The Racial Politics of the N.B.A. Have Always Been Ugly

In “Black Ball,” a new book about Black players in the National Basketball Association in the nineteen-seventies, Theresa Runstedtler, a professor at American University and a former member of the Toronto Raptors dance team, lays out a compelling history of the league, and the origins of what we today call player empowerment. One case study is the arc of Spencer Haywood, who, as a nineteen-year-old from Silver City, Mississippi, strained to remain apolitical while playing in the 1968 Olympics—he made the team only because stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wes Unseld had sat out as part of an unofficial boycott—and spent the rest of his career battling exploitative professional contracts in both the N.B.A. and its rival at the time, the American Basketball Association.

As a twenty-year-old star at the University of Detroit, Haywood had played on an all-Black starting five, a rarity at the time, and lobbied for the team to have a Black coach. When the university instead brought in a white coach with a reputation for disrespecting Black players, Haywood signed with the Denver Rockets of the A.B.A. He explained that his mother scrubbed floors “for ten dollars a week,” and that his decision was one that “anyone who loved his mother” would make. In response, the press corps, which was mostly white, jumped to defend professional-team ownership and the colleges that profited from keeping players like Haywood in school for as long as possible. The media began spreading fears about unruly Black athletes who were trying to upend the system by signing professional contracts before they were ready, and leaving their poor college programs in the lurch.

Haywood spent the first years of his professional career entangled in several contract disputes and a lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court; the Court ruled in his favor. He was part of a movement of players who, inspired by Black radical protest, began to advocate for more choice in where and when they played, and for a bigger share of the money they generated. Another such player was Oscar Robertson, who later went on to lead the N.B.A. Player’s Association. Robertson started his career with the Cincinnati Royals because he had played college ball at the University of Cincinnati, and the league at the time allowed teams to absorb anyone who played collegiately in their region. In the era before free agency, the league’s reserve clause bound Robertson to the Royals for the entirety of his career. After he won the league’s M.V.P. award, in 1964, Robertson was denied a raise in his second contract. So he did the only thing he could: he threatened to withhold his labor until he got a better deal.

The competition between the A.B.A. and the N.B.A. provided players with a form of leverage, and salaries rose as owners scrambled to keep their stars. But in 1970, talks about a merger between the two leagues–which would effectively destroy players’ negotiating power—began to intensify. Robertson, by then the head of the Players’ Association, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the two leagues to block the merger and won an injunction; the leagues wouldn’t merge until 1976, when the modern N.B.A. was born. Public response to Robertson and the players’ union was predictable, especially from the press, which called the players all the usual things—entitled, greedy—and waxed nostalgic for a fictitious past when players took small salaries and did it all for the love of the game and its fans.

In the late seventies, N.B.A.’s television ratings dropped, and some franchises struggled with attendance. From an economic perspective, these struggles made sense: the league was still going through growing pains from the recent merger of the N.B.A. and the A.B.A. But according to the press, the problem was player behavior and their sense of entitlement. The league was reeling from the fallout of an incident involving Kermit Washington, a Black player for the Los Angeles Lakers who, in the middle of a game in 1977, punched and seriously injured Rudy Tomjanovich, a white forward for the Houston Rockets. Three years later, Bernard King, one of the league’s biggest stars, was arrested in Utah for cocaine possession and forcible sexual abuse. These high-profile incidents, which shocked the country, led to a great deal of questioning, much of it seemingly warranted, about what, exactly, was happening in professional sports.

In 1980, Chris Cobbs, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, published a story about rampant cocaine use in the N.B.A and estimated that somewhere between forty-five and seventy-five per cent of players were on drugs. It was true that some players had recently been arrested for possession, but the story mostly reflected the way that the media, the league’s white owners, and many basketball fans looked at a league in which seventy-five per cent of the players were Black—and therefore too flashy, too street, too undisciplined, and, most important, far too ungrateful for the opportunity they had been given to play basketball for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars.

Runstedtler begins and ends “Black Ball” with a discussion of Cobbs’s article and the league’s cocaine panic. She argues that “Black ballplayers’ use of cocaine—an expensive drug typically associated with white celebrities, jet-setters, and professionals—was yet another reminder of their undeserved fortune.”

At a time when the rest of the United States was still reeling from a decade of stagflation and economic recession, NBA players had become some of the highest paid professional athletes in the world. Many of them, Cobbs noted, came from “unstable families in inner-city ghettoes” and could not seem to handle their sudden wealth. Also, as one anonymous source told Cobbs, “The players are so streetsmart, their sophistication is just below that of a hardened convict. They know every angle on how to get women and drugs. They are so far ahead of the security men it’s unbelievable. They know every hustle.” The chaos in the NBA seemed to mirror the chaos, crime, and violence in the streets of American cities. In both cases, young Black men were to blame.

It should surprise no one that demands by Black labor for fair contracts were met with a backlash that played into racist tropes about laziness, entitlement, and lack of discipline. It should also be a surprise to nobody that, at a time when cocaine was flooding into the U.S. seeking wealthy users, N.B.A. players would be among them. What Runstedtler illustrates is how all those facts are related, not just in terms of the accepted narrative but also in terms of the way the league exercises power over players.

As has been true across American history, Runstedtler shows, the ugliest instances of racist caricature and abuse come either when Black workers ask for equal pay and better working conditions or when business struggles and management needs someone to blame. This was true in the seventies and the nineties, when the sport struggled to gain or retain fans. What makes “Black Ball” one of the best and most politically truthful books on basketball is that it resists the alluring, simplistic narratives that often emerge in a business in which the worker is the product, and also happens to be world-famous. It’s tempting to attribute every upswing and downturn in the N.B.A.’s business to the actions of individual players, whether it be the wattage of Magic Johnson’s smile saving the Lakers from too many years of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s dour workmanship or the league’s popularity dipping when Allen Iverson brought “hip-hop” to the league. Runstedtler’s feat is showing that the public narratives that emerge about the N.B.A. do not simply come from what fans see on the court, or even what players do in their free time. Their source, instead, is a decades-long battle between Black labor and white ownership.

Bernard King of the New Jersey Nets driving past Elvin Hayes of the Washington Bullets, in March of 1978.Photograph from AP

The N.B.A. and the press that covers the league have certainly changed since the seventies and the eighties. Star players make hundreds of millions of dollars and can largely choose where they want to play after their rookie contracts are done. The media has also matured. There are now many more forums for discussing basketball, whether it’s analytics-driven podcasts such as Nate Duncan’s “Dunc’d On”; interview shows such as “All the Smoke,” which features the former players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson; or your usual sports-network yelling shows. There are hundreds of YouTube and TikTok channels dedicated to N.B.A. highlight reels. If you want to follow the league entirely by charts, there are several Web sites that will provide you with every metric you could possibly want.

This abundance, however, has not meaningfully changed the media’s relationship with the league and its owners. The basketball press exists mostly to promote the league—it tends to be in sympathy with the management, not the players. In my experience reporting on the N.B.A., I can tell you that there is no other entity that I have encountered—including politicians, police departments, and other sports leagues—that is more needlessly hostile to criticism or which harasses journalists with such consistency.

The N.B.A.’s information ecosystem does not run on investigations but, rather, on micro-scoops about meaningless player transactions that get fed to celebrity reporters who mostly seem to exist on Twitter. Not only does this mean that “sources,” who are always unnamed, retain almost unimpeachable power because they are the fountain from which all the “valuable” information flows but it also elbows out nearly anyone who wants to hold the league to account or even cover it from a business or investigative angle. The league is doing just fine with its mostly tamed press corps, and can therefore just ignore any requests from investigative journalists or anyone who might be asking the wrong questions.

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