By Sam Hyman
Coming off of a season in which the National Basketball Association witnessed its greatest popularity since Michael Jordan retired, the league is in a lockout. Without getting into the intricate details of what the two sides are bickering over, the fact of the matter is that the players are not on strike, they are locked out. In short, the owners, led by Commissioner David Stern, are the ones preventing the season from pressing forward.
Inevitably, any scenario where a work stoppage exists is bound to cause public outcries and strong statements; this lockout is not an exception.
If the NBA lockout is going to be resolved anytime soon, it seems likely to be done in spite of David Stern, not because of him. The NBA’s infamously egocentric commissioner seems more hell bent lately on demeaning the players than on solving his game’s labor issues. His efforts are typical of a commissioner who has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern-day plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys. His moves are intended to do little more than show how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in their place. Those were the words of HBO Sports’ Bryant Gumbel regarding Commissioner Stern in his closing segment of HBO’s Real Sports.
Those exacts comments have sparked quite a heated debate since they aired. Interestingly, the debate has revolved less around Stern, and more around Gumbel—the African-American news anchor who invoked a slavery metaphor. What was the true meaning of Gumbel’s statement? More importantly, was his characterization fair?
Being that the statement was made in a closing argument, and that Gumbel has not publicly commented since the airing, the true meaning of the words is left for interpretation. Many people have faulted Gumbel for making such a statement in such a forum. In their minds, such powerful language, with such damaging potential, can only be spun in a negative light. The fact of the matter is that whether Gumbel meant to call Stern racist or simply meant to acknowledge him as an egomaniac on a power trip, he set himself up for criticism.
We live in a society where the importance of what one means to say pales in comparison to the importance of how one says it. In such a society, there exist “trigger words,” that, no matter the context, carry a negative connotation. Being that the majority of these words relate to the history of oppression and slavery in our country’s history, it would seem that Gumbel, a prominent African-American newscaster, would be more than careful with his word choice. If his sole intention was to refer to Stern’s ego, he surely had plenty of other words to choose from. One metaphor may be a slip; three metaphors shows his intention.
Gumbel’s intent is clear: he wanted to portray Stern as a racist white man, in a position of power, asserting his dominance over his mostly black workers (83 percent of NBA players in the 2010-2011 season were people of color, as were 22 out of 25 All-Stars).
Whether you agree with Gumbel’s opinion or not, his decision to use the words he did was flat out wrong. Gumbel carelessly uses the ethnic makeup of the NBA to determine that Stern is a racist. Not only does he provide no fair evidence to support his opinion about the commissioner’s personal feelings, the only piece of comparative history that Gumbel provides is just wrong.
Gumbel refers to Stern’s modus operandi, citing his “past self-serving edict on dress code.” The newscaster is referring to the universal dress code that Stern passed almost six years ago to the day, mandating that, “all players must dress in business or conservative attire while arriving and departing during a scheduled game, on the bench while injured, and when conducting official NBA business.” Many people saw this dress code as a direct response to the “hip-hop culture” that was seemingly becoming intertwined with the NBA at the time. Many critics claimed that Stern was trying to “take the black out of the NBA atmosphere.” Undoubtedly, this is what Gumbel was citing to in his reference. The only problem is that the dress code was not a direct attack at the behavior of the African-American players; in fact, two of the primary causes of the change were Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash (both Caucasian).
Gumbel was clearly trying to make a polarizing statement. However, while freedom of speech gives him the right to his own opinion, it does not give him the right to misrepresent a person’s character. The truth of the matter is that, by all accounts, while he is a full-fledged egomaniac, Stern is not even remotely racist. In the end, Gumbel’s efforts to turn the fans against Stern may have just turned them against himself.