Parity, Race and the NBA Lockout

January 13, 2024
5 mins read


By David J. Leonard |With thanks to NewBlackMan

Saturday, November 19, 2011.

In wake of LeBron James’ decision to take his talents, along with those of Chris Bosh, to South Beach to join forces with Dwayne Wade, the NBA punditry has been lamenting the demise of the NBA.  This only became worse with the subsequent trades of Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony to New Jersey and New York respectfully.  Described as a league “out of control in terms of the normal sports business model” where player power “kills the local enthusiasm for the customer and fan base,” where superstars leave smaller markets with no hope of securing a championship, where manipulating players and agents have created a game dominated by “players whose egos are bigger than the game,” much has been made about player movement.

Commentators have lamented how players are yet again destroying the game from the inside, thinking of themselves ahead of its financial security and cultural importance.  In “NBA no longer fan-tastic,” Rick Reilly laments the changing landscape facing the NBA.  Unlike any other sport, the NBA is now a league where “very rich 20-somethings running the league from the backs of limos,” are “colluding so that the best players gang up on the worst. To hell with the Denvers, the Clevelands, the Torontos. If you aren’t a city with a direct flight to Paris, we’re leaving. Go rot.”  In other words, this line of criticism have warned that “the inmates are running the asylum,” so much so that the league “is little more than a small cartel of powerful teams, driven by the insecurities and selfishness of the players who stack them.”

While such rhetoric erases history (of trades – players of the golden generation have certainly demanded trades; the same can be said for other sports as well) and works from a faulty premise that parity is good for the economics of the NBA (the very different television monies for the NBA and NFL proves the faultiness of this logic), the idea that the league needs more parity remains a prominent justification for the NBA lockout.   “The owners believe that the league should be more competitive and that teams should have an opportunity to make a profit,” notes David Stern. Similarly, Adam Silver, deputy commissioner, argues, “Our view is that the current system is broken in that 30 teams are not in a position to compete for championships.”

Such rhetoric and Stern’s ubiquitous statements about the NBA needing a dramatic restructuring builds upon argument that the NBA’s future is tied to its ability to thwart players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, and potentially Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and others from taking their talents anywhere.  The cautionary rhetoric was evident in Jason Whitlock’s “NBA players are wrecking their league:”

This whole NBA scenario — from LeBron’s Decision to Melo’s Madness to Deron’s Escape — reminds me of the American housing bubble. . . .

For close to a decade, NBA players have walked the thin line between love and hate with their customers. The players crossed it when Ron Artest and several Indiana Pacers climbed into the stands to brawl with spectators. Commissioner David Stern instituted a string of new rules — dress code, tougher restrictions prohibiting fighting, 19-year-old age requirement for the draft — to push the players back on the other side of the line.

Those Band-Aid policies are starting to break. The players, many of whom have never grasped the need to understand and satisfy their customer base, are beginning to unwittingly push back.

Soaked in the arrogance of fame, wealth, immaturity and business ignorance, the players have dramatically reshaped the league with their free-agent and impending free-agent maneuvers.

In doing so — in destroying basketball in Cleveland, Utah and Denver — LeBron, Melo, Amar’e and Deron reinforced the perception among fans that teams don’t matter.

“As a player, you have to do what’s best for you,” Wade told reporters in reaction to the Carmelo trade to New York. “You can’t think about what someone’s going to feel or think on the outside. You have to do what’s best for you, and that’s what some players are doing. I’m happy for those players that felt that they wanted to be somewhere and they got their wish.”

That pretty much sums up the mentality of the modern-day American and modern-day pro athlete. Pleasing the individual takes precedence over everything else. It doesn’t matter that the collective strength of the NBA made Wade rich. Wade and other NBA players must be concerned only with themselves. That’s the American way.

He, like others, has called upon David Stern and the owners to protect the league, the game, and the players from the players themselves.  And that is what we are seeing with the NBA lockout.  Yes, it is about money – yes, it is about free-agency, the mid-level exception, hard versus soft caps, splits in revenue, and countless other issues but in the end this struggle is one that is about power and control.  It is a struggle to reverse if not end free agency, to guarantee profit and competitiveness (and lower salaries) through limiting player movement.  It is about reversing the victories  of past collective bargaining agreements and even Curt Flood.

It represents a struggle from the owners to make sure the future LeBron James’ doesn’t have the ability to take his talents to South Beach; it is a fight to make sure the next wave of stars doesn’t follow in the footsteps of Carmelo and Deron Williams who purportedly used the mere prospect of free agency to lead to force a trade.  It is a fight about restricting the power of the NBA’s 40 million dollar slaves from exercising what little power they possess. 

While the issues at work certainly relate to notions of parity, small market versus big market, and countless other issues, the scorn and rhetoric sounding the alarms plays upon fears resulted from the increased perceived power of black athletes.  The fears, the accusations, and the speculation as to the demise of the league, all which play on the purported selfishness, lack of intelligence, egos, and overall attitude of today’s (black) players builds upon longstanding stereotypes regarding black masculinity.  It is the living embodiment of the infamous words said between two cops regarding Malcolm X: “that’s too much power for one man to have.”  The NBA players, its primarily black players, have exhibited too much power, leading to widespread panics and condemnation; it has led to action in the form of the NBA lockout.

We can understand the NBA lockout by looking at the work of Herman Gray, who argued that blackness exists as a “marker of internal threats to social stability, cultural morality, and economic prosperity.” It is similarity evident in the writings of Homi Bhabbi who persuasively described blackness in the white imagination as “both savage (cannibal) and yet the most obedient and signified of servants (the bearer of food); he is the embodiment of rampant sexuality and yet innocent as a child; he is mystical, primitive, simple-minded and yet the most worldly and accomplished liar, and manipulator of social forces.” 

 The NBA lockout is justified by the ideas that blackness is “simple-mindedness” that blackness is childishness, and that blackness is a space of manipulation, all of which threatens the long-term success and profitability of the NBA product.  The lockout is an effort to get that under control, to prevent anymore runaway slaves from putting themselves ahead of the plantation, I mean the game. 


David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. 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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