Sports | Racial Tensions in Lockouts

As we approach the end of the NFL season, and sink further into an already captivating NBA season, it’s easy to forget that both leagues were entrenched in ugly labor disputes for most of 2011. These lockouts were a fundamental battle between the owners and the players of each league – a battle over who would get a bigger piece of the ever growing revenue pie (for the NFL), and over how the money would and could be spent (for the NBA). Professional sports have become so lucrative that these conflicts are basically inevitable. With so much money at stake, there will always be arguments over who should have more of it: the players, the owners, or the suppliers. All of this suggests that money is at the root of the issue of all these lockouts (and watch out, because there’s rumblings of another NHL lockout occurring).

But there’s another aspect of these lockouts that’s even more troubling, which lies in the subtext beneath talks of revenue streams, percentages, and salary caps. These lockouts were about control, about a group of owners trying to curb a group of players in order to make sure they knew who was more powerful. Since the players, many who are of colour, have become more powerful and upwardly mobile, this battle has dredged up some uncomfortable racial tensions.  Money was a big part of the lockout, but control of the league was the ugly undertones behind every negotiation.

Let’s start with the NBA lockout – the one  which  forced the league to cancel two months of the season and left many arena workers temporarily unemployed. The basis of the owner’s lockout was driven by a desire to change the league’s financial system – one that was leading many teams in the league towards insolvency. The owners decided that the main issue was how much money the players were receiving under the collective bargaining agreement they had signed years earlier, wherein the players were slated to receive 57 per cent of the profits.

In addition to this, the NBA owners sought to keep the power of the major players in check – who angered the owners by forcing themselves onto bigger market teams at the expense of nearly bankrupt small market teams. The 2010-11 season saw LeBron James abandon small market Cleveland for big market Miami, leaving Cleveland arguably bereft of talent. Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony also forced their teams, the Jazz and Nuggets, respectively, to trade them to bigger markets. Anthony, in particular, forced his trade to the New York Knicks by essentially telling his owners that he would leave in free agency after the season, no matter what contract they offered. He also wouldn’t agree to sign with any team but the Knicks, such that no other team would try and trade for him. By doing so, Anthony leveraged his star power and forced the Nuggets to trade him, engineering his own move to a bigger market. In the ugliest terms, this was a battle between a group of mostly black players who found themselves gaining increasing amounts of power at what the mostly white owners and commissioner saw as at their own expense.

Negotiations became very contentious, and comparisons occasionally came up that compared NBA players to slaves and the team owners to slave owners. Bryant Gumbel, a notable black sports commentator, summed it up by saying that commissioner David Stern’s efforts in negotiations have been “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…His moves were intended to do little more than show how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in place.” So, yes, money and a financial restructuring of the system were among the goals of the NBA lockout. The owners wanted more revenue from the league profits for themselves and to curb runaway spending. But, the part that everyone knew was there but was rarely spoken of, was the issue of control.

The NFL lockout didn’t escape comparisons of slave relationships either. Star running back Adrian Peterson came out saying that the lockout and the NFL owner’s efforts to make more money from total league revenue as “modern-day slavery,” adding, “People kind of laugh at that, but there are people working at regular jobs who get treated the same way… The owners are trying to…bring in more money. I understand that; these are business-minded people. Of course this is what they are going to want to do… But as players, we have to stand our ground and say, ‘Hey – without us, there’s no football.’”

The NFL lockout was predicated on the idea that the owners deserved a bigger piece of the pie than the players –  or at least more than they were getting under the previous collective bargaining agreement. Because the NFL had become the most profitable sports league in United States, and the owners claimed that they needed more money in order to stay solvent; but, of course, they were hesitant to show their own financial documents to the players association.  They also sought to institute a new salary cap and restrictions on how much draft picks could receive upon entering the league.  One of their early stipulations, as well, was a longer regular season, which would bring in even more revenue to the owners, no matter the health risks to the players.

On the other side of the table, the players wanted to keep their share of the revenue, believing (quite rightly) that they are whom people pay to watch and, therefore, more deserving. They also asked for some more post-career benefits since the rate of injury is so high in. In the end, as the season approached and there was a real danger of game cancellations, the two sides came to an agreement, which gave more money to the owners and restricted draft pick payment. It also offered more healthcare benefits for the players as well as getting rid of the 18 game season. Although less overt than the NBA’s control struggle, this was still a dispute over who has control over the league and who reaped the rewards from it. While money was one main consideration, it was about more than just that. The owners sought to make the players subservient, just like the owners of the NBA wanted to do with their players.

At their base levels, each lockout is about cold, hard money, and who gets more of it. But inextricably tied to that is the idea of power and the attempt by owners to tamp down the players’ power, many of whom are young, empowered black men. As the NHL inches toward negotiations (the players are currently receiving 57 per cent of league revenue, a figure owners want to lower), we can expect to see this struggle all over again. If you’re looking for the most damaging aspect of money intertwined with sports, well, here it is.