Basketball Business as Black Revolution?

The National Basketball Association (NBA) is in trouble. The league locked out the players months ago, bargaining has failed, and now the players have disbanded their union and are taking the league to court to contest the most basic notions of player-league business relations. Things like player drafts and even the notion of ‘owning a player’s rights’ could possibly be ruled illegal as a result of this unprecedented challenge.

Do companies own ‘workers’ rights’ in other industries? Does your boss own yours? Or can you go work for whomever you like? That’s what the players could be awarded. And it could completely destabilize the league. At this moment, all player contracts are already apparently void.

Now, I have no patience with millionaires looking for sympathy from you and me in their fight with billionaires. No more than I have with the belligerent billionaires. But as a basketball fan I have been noting the proceedings. One thing I see now is that a possibility  exists for wealthy NBA superstars to start their own league. It’s remote, but as an idea it has provocative implications…

Most commentators pooh-pooh this possibility, for plenty of good reasons. For one thing it would take a lot of cash, and it is a huge effort and risk, and the current owners own the arenas, and the players are players not businesspeople, etc. But I wonder.

Because what it really suggests is the potential for the creation of a massive economic and cultural juggernaut led by Black Americans. Because if a new league were to happen it would be led by Black men both on the court and off.

Which among other things should be a huge red flag for women, since they are so not invited to this party. Or yes, they’re invited to the party, but not to the table. And it would also be a huge FU to the non-African American economic establishment. It would be some straight-up self-realizing collective reparations work, You paid us, you made us rich, now we’re talking your money and starting our own league, baby! It’s payback time. Ain’t nobody owning my rights but me!”

Can you imagine a league in which the primary owners are Jay-Z, PDiddy, Will Smith, Russell Simmons, Michael Jordan, Shaq and who knows who else? Jay-Z already owns a small bit of the Nets and Will/Jada already own a small piece of the 76ers, but in this new league they’d be running the show. Running their own blackalicious basketball league, with branded teams, their own cable TV channel with millions of subscribers, innumerable commercial tie-ins, probably fewer but better teams, lots of music and ridiculous cultural and commercial power? And all the profit accruing to the new Black captains of industry while the old non-Black owners rue their losses and estimate the net worth of nothing?

Quite the fantasy isn’t it?

Yet hypothetically, anyway, one can see the potential for an economic alliance between Black American entertainment superstars and Black American sports superstars to come together with some of its most successful pop culture entrepreneurs to build a popular sports and entertainment media empire. And it could be based on an entirely different vision of 21st century professional sports, one where the hard costs of maintaining arenas and arena staff are avoided altogether, with games treated more like UFC events, major barnstorming cashcows with huge audiences and global media windows, heavily hyped and ultra-competitive games between superstar-laden teams, accompanied by concerts by Beyonce at halftime for $300 a ticket and subsequently sold on DVD. I mean, whatever…the sky’s the limit.

If such a thing were to happen it would be revolutionary. Bryant Gumbel’s comment about the plantation mentality of NBA boss David Stern may seem extreme, but the pale ceiling is real in corporate sports boardrooms, where the buck still stops with white guys while the black guys are left holding the ball. (Even if it is a diamond-encrusted ball.)

But from my perspective, whether a new league would be a good thing or not would depend entirely on whether or not it was accompanied by another revolution. One of spirit and social strength. That is to say whether or not those who undertook this project did so with – at least in part – some sense of social purpose to build a better Black America as part of a better America (as part of a better world!) So that the reparations did not merely accrue to the few, but were shared in some useful and constructive way with the many. Now that would be revolutionary.

Though the league might simply celebrate itself sickeningly and gorge itself on ego and bling.

Certainly the players have not demonstrated any collective or personal sense of social responsibility to date during the lockout. They could have helped their cause immeasurably by showing that they gave a damn about the thousands of arena workers who have been laid off due to their strike, or the older players living on $35,000 per-year pensions, or the disappointed fans. Or a couple of them could have showed up at an Occupy protest, showing that even though most NBA players are now in the 1% (the average annual NBA salary is approximately $6 million) many also came from very humble roots and they haven’t forgotten the 99% who pay their salaries. But their apparent selfishness combined with the rampant egotism of the pop moguls suggests that hoping for a socially progressive outcome would probably be unrealistic.

If only Bob Marley (as Chairman of the Board of the new league) were around to chant down Babylon and keep the new owners on a righteous path…

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