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By David J. Leonard | with thanks to NewBlackMan


Sunday, January 1, 2012.


Several weeks back, at the conclusion of HBO’s Real SportsBryant Gumbel took David Stern to task for his arrogance, “ego-centric approach” and eagerness “to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men, as if they were his boys.”  Highlighting the power imbalances and the systematic effort to treat the greatest basketball players on earth as little more than “the help,”Gumbel invoked a historic frame to illustrate his argument.


If the NBA lockout is going to be resolved anytime soon, it seems likely to be done in spite of David Stern, not because of him. I say that because the NBA’s infamously ego-centric commissioner seems more hell-bent lately on demeaning the players than resolving his league’s labor impasse.


How else to explain Stern’s rants in recent days? To any and everyone who would listen, he 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 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 that 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 M.O. Like his past self-serving edicts on dress code or the questioning of officials, his moves were intended to do little more than show how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in 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.


Not surprisingly, his comments have evoked widespread criticism and scorn: see Example #1Example #2Example #3 and Example #4).  Even less surprising, commentators have chastised Gumbel for inserting race into the discussions, as if race isn’t central to the lockout, the media coverage, and fan reaction.  As evidence, the response to Gumbel, and the ubiquitous efforts to blame the lockout and the labor situation on the players through racialized language (see here for example – h/t @resisting_spec), illustrates the ways in which race and hegemonic ideas of blackness operates in this context. 


Also revealing has been the response to Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer for the NBA players Association, who similarly described David Stern’s treatment of the players.  He told the Washington Post: “To present that in the context of 'take it or leave it,' in our view, that is not good faith. Instead of treating the players like partners, they're treating them like plantation workers.”  While his comment elicited some backlash along with an apology, the vitriol and the level of indignation didn’t match the reaction to Gumbel. 


Beyond the power of white privilege in this regard, what has been striking has been the references to history by the anti-Gumbel/Kessler crowd; much of the criticism at Gumbel and Kessler has focused on their historic amnesia.  That is, their comments, while being inaccurate, unfair, and infusing race into otherwise colorblind situation, are disrespectful towards the history of slavery in America.  References to slavery in this context betray the violent history of American slavery.  In “Occupy the NBA: A Plea from an Avid Basketball Fan” Timothy Jones takes Gumbel to task for the historic slight here:


I’m appalled that anyone would compare this situation to slavery. I have great respect for Bryant Gumbel, but hisquote that David Stern sees himself as a modern day plantation overseer is not only disrespectful to our ancestors, but it also did nothing to help this situation. Stern may not be handling this situation well, he may not have the best interest of the players in mind, he may be a mean person (I really have no clue), but I do know that brothers making millions of dollars are nothing like slaves on a plantation.


Charles Barkley agreed, referring to Gumbel’s comments as “stupid” and “disrespectful to black people who went through slavery. When (you're talking about) guys who make $5 million a year.”  Likewise,Scott Reid questioned the use of such an analogy given history: “The point is that too many people inappropriately use slavery and enslaved people to make points about things that are nowhere close to comparison. All of these casual slavery analogies do nothing but diminish one of the worst crimes against humanity in human history. Comparing enslaved Africans, or anyone else for that matter since slavery still exists for many enslaved people, is not only absurd, it is just plain disrespectful to the memory of the millions who perished under the worst kind of injustice.”


While seemingly representing a different set of politics, blogger David Friedman also noted the historic disrespect in Gumbel’s comments:


Bryant Gumbel's ludicrous, poorly thought-out (and anti-Semitic) rant against Stern: comparing Stern to a "plantation overseer" is offensive, a falsehood that simultaneously diminishes the true suffering of Black slaves in the American South while also slurring a Commissioner whose league has consistently been at the forefront in terms of hiring Black executives and coaches. Gumbel's attack against Stern comes straight out of the Louis Farrakhan playbook--portraying Jews as exploiters of Blacks--and Gumbel's consistent track record of expressing such bigoted attitudes would have terminated his career a long time ago if his chosen target were any group other than Jews (just imagine a White commentator speaking similarly about a Black person or anyone saying anything remotely derogatory regarding homosexuals).


At one level, I find such criticisms to be simplistic.  The references to slavery are not literal comparisons, but rhetorical devices that seek to emphasis power, race, and the control of black bodies within modern sporting context.  The rhetorical comparison/analogy isn’t simply about physical control but ideological and mental power differentials.  Moreover, in a society that routinely devalues,ignores, sanitizes, and erases the horrors of American slavery, I think the selective resistance by many raises questions.


Yet, questions and criticisms about a slavery analogy (and it is an analogy) are important because it demonstrates the power of language.  There is a danger in comparisons as differences or the specificity of history are erased, flattened, and otherwise stripped because of the varied realities at work. 


Yet, the critics of the “40-million dollar slave metaphor” are often as guilty as those deploying (myself included) these analogies through their frame of history.  In other words, in imagining slavery as a historic institution, as something exclusively in the past, these critics perpetuate the false understanding of slavery in our contemporary moment.  The danger and difficulty of this rhetorical comparison is not simply about betraying or disrespecting history (how can two so different experiences be described through the same word/historic frames), but in perpetuating the idea that slavery exists ONLY in the past.  These critics lament Gumbel, Rhoden, and others by arguing that the NBA, in the contemporary, has nothing to do with slavery, which exists in the past. 


Slavery exists in our present and in our presence.  From Brazil to Ivory Coast, from India to Nepal, from Florida to North Carolina, slavery exists in our contemporary world.  It remains a violent scourge on our society. Understanding both history and the contemporary manifestations of slavery must inform rather than obscure, complicate rather than simplify, and provide depth rather than flatten the rhetorical usage of slavery metaphors, whether it be with the NBA, sports, or otherwise. Phillip Lamar Cunningham, in “Toward An Appropriate Analogy,” illustrates the complexity here, reflecting on a shared and divergent history, one that points to the dialects of race, power, body, control and economic profits:


That said, today’s NBA player’s situation is not wholly unlike that of the post-Civil War freedman. Free of literal shackles, the former slave is free to fend for himself now that he is no longer bound to the plantation. While he was free to go anywhere he chose, he faced the choice of living in a volatile South or a disdainful North that merited him no semblance of equality. Some fled North and carved something out of nothing; many stayed behind as sharecroppers.


To drive the analogy further, one must also consider the position in which league owners find themselves, which is not unlike that of the former slaveowner. With his hold on the slave relinquished, the slaveowner still held the same need for labor. With his primary source of labor now having a semblance of independence, the plantation owner had to negotiate labor costs. Theoretically, he could look elsewhere for labor, but of course the former slave was best suited for the work. This is not unlike today’s NBA, a league in which its primarily black talent is best suited for the job and without whom it is likely to fail or at least face a great deal of hardship in returning to prominence (as did the National Hockey League after its 2004 lockout).


Consider the following quote regarding sharecropping from Alan Conway’s controversial The Reconstruction of Georgia(1966): “[S]harecropping was to a degree the least of all evils, a yoke of compromise which chafed both parties but strangled neither. The owner was able to retain a fair amount of supervision of his land and the Negro cropper took his half loaf of independence as better than none at all” (116). Sadly, the same easily could be paraphrased and applied to today’s NBA lockout.


While NBA players are neither slaves on 19th century cotton fields nor those who pick tomatoes, harvest cocoa in the Ivory Coast, or work in the sex, soy and soccer ball industries, the “40 million dollar slave” is part of that history.   




David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs @ No Tsuris.


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