There are legitimate disagreements at work here, but that doesn't justify Stern's condescension toward the men who are ostensibly his colleagues.
Greedy bosses want to cut employees' pay. The union tries to fight back. So the CEO, a longtime bully to organized labor, pats the workers on their heads with an admonition: You can't possibly understand such complex negotiations. Let the grownups decide what's best for you.
If this were Walmart, we'd all be outraged, but not when it's millionaires fighting against billionaires in the NBA. Yet the paternalism is no less ugly because of the amount of money involved. And it gets uglier when you consider the racial undertones that necessarily lurk in an industry where every owner but one is white and 83 percent of the workers are black [PDF]. Lately, those tensions have been bubbling to the surface—most egregiously in the acidic condescension of Commissioner David Stern.
The lockout has already claimed the first month of NBA games, and the possibility of losing the entire season grows more likely every day. The players and team owners remain miles apart on how to structure the league’s salary cap and revenue-sharing agreement in the age of ballooning player contracts and a weak national economy. There are legitimate disagreements at work here, but that doesn't justify Stern's condescension toward the men who are ostensibly his colleagues.
Things started to heat up a week ago, when commentator Bryant Gumbel voiced what many people sympathetic to the players had been thinking: Commissioner David Stern is on a power trip that knows no bounds. Stern has "always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys," Gumbel said, adding that Stern seems most interested in showing "how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in their place."
It’s important to note, as Deadspin has, that "hired hands" are not the same as slaves, even in the context of a plantation. Gumbel didn’t "play the race card"; he correctly identified the power dynamic that has arisen from Stern and the owners’ fundamental misunderstanding of the value the players bring to a basketball league. Many people have said they refuse to sympathize with players making millions of dollars a year, but they, too, miss the point: Paternalism is paternalism, no matter how much money is involved.
Before the week was out, another prominent sports commentator had drawn fire for his own interpretation of the dynamic between players and owners. In a column largely critical of the owners, Bill Simmons wrote, "I don't trust the players' side to make the right choices, because they are saddled with limited intellectual capital. (Sorry, it's true.) The owners' side can't say the same; they should be ashamed." This came on the heels of a piece in which Simmons argued that Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce shouldn't have been allowed to talk in a meeting because they spent a combined total of three years in college—as if higher education was the main criterion for being able to represent one's own interests.
Simmons' labeling of basketball players as stupid—he later defended himself by tweeting that other athletes are equally dumb—has been roundly criticized, most eloquently by David J. Leonard on the New Black Man blog. But what struck me is not that a sportswriter thinks the players he covers have "limited intellectual capital," but that the NBA commissioner agrees with him.
The same day Simmons wrote about players' lack of higher education, Stern blamed National Basketball Players' Association chief Billy Hunter—an attorney, not a basketball player—for misleading union members about the specifics of the owners' proposals in an interview on The Dan Patrick Show. It was not the first time Stern had tried to bully Hunter and NBA players through the media, but on this occasion, he went further than ever.
"I think the players, if the rank-and-file truly understood the dynamic of the negotiations, they would have a completely different picture," Stern said, according to a transcript from CBS Sports. "And they would say, 'Let's get back to work.'" His intention was to demonize Hunter for manipulating the players, not the athletes themselves—though why the union head would deceive the people he represents to steer them away from their own interests is unclear. But it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see Stern's crucial point: Athletes aren't capable of understanding complex contract negotiations. Better they leave the discussions to the grownups. Amazingly, this quote has gone largely unremarked upon, while Simmons' and Gumbel's far less relevant opinions have been dissected endlessly.
Bosses asserting that they know what’s best for their employees is a classic trope in labor disputes, but rarely do CEOs make their prejudice so clear. In this case the paternalism is particularly unwarranted: Plenty of NBA owners have shown themselves to be incompetent buffoons, and many of them are rich simply because they were born that way. What Stern doesn’t understand is that playing professional basketball doesn’t make someone stupid, nor does being a billionaire make them smart—a lack of comprehension that threatens both his once-shining legacy and the stability of the entire league.
Tough contract negotiations are nearly inevitable in any industry, particularly during a weak economy, and the NBA has real issues that need to be addressed. But the only way those problems are going to be fixed is if Stern stops trying to decide what's best for basketball players and actually takes into account what they have to say. In other words, stop relegating them to the kids' table and treat them like the grown men that they are.