December 21, 2003


The Blazers forward's remarks on race and exploitation in the NBA offer a chance for
broader discussion, an expert says

By Geoffrey C. Arnold

Race is a difficult subject. It pushes emotional hot buttons and can quickly heat up a conversation.

That's what happened recently after Rasheed Wallace's interview in The Oregonian. The Blazers forward's opinions on race and exploitation in the NBA ignited a firestorm of controversy in the league and, in some ways, the United States.

According to one expert, that shouldn't have surprised anyone.

"Race touches a chord, and it's not a pretty one, either," said Jon Entine, a scholar-in-residence at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and author of "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We are Afraid to Talk About It."

"People don't talk rationally or act rationally when race is an issue. It cuts far deeper than our feelings about sports."

In particular, Wallace's words hit the NBA like a sledgehammer. Commissioner David Stern issued a heated and terse rebuke. But beyond that, talk within the league has been quiet. Essentially, the race card remains on the NBA table.

But Wallace forced people to at least acknowledge the card.

Although the league can rightly tout its number of black players and coaches, Wallace reminded everyone that there are few at the decision-making and ownership level.

And though NBA players earn much more than the average worker, Wallace was going on the record with the feeling that players often feel like commodities. Though they are the moneymakers for the league, they have little control over their basketball lives and are subject to the control of generally white management.

"With all the progress that's being made in the NBA at the coaching level, in scouting, and general managership, it's still a white power structure," Entine said. "The NBA is further along -- leaps and bounds further along -- than the NFL and certainly major league baseball. But it's also more dominated by African Americans than any other sport.

"Changes come slowly, but probably not fast enough for a lot of the players, who, for whatever reason, view the NBA as a plantation. It's a wealthy plantation and certainly well paid, but there's a certain sense that they're still hired hands."

Black players make up an estimated 80 percent of the roughly 420 players (the approximate number changes as players are waived and signed to short-term contracts). Yet the percentage of African American coaches, decisionmakers and owners is low when compared with the percentage of players.

Of the NBA's 29 majority owners, one is African American (Robert Johnson, owner of the expansion Charlotte Bobcats). There are nine African American coaches (31 percent). There are four in decision-making positions regarding player personnel (Billy Knight, director of basketball operations for Atlanta; Joe Dumars, president of basketball operations for Detroit; Elgin Baylor, vice president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Clippers; and Billy King, president and general manager of Philadelphia).

Still, from another perspective, the NBA looks progressive.

"Of all the leagues, on the issue of race, nobody is even close to the NBA in terms of what they have accomplished, in terms of people in senior level positions -- general managers, head coaches, and professional staff on a team," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.

"Stack it up against any part of corporate America, or stack it up against any other professional sport, it is by far the best."

Indeed, the NBA's number of African Americans in coaching and upper-level management positions looks groundbreaking compared to the NFL and major league baseball.

Roughly 65 percent of players in the NFL are black, but there are just three African American coaches (Tony Dungy of Indianapolis; Herman Edwards of the New York Jets and Marvin Lewis of Cincinnati) in the 32-team league. There have been six since Art Shell became the NFL's first of the modern era in 1989 with Oakland.

All of the owners are white and the four minority executives are general manager Ozzie Newsome of Baltimore; Rod Graves, vice president of football operations for Arizona; James Harris, vice president for player personnel in Jacksonville; and Ray Anderson, vice president and chief contract negotiator for Atlanta.

Meanwhile, blacks make up about 10 percent of the players in major league baseball, according to the 2003 Racial and Gender Report Card, published by the Central Florida institute. There are no African American owners and three managers (Dusty Baker of the Chicago Cubs, Frank Robinson of Montreal and Lloyd McClendon of Pittsburgh).

So although there's really no disputing that the NBA is the most progressive of the major professional sports leagues in terms of its managers and supervisors mirroring society, it's also true that -- given the predominance of white owners and decisionmakers -- there's a sense of economic exploitation among players.

Another way of putting it: If your group is bringing in most of the money, you probably feel your group ought to be calling more of the shots.

"I don't think there's any generation of basketball players that haven't felt like they've been exploited," said Phil Jackson, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. "That's the feeling that you have, as an athlete. Whatever it is, whether you're laying your life on the line and you're doing what you're doing on the floor, it feels maybe as if you're unappreciated and like someone's taking advantage of you."

Understanding some of the complexities of the league's salary structure offers a glimpse into why players such as Wallace feel as they do.

On one hand, the league's salary cap, loathed by agents and some players, has prevented the NBA from going the way of major league baseball, where a few teams (the New York Yankees, Boston and Los Angeles, for example) dominate the free agent market.

"There has to be some kind of way to control costs, so you don't get the distortion factor and essentially ruin the league," said Ken Shropshire, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business specializing in the business of sports. "The league's salary cap and the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) have allowed small-market teams to compete."

But the salary cap cuts the other way, and that's where some feel there is exploitation. Wallace wasn't referring to himself and other big-money veterans in the league as being exploited; he was referring to the youngsters drafted into the league.

The rookie salary scale prevents some of them from earning more money, leading to a feeling that the revenue is not distributed equally.

Players selected at a certain position are slotted into the salary scale. For example, as the top pick of the 2003 draft, LeBron James of Cleveland will earn about $12 million during the first three years of his career, according to the salary scale. Carmelo Anthony of Denver will earn about $10.4 million during the same span.

An owner might point out that those amounts are guaranteed, no matter how well the two perform.

But it also could be argued that James and Anthony are generating far more revenue for the league through increased attendance (the Cavaliers are the league's biggest road attraction), merchandising and increased overall awareness of the league. For example, replicas of James' and Anthony's jerseys are the league's two most popular in sales, and Cleveland and Denver jerseys are first and third, respectively, in team sales.

Had it not been for the salary cap, there's little doubt that they could have signed more lucrative deals.

"There's no question LeBron could have signed a larger contract in a free market system," said Aaron Goodwin, James' agent. "How much? You can't say, because there hasn't been a marketing phenomenon like LeBron."

But does that mean the league is taking advantage of young African American players?

"I don't think the NBA's smart enough to do that. And there's so many uncertainties," Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. "Before you even get guys, you're at a disadvantage -- it's a hope and a prayer. You can't go in with a whole lot of expectations."

Those uncertainties put the owners at risk. Draft picks are based on potential because of the increasing lack of experience -- players with little college experience and/or directly from high school.

"Out of the top 29 picks, how many really earn their money?" Cuban said. "There are just as many who fail. More who fail than succeed. And they still get the money."

What about the premise that young, naive African American rookies are easy pickings for business-savvy white owners and general managers?

Cuban claims it's the players, not the owners, who got the better end of the current agreement. Contracts continue to escalate as revenue continues to decrease.

But there's more to Wallace's comments than contracts. To understand his view requires a look at the life of African American males and how their experiences affect how he views the world.

Entine says that Wallace probably "frames the world to some degree, in a racial context. But that's totally understandable considering the experiences that a black in the United States, and specifically a talented black male, probably goes through."

"That forges a view of the world that ends up spilling out when he observes anything. He puts a racial context on it. Whites who don't live with the reality of being identifiable and singled out at every moment of their life aren't initially sympathetic to this kind of boiling undercurrent that fuels the kind of comments that he made."

What about other players' refusal to comment on what Wallace said?

"Some of them probably don't agree with him," Entine said. "But they probably all agree with the sentiment that might have fueled the comment.

"So they're in an uncomfortable position. They don't want to openly criticize him, but they know he might just not have articulated what he was really feeling, which is that there is a sense that the success of blacks on the court is not yet reflected in management and ownership circles in the NBA."

Few would argue that more African Americans in the upper management and ownership level would reduce racial tensions and perceptions of economic exploitation. And the general feeling is that with Stern at the helm, the NBA eventually will reach that goal.

Through a spokesperson, Stern declined to be interviewed for this article. But how does the NBA go about addressing the issue? Can it be assumed that the league will "do the right thing" and hire qualified African Americans?

That hasn't happened in the NFL, where the league adopted the "Rooney Rule," mandating that teams searching for a head coach must interview at least one minority candidate. In baseball, teams must submit a list of interview candidates to commissioner Bud Selig.

"It's human nature that people act that way," Shropshire said. "There's a tendency to hire people who look and act like you. It's the feeling of comfort and trust with people you already know."

And Lapchick said he had "no doubt that there are people in hiring positions in professional sports who were cut from the Marge Schott-Al Campanis cloth."

Campanis was fired as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1987 after saying blacks lacked "the necessities" to manage in baseball; Schott, the former Cincinnati Reds owner, was suspended for a year in 1993 for making racial remarks, then removed from her position after comments about Adolf Hitler in 1996.

Still, although Wallace may have unnerved or angered many people with his comments, Entine said he also provided an opportunity for a discussion about race -- and its effect in the NBA.

"His comments grew from a general realization that race is a factor in the NBA, particularly at the management and ownership level," Entine said.

"There's a sense that something isn't exactly right maybe comes out in a not so coherent and perhaps racially tinged statement, but there's some truth to what he said.

"If we don't listen to what he is saying -- recognizing that maybe we need to criticize the message as he said it -- then maybe we're losing out on an opportunity to really make some positives come out of this."