David Stern and the plantation

October, 19, 2011
10/19/11
12:40
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Bryant Gumbel likened David Stern to a "modern plantation overseer" in talking labor at the close of his HBO "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" show:
[Stern] has alternately knocked union leader Billy Hunter, said the players were getting inaccurate information and started sounding Chicken Little claims about what games might be lost if the players didn’t soon see things his way.

Stern’s version of what’s been going on behind closed doors has, of course, been disputed. But his efforts were typical of 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 MO. Like his past self-serving edicts on dress code or the questioning of officials, his moves are intended to do little more than show how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in their place.

Some will, of course, cringe at that characterization, but Stern’s disdain for the players is as palpable and pathetic as his motives are transparent. Yes, the NBA’s business model is broken, but to fix it, maybe the league’s commissioner should concern himself most with a solution and stop being part of the problem.

This has inspired a flurry of comments, and most, as far as I can tell, are along the lines of: How can anybody who makes as much money as an NBA player be likened in any way to a slave?

Not a new idea
Of course, Gumbel didn't invent this idea, and there's a whole 2006 book about it. The point, of course, is that making money but having precious little control is still a tale of imperfect race relations. Warren Goldstein reviews William C. Rhoden's $40 Million Slaves:
Rhoden argues convincingly that integration posed relatively few problems for the white sports world, which quickly gained access to a huge pool of cheap talent, but that it precipitated a disaster for a “black industry, practically eliminating every black person involved in sports -- coaches, owners, trainers, accountants, lawyers, secretaries and so on -- except the precious on-the-field talent.”

Consequently, most black athletes lost their connection to a “sense of mission . . . of being part of a larger cause.” Young athletes, in particular, “dropped the thread that joins them to that struggle” and became, instead, a “lost tribe,” adrift in the world of white coaches, boosters, agents, club officials, network executives -- those profiting from black muscle and skill. ...

The peerless Michael Jordan, by contrast, declined to be identified with black causes, but even His Airness got taken down when he finally retired from his last on-the-court hurrah with the Washington Wizards (which made about $30 million for the team), expecting to return to the front office, and found himself fired by the owner Abe Pollin.

To Rhoden, this tale bursts with significance, illustrating, in turn: white people’s denial of black business ability while they continue to profit from black athletic skill; black athletes’ training in high school, college and the pros (what he calls the “conveyor belt”) to think only about individual success, never about a system that distributes power unequally; and how even today, professional basketball -- controlled by whites, dependent on blacks (for the present) -- resembles a plantation, albeit one on which the “slaves” earn millions as long as they don’t notice who’s running the show.

Gumbel's comment matters, and not as an isolated attack on Stern.

It's important as a real subtext of the talks going on right now. Since writing the other day that part of what's motivating players is an urge to reconcile exploitative white owner/black player relations of the past, I have heard from any number of sources from the players' side of the talks saying, essentially: "Exactly."

Gumbel's argument might be an awkward one for the NBA, but it's hardly one that can be ignored.

The one issue that's like real life
Undazzle yourself, for a moment, with thoughts of NBA players' salaries and realize that there's a totally different, huge additional issue at stake right now, and this other part of it relates just a little to you.

The "systems issues" that the league wants to change in the name of competitive balance are the same sets of rules that will shift the market to make it far simpler for unproductive nonstar players to be laid off.

The league argues that these changes are in the name of "pay for performance," which sounds great, especially when the other option is what Knicks fans endured with Eddy Curry.

Pay-for-performance isn't everything
In many American towns these days, there's a place where anyone is free to hire -- legally or not -- a day laborer or two without much fear of worker-friendly rules about labor laws, health insurance, retirement, social security contributions and the like. That is pay-for-performance. Your worker got hurt? Run down to the store and swap him for a different one.

I suspect most of us think employers owe workers more of a commitment than that, and it's not just about salary. It's about giving a guy a shot at being able to keep up through the bills through the rocky road of life. Making $12 an hour for one day might get you groceries. Making $12 an hour for a few years might get you a mortgage, or at least on-time rent payments -- which is a totally different and better thing for you, for your town, for society.

Now consider NBA 14th men. They don't have guaranteed deals. They don't have those huge salaries, especially when you spread the dollars they're earning now across the rest of their living days, which is the reality for some, especially considering at this part of the roster few have names that will get them jobs in other fields after they retire.

If the league wins those system changes, shorter contracts, a drastically reduced midlevel exception and a very stiff luxury tax that functions almost like a hard cap, then a big chunk of the NBA's middle class will join the ranks of players on unguaranteed make-good deals. Far more players will be forced to accept contracts where they can be fired at will because they are hurt, unproductive, have upset the owner or anything else. You can see this effect at work in the NFL, where teams can give players multiyear guaranteed deals, the kinds of deals that let you plan for the future ... but despite a sea of profits, only stars get those deals.

The value of a good team makes it smart to pay the whole roster good salaries, but the punishment of a harder cap makes it crazy for GMs to guarantee income to the rank-and-file. Like a landscape contractor working on thin margins, you simply can't afford to commit anything to a guy who's not at the top of his game.

Worth noting is that the union is not arguing for middling NBA players to be guaranteed all those things. It's arguing for them to have the right to negotiate for them case by case.

The restrictions the NBA is talking about would make it so that most free agents would have far fewer teams able to bid on their services. Even if 30 teams would like to have you, only a handful would be able to offer you anything. The supply would be the same as ever, but the demand would be way down compared to the old system, which the union had carefully set up to protect the middle class. Rotation players in the NBA could end up like rotation players in the NFL -- out the door as soon as things stop working for the team.

Maybe that's better for everybody in the big picture. Maybe efficiency is king. Or maybe what's better is just a little more job security. Maybe what's better is workers not ceding all control of their jobs to the bosses in exchange for high salaries. And maybe that's what Bryant Gumbel was getting at.

Henry Abbott | email

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