big story with a really great built-in narrative structure to it because all of these things happened in such a condensed period of time in this pressure cooker environment. So it had all those dramatic hooks. But I’m always on the lookout for these types of stories from sports and what sports can provide a window into a larger discussion.

But specifically, I’m a Colorado native and when I was in high school, Chris Jackson, who then converted to Islam and changes his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, he refused to stand for the national anthem, and it created this huge controversy at the time, very similar to the [Colin] Kaepernick controversy of today. But it’s often forgotten, it’s been covered a little bit in some of these more recent basketball documentaries, but I think a standalone film about him and his life and career, he’s a fascinating subject. And living in Denver at that time, it was ripe. There were radio personalities that brought a megaphone to a mosque. There’s all these bits and pieces to that story that I don’t think people have told. And even him, he’s almost maybe even still playing today or something, I know he’s played recently in Japan, but he also suffers from Tourette syndrome. He’s just a fascinating guy and I don’t know if anyone’s told that story before. So I always have my eye out for opportunities like that in sports.