Unacceptable Blackness: The NBA Lockout As A White-Collar Race War

What are we really fighting about?

For the scarred veterans of countless throw-downs with significant others, it is the grand question that hovers over each petty incident—the subtitles that clarify the curse words. And every now and then, the more mature versions of ourselves can diffuse a hostile situation by asking that question.

But sometimes it only makes things worse.

The NBA lockout has been the polished version of a lover’s quarrel. Finances, commitment and respect guide the undercurrent of deep-seeded issues between players and owners that have boiled over into a stalemate that must be settled, because there is a Collective Bargaining Agreement that needs to be signed before another minute of NBA basketball is played.

But asking that vital question — What are we really fighting about? – would not diffuse this situation. In this case, it may actually bring to the surface answers that are more disturbing than the issues we’re willing to talk about right now.

The root of the lockout is, of course, money. But at the root of those money issues is power. And at the root of the power dynamic is race.

How could it not be, when 95 percent of the league’s owners are White and 85 percent of the players are Black?

Offended as the basketball world may have been by Brian Cardinal‘s $35 million contract or Nick Collison‘s $13.2 million salary last season, I knew the NBA was inevitably headed for a lockout when one of the few men who would’ve been justified in signing an out-of-the-stratosphere deal — LeBron James — actually took less money than expected to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat.

It wasn’t because LeBron’s addition would likely turn the Heat into a juggernaut. History has shown us that the NBA doesn’t exactly suffer when a small number of dominant franchises hoard championships.

The red flag in LeBron’s decision was that it represented a new breed of NBA player: One that is too smart, too powerful and too rich for the league to control.

For decades, professional athletes have been wired to do as they are told. It is a mindset born early: from the time Little Leaguers are taught to respect and obey the coach, from when students are taught to respect and obey the teacher, from when babies learn to respect and obey the parent.

Watch a football game and count how many times the quarterback looks over to the sidelines for direction. Watch a track meet and count how many runners, jumpers and throwers make a beeline to their coaches in times of success or failure. Athletes operate best under the guidance of authority.

At the highest level of basketball, NBA players were always commodities to be bought and sold at the whim of the front office. Where they were drafted, when and how they were traded, all beyond their control. Even in free agency, the sense was that players only entertained offers from teams that approached them first, rather than taking a proactive approach to determine their destinies.

Just by looking at the numbers, nine times out of 10, these transactions involve a White man controlling a Black man’s professional fate for the ultimate financial benefit of another White man. And to an extent, it will always be that way.

But then last summer LeBron and his superstar Miami mates changed the game. They got together and decided how things were going to go. They called the shots. And maybe, on a less-visible level, something like that had happened before. But never like that.

It was only natural, though, considering that this is the generation of NBA players who grew up idolizing Michael Jordan. These are the players who watched MJ become bigger than the league while becoming rich enough to eventually own an NBA team. These are the players who now earn larger salaries for mediocre production than Jordan earned in salary during most of his prime years.

These are also the players who entered the NBA with an unprecedented amount of power. It just took a national-TV special and an All-Star summit organized by Wade (as he alluded to months beforehand in Dime #54) for everybody to realize it.

That’s when the NBA’s power dynamic — that aforementioned Black and White thing — took a turn that didn’t agree with the establishment. According to a New York Times report from an NBA owners meeting held days after the LeBron signing, “there was some sentiment for revisiting the rules governing player-to-player tampering.”

NBA commissioner David Stern was quoted in that article. “What we told the owners was that the three players are totally, as our system has evolved, within their rights to talk to each other,” he said.

Stern was, of course, talking about that same “evolved” system that his league’s owners are now willing to lose a season’s worth of revenue to overhaul.

Under the rules of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that NBA owners want, players will receive less money over shorter contracts thanks to a hard salary cap, as well as a smaller percentage of the overall revenue pot.

Less money means less power, and less power means less entitlement for players to make the decisions that dictate the league’s future. Again, the racial demographics involved in this scenario cannot be overlooked.

Now here is where a lot of people will call BS. “NBA players are given millions of dollars to play basketball,” they’ll say. “Now you’re calling the league racist? Really?

These are many of the same people, mind you, who use terms like “post-racial” and claim racism is dead because Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. And to the segment of America’s Black population still living under the omnipresent uncertainty of what White people will let us get away with, that thinking makes sense: If they let Obama be president, if they let Oprah be a saint, if they let O.J. get off (until Vegas), then letting NBA players make so much money means it can’t be a racism issue.

But I’m not saying this is racism. I’m not saying David Stern is the devil or that James Dolan hates Black people or that Clay Bennett is part of the Klan.

Stern is the one caught in the middle here, the guy trying to appease his employers (the owners) while maintaining authority over his subordinates (the players). Dolan and Bennett and every other White owner in the league (even Dan Gilbert) surely appreciate the contributions of Black players and employees to boosting their personal fortunes. I’m sure some of their best friends are Black.

I’m not saying it’s simple racism. I’m saying it’s a racial issue. There’s a difference.

The NBA has been teetering on the edge of being unacceptably too Black for years. There was Allen Iverson, and then Ron Artest, and then Kwame Brown and his band of high schoolers. The mostly-White owners frowned upon it and the mostly-White media bitched about it, but as far as threats go, the braids and brawls were blue-collar problems. Those were easily fixable with a few updated policies governing clothes, age and aggressive behavior.

The NBA lockout is the manifestation of a white-collar problem. Under the old CBA, the likes of LeBron and Chris Paul and Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony could have essentially run the league, because they’d finally realized they had the talent and the power and the money to do so.

The owners need some of that power back, to restore the balance to which they were accustomed. They need to be able to cut players loose from big contracts at a moment’s notice like they do in the NFL — the league whose practices were referred to as modern-day slavery by multiple players during its recent lockout.

The NBA owners need to be able to keep their players in check.

Otherwise, the alternative would be an uprising of billion-dollar proportions. Call it a power struggle. Call it a white-collar race war. Call it the unthinkable fantasy of the Jack Johnsons and Curt Floods of eras past.

Just don’t call it strictly business.

Follow Austin on Twitter at @AustinBurton206.

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