Billy Hunter (left) says racism in basketball has nothing to do with prolonged lockout.

Is High Level Racism Extending NBA Lockout?



Is David Stern a racist? And is high-level racism in basketball an element of the continuing NBA lockout?

On the one hand, the NBA is led by a man born in 1942 during a time when the U.S. military was still segregated, when Jim Crow laws were in full effect, when major league sports were 100 percent White, and when the idea of having a Black man in the White House was as far fetched as having a man walk on the moon.

On the other hand, Stern has been affiliated with the NBA since 1966, and for the bulk of that time the league has been more than 80 percent African American. Under Stern, the NBA has hired a plethora of Black coaches and general managers, has donated a small fortune to inner city causes and charities, and has led the way among major American pro sports in helping to pave the way for African American team ownership.

Now we are in the midst of a five-month-old lockout of NBA players and negotiations that are seemingly at an impasse. People miss their professional basketball, they are getting cranky, and some are suggesting that racism in basketball is an element of the labor problems.

Last month, Bryant Gumbel declared that Stern has a plantation owner mentality in his dealing with the players and that attitude is a contributor to the length of the lockout and the possibility of the NBA going the way of the 2004-2005 NHL and canceling its season. At the same time, Stern was seen wagging his finger at Dwayne Wade while trying to make a point.

This led to a predicable firestorm and subsequent defenses. Bill Russell said any accusation of racism with Stern was “invalid.” He may have hit the nail on the head when he told CBS that if there is a problem color, it’s more likely green. “I think the whole deal is not about Black and White. It’s about money, OK? I don’t see any signs of being greedy. It’s a typical negotiation and that’s all it is. And there are a couple of reasons it’s difficult, because there’s hard-liners on both sides.”

Magic Johnson agreed that Stern has not demonstrated racism in his long-term observations. “He (Stern) always is looking out for the players and what’s best for the league, and I disagree with anybody who says he’s trying to be a plantation owner. It’s ridiculous we’re even talking about it.” Johnson also pointed out that Stern has a job to do. “He’s a tough businessman and a smart businessman,” he said. “That’s what he’s supposed to be.”

Even the head of the NBA Players Association Billy Hunter, the man who has the most to gain from any perception that Stern is racist or that racism in basketball is delaying a settlement, debunks the assertion. “David is a hard-charger,” Hunter said to CBS “David pretty much treats everyone the same. Obviously when you’ve got the set up that you have, a league that is predominantly Black and a group of White owners, it may take on a different color or appearance, but I don’t think David is racist at all.”

It is 2011. There is too much money and too many livelihoods involved for racism in basketball to be a serious element of the current NBA labor situation. Russell has been a civil rights activist since the 1950s and experienced overt racism firsthand during his years in Boston. Johnson is not only a Black man moving in moneyed White circles, he is a Black man with HIV. If anyone knows prejudice it is him. And no one has more to gain than Hunter in discrediting Stern, especially considering Hunter’s constituency. Yet, he passes on that opportunity.

Yes, Stern may have wagged his finger at Wade, and the NBA dress code may be in part a statement against hip-hop. Still, a fair examination of the evidence suggests that Stern is nothing more than a man who by virtue of his job must take an unpopular stance in an ugly public dispute. There may be racism in basketball on some level with some people in the game, but it is very unlikely that Stern is part of that problem. He could not have survived as long as he has if he was.

Hirsch is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine, a publication dedicated to the African American community.

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