Is Stern a Plantation Owner?

In last week’s NFL picks column, I wrote that the NBA Lockout doesn’t really bother me and won’t really bother me until football season is over. In all honesty, reading the coverage of the Lockout may actually be more interesting to me than the games would be the first month or two of the season; the NBA season is probably 20 games too long and it is rare for teams to be both talented and motivated in November and December. Usually, this is only the case for up-and-coming teams with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove as opposed to teams that have been there and done that. In any given season there may be 3-5 of these and the rest of the league is comprised of non-contenders or teams coasting into the season.

The backlash from, say, Bryant Gumbel’s recent comments about David Stern has been more compelling to me than the opening of the NBA season. Gumbel took careful consideration to make sure his comments would be noticed, saying:

“[Stern’s] 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 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 cringe at that characterization,” Gumble continued,” 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.”

I have criticized Stern’s heavy-handedness in the past but I think that invoking plantation ownership, whether or not this was an allusion to slavery, is taking things a little bit too far. Under David Stern’s leadership, the players have enjoyed immense growth in amenities, salary, and exposure. 19 NBA players were on this year’s SI Fortunate 50 list of the highest earning athletes; there were seven NFL players and 17 MLB players on this list. Because NBA players are marketed more as individual stars, they rake in endorsement dollars in relation to players in other sports. Stern’s vision has led NBA players to have recognizable faces and marketing deals in China where there is virtually no exposure for any other American sports.

Dan Grunfeld, a former Stanford star and alum of Nicolet High School in Milwaukee where my father and uncles went, wrote a highly detailed piece for SB Nation about how much better NBA players have it with regards to travel amenities than their counterparts playing in Europe.

Private planes, unlimited food and luxury hotels may be the norm in the NBA, but Europe is not the NBA. Oftentimes, playing in Europe or other countries overseas can mean all-day bus rides, knee-to-armpit coach seats, roommates, dinner in the airport and stuff like that. If you’re used to it, it’s really no big deal at all, but there’s no denying that, compared to travel in the NBA, it’s a little different. Maybe not better, and maybe not worse, depending on how much one values things like private planes and awesome hotels, but either way, it’s definitely, definitely different.

The NBA players have become so empowered that they delusionally believe they belong front and center at the negotiating table with Stern and his team of power lawyers. FoxSports’s Jason Whitlock analogized just how outmatched these players are in these labor talks:

Let me re-break the news to the players: Derek Fisher, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and all the other ego-bloated, basketball millionaires are not on Stern’s level in the boardroom. Stern has been balling in the basketball boardroom for three decades. The players look as out of place barging into meetings and negotiating with Stern and his lawyers as Stern and his lawyers would challenging Fisher, Wade, Garnett and Pierce on the court.

How would Wade talk to Stern if the commissioner walked on the court wanting to play one on one? You think Wade might point a finger in Stern’s face and talk to him like a child?

The players need to take some responsibility for the broken NBA system while continuing to fight for a fair deal. In doing so, they need to maintain a level of perspective that they have thus far not demonstrated. It is hard to blame them when Stern is so smug and arrogant and does not necessarily prioritize telling the truth or negotiating in good faith. If the players didn’t feel like union head Billy Hunter was up to the task, they should have replaced him before these labor talks. At this point, though, their best shot at a fair deal lies in delegating the negotiating to the lawyers they have hired and trusting them to get the best deal possible.

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