I watched curiously as Bryant Gumbel, host of “Real Sports,” referred to NBA Commissioner David Stern as a “modern day overseer.” The comments rocked the world, probably more so than anything Gumbel has ever said in the past. Based on Gumbel’s remarks over the years, I quietly suspect that beneath the polished, articulate demeanor lies a Black Panther always waiting to happen. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I respect him so much – there’s nothing more threatening than a powerful, brilliant Black man willing to go to battle for a cause he believes in. Gumbel might be more digestible for the power structure if he were a little less-educated – I’m sure that David Stern and company are left off balance after being called a racist by a man who knows more four syllable words than anyone he’s ever met.
My only interaction with Commissioner David Stern came in 2007, when a professor released a study arguing that NBA refs call more fouls on Black players than white ones. I was on the phone that morning with Stern, the professor who did the study and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. I listened carefully to Stern, as he smoothly explained away the study by seeking to fully discredit the scholar who wrote the article. Although I sided with Stern that the statistical significance of the study implied that the disparate impact was not nearly as great as some were trying to believe, I got a close look at just how dirty this man can be.
David Stern, in my opinion, is not a racist. But you don’t have to be a racist to be an overseer. Stern wouldn’t care if the players in the NBA were white, Black or any other race, since capitalist exploitation is designed to enslave anyone who is not positioned to fight back. But what Stern fully understands is that it’s easier to be a capitalist overseer when controlling Black men than for any other group of people. America doesn’t care how you treat Black men, because many already believe that there is something wrong with us – Stern would likely hear more complaints if he were trying to abuse puppies.
The media loves to report on Black men doing bad things (while ignoring the good), they applaud when the commissioner implements a paternalistic dress code, and Stern is allowed to work with billionaire team owners to conspire with the NCAA to restrict athletes’ rights to free labor mobility. One perfect example is the NBA age limit of 19 years old, forcing players to give away millions in marketing and branding value to the unpaid multi-billion dollar farce of an academic institution called the NCAA. In fact, if the NBA is a sports plantation, the NCAA is not much more than an athletic brothel.
Gumbel’s public outburst toward Stern is a valuable shot across the bow that will surely snatch the attention of everyone involved. Stern will have to dodge allegations of racism as he seeks to collude with NBA owners to further erode players’ share of league revenue, and Gumbel might find himself (like millions of other Black men) in the unemployment line. But the beauty of this interaction is that Gumbel has been willing to use his power to make statements that will serve to help end (as William Rhoden at the New York Times calls it) the era of the $40 million dollar slave.
Gumbel’s remarks about Stern are a continuation of the drama that has been unfolding during the recent NBA lockout negotiations. NBA star Dwyane Wade lashed out at Commissioner Stern during a meeting, telling him that he’s “not his child.” The strong response by NBA players is an improvement over the horrible manner by which owners put the economic hammer on them during the last lockout in 1998. Since that time, salaries have barely increased and the rookie caps are ridiculously relative to the revenue being generated by top young players. Owners won the last battle by doing something that players simply could not do: Stick together.
Things have changed since 1998. Players now have international brands that they can sell around the world, giving them more opportunities than any overseer would like for his workers to have. Also, players like Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and LeBron James have found that working together is better than being crabs in a barrel. When I taught a class in Chinese five years ago, I was stunned by the number of Chinese boys who love basketball (even more than Black boys do here in the United States), so there is a global market for their ability. Players know they have options and have shown their willingness to exercise them.
In addition to stronger marketability and a greater willingness to stand up for themselves, NBA players now have something else on their side: Education. While the stereotype of the deliberately ignorant Black athlete still does exist, more and more players are learning from the mistakes of their fathers. They’ve learned the value of ownership and also fully understand that how you play the game off the court is just as important as your ability to hit jump shots and free throws.
Bryant Gumbel has done a wonderful thing for the players by acknowledging the racial writing on the wall of the NBA lockout. Both the NCAA and NBA are effectively groups of rich and powerful white men seeking to control the economic options of a group of young Black men. Sure there are some exceptions, but anyone can see the dividing line of race. David Stern and men like him are accustomed to calling the shots and controlling Black men in the same ways that we are managed in the school and prison systems, which are thinly-veiled derivatives of the institution of slavery itself.
If men like Bryant Gumbel continue to stand up and speak truth to power as they did in the 1960s, we may see plantations being cracked at their very foundations. Black people as powerful as Gumbel are supposed to be afraid to confront race and to tip toe on this delicate, unforgivable terrain, like wimpy DC politicians. But Gumbel is breaking the unwritten rule stating that honest discussions of race by men in Gumbel’s position are strictly forbidden (even as we build memorials for Dr. King with Walmart money and refuse to include the words “black,” “negro” or “racism”), and this lays out a frightening scenario for those who’ve become accustomed to being able to control the thinking and actions of educated Black men.
Welcome to Part 2 of “The Rise of the Planet of the Athletes.” I have a feeling the Gumbel’s outburst might be just the beginning.