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Gumbel’s Stern Words

Last week, Bryant Gumbel’s closing remarks at the end of his Emmy Award-winning HBO series, Real Sports sparked controversy:

“Finally, tonight, if the NBA lockout is going to be resolved any time soon, it seems likely to be done in spite of David Stern, not because of him. I say that because the NBA’s infamously egocentric commissioner seemed more hellbent recently on demeaning the players rather than his game’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 has 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 M.O., like his past self-serving edicts on dress code and the questioning of officials. His moves were 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 the solution and stop being part of the problem.”

Wow. Who knew he had it in him? (I kid.)

Of course, the pundits went right to work dismissing Gumbel’s comments, even with the recent anecdote about NBA star, Dwyane Wade telling Stern not to point at him like he was a child still very easy to find via a Google search. As the LeBron James-Dan Gilbert situation showed two summers ago and Adrian Peterson’s comments during the NFL lockout last spring also proved, folks are committed to preserving the sanctity of chattel slavery in the United States. Slavery is so Prince (or the Sinead O’Connor cover)

And I think that’s wrong.

Yes, these are millionaires. Yes, professional sports labor strikes have absolutely nothing to do with the systemic and systematic dehumanization and disenfranchisement of an entire people, and its effects will not resound hundreds of years from now. I get it. I understand it. I promise I do. But…

Professional sports is a straight-up plantation economy. And when the primary bodies laboring in that economy are black, while those who both own and manage those bodies are mostly white–a group of white elites, mind you–it becomes a bit difficult not to think about the way that slavery echoes in yet another this multi-billion dollar industry.

When Stern took over as commissioner of the NBA, he was given the task to “clean up” a league that was regarded as too black to be economically successful; Stern’s job was to make it more respectable, more palatable to white audiences. One such effort, for example, was instituting a dress code when hip-hop had thoroughly “invaded” the league. In other words, much of Stern’s job is managing black bodies so that they are palatable to white audiences at all times. He manages their production on the court and their presentation while off. Yet we scoff at Gumbel’s assertion that Stern is kind of a modern-day overseer?

I’m just sayin’. There is a curious racial component to both the NFL and NBA lockouts that cannot be adequately described as labor strife. It just can’t, especially when we consider the incredibly short average career of both NFL and NBA athletes. Those bodies are used and discarded. (I will never forget how slowly Doug Williams shuffled into that Las Vegas food court. Never.) And when I hear pundits shut down the conversations that Gumbel’s words reinvigorate, it’s frustrating. Because it shuts down conversations about what it means to vicariously “own” these black bodies in fantasy leagues. It shuts down conversations about what means to call these black men “beasts” when we are in awe of their physical talents. It shuts down conversations about what it means to put players on the trading block or talk about their “value.” It shuts down conversations about the entire fucking NFL Combine. It shuts down conversations about how the spectacle we so enjoy is contingent upon exploiting these men’s physical skill set without ensuring that they have other skill sets to flourish once their bodies can no longer do the work of dunking and tip-toeing the sideline. It shuts down conversations about how irritated we get when athletes offer opinions; we don’t want to know that they think!

The above isn’t basic labor stuff. I’m no expert, but I’m not sure how the way workers are/were treated in factories, for example, give lucidity to this conversation. The plantation economy and the language of slavery sure is helpful, though. If there is another, less sacred example(s) we might employ to help explore Gumbel’s words and all that they’ve reanimated, I’m very happy to hear them. But if we can only properly understand this by invoking the legacy of slavery, then why are we so reluctant?