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Bucks president Peter Feigin refuses to stick to sports

A Q&A session on Milwaukee’s social justice initiatives and the NBA’s restart

“I think it’s going to be one of those chapters that the country’s never seen before.”

That’s what Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum, the team’s 2-year-old arena, president Peter Feigin told me on the morning of March 6 when asked about how the burgeoning coronavirus health crisis might affect the rest of the NBA season. At that point, all sports in Italy had been shut down and Chicago State University said it wouldn’t send its women’s and men’s basketball teams to the Western Athletic Conference tournament the following week, but there was no reason to believe at the time that American sports were in any danger of being halted. The NBA hadn’t even yet barred reporters from entering the player locker rooms.

During the interview, Feigin, who was hired by the Bucks in 2014, spoke about transforming the team’s business operations over the last five years, the star power of reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the team’s social justice initiatives over the past few years, specifically advocating against police violence. Feigin, a Jewish American, has been a voice for social change from the organization since taking the job, once calling Milwaukee the “most segregated, racist place” he’d ever been.

At the time of our initial interview, the Bucks were one of the league’s success stories both from a business and community standpoint. Feigin helped pull the team from being the least valuable franchise in the league to the middle of the pack in less than six years. And, through initiatives like Team Up for Change and the Represent Justice Campaign, the Bucks committed themselves to social justice and anti-racism work, a rarity for American sports teams.

But then March 11 happened. On that day, it was announced that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing the NBA to suspend the rest of the regular season, a pause that would last until July 30, when the league resumed play inside the Walt Disney World Resort.

Two months after the season was stopped, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Protests exploded across the country and many who used to ignore the systemic racism targeted at African Americans no longer could. Corporations that once straddled the line of racial inequality as to not upset their more conservative and white audience were now saying Black lives mattered.

The original interview with Feigin was immediately outdated due to what the coronavirus did to the league and what the killing of Floyd did to the country. So, in mid-July, I spoke with Feigin again about how the pandemic has affected the Bucks’ business operations (“devastating,” he said), what the team’s social justice initiatives look like post-Floyd and how these events have opened his eyes further to the social inequities Black people face in America.

The last time we spoke, it was a week before the NBA shut down on March 11. When I asked you about COVID-19 then, you said: “I think it’s going to be one of those chapters that the country’s never seen before, and how we react to it is going to be interesting. So we’re preparing for every type of scenario, obviously hoping that we have some kind of state of normalcy and keep the arenas filled and are able to continue to operate.” How do you think the league has reacted to COVID-19?

I think it’s miraculous. I think if you talk about how prepared the league was and how immediate the shutdown was with real concern for the safety of not just the fans, but of course the players and everybody who worked internally, and then spending the next three months and thousands of hours scenario-planning … if we talked four months ago and I told you, ‘Here’s the concept: we’re going to play in a bubble in Orlando and contain while a majority of the country is surging in COVID,’ you’d look at me and say I was crazy. And it’s actually happening in a very controlled, contained good way, which is miraculous, and I think part of that is just you have the owners of the teams and Adam Silver, who are just innovators, leaders on top of how this is done.

From a business standpoint, how has COVID-19 and the quarantine affected the Bucks?

Oh, devastated. I mean, devastating. We were literally on the eve of having not only one of the best seasons on the court with launching into the playoffs with the best record in the NBA, but financially we were about to have one of our best financial years with a combination of Bucks basketball events and concerts and year two of a new arena. We were peaking at such a great level, and literally overnight you went from one of the better success stories and compounding growth to extreme losses.

You all lost the Democratic National Convention in August, but were there other major plans that you all had that had to be scrapped?

Yeah, you’ve got to think about, beyond the 10 other regular-season [games], probably 20 concerts. It’s not just the arena, it’s in and around the arena. So we built this Deer District to almost be the feeder from in and around events. So restaurants and bars and the plaza itself. That all went to zero right away. The 30-acre Deer District has really been dormant for five months.

I know this is putting the cart before the horse, but if the team were to win the NBA championship this year, would the celebration feel a little deflated because you couldn’t do it on your home court or in front of fans?

I think Giannis — I can’t quote him directly — but I think like Giannis said it in such a good, smart way, like this is all good stuff to be able to persevere, to be able to have a real playoffs, to be able to keep the competitive mindset. I think this is going to be one of the tougher championships to win ever in pro sports, noting what the adversity and what the challenges are. …

We’re appreciative and very thankful that we’re having this opportunity to play, have the opportunity for a championship. So no one in our organization is thinking anything but, ‘How do we win?’ And when we win it’ll be fantastic.

Has the pandemic opened your eyes to any societal inequities that you weren’t aware of before?

Oh, yeah. We’ve certainly been, as an organization, aware and on top of things like social injustice and the inequities, and especially as a community member in Milwaukee. I think all this has done is almost put an exclamation point and made it so aware to the general public. We’ve gone through things over the last few years, like Sterling Brown and certainly the social and socioeconomic differences and injustices. The pandemic has pushed 40 million people out of work, has put a real strain on health care and in medicine — all of these things that never happened.

We’ve really spent the last five months thinking about how can we help so many people in the community that need help. Whether that’s essential workers, whether that’s the police and fire. There’s a food shortage, which has to do with a recession, and we’ve circled the wagons trying to get as smart and strategic as we can, and really put our resources to that in like a big way. And I mean, some of that we’ve been doing for a while, but towards your question, I think what the pandemic has done has accelerated and really made us focus on how we can help and support the community.

And that’s internally, too. We immediately figured out a way, led by our owners, on how to compensate part-time workers. We created a disaster relief fund that was funded by players, owners and management that continues to be funded to help workers, to help community, to help food banks in a big way. I think for us, it’s all of us working together to figure out where are the needs and how can we service them. For us, right away, Milwaukee was one of the underserved communities on the medical equipment side.

We stepped up and created a mask program to make and distribute over a million and a half masks. We stepped up and helped Feeding America with over a quarter-million dollars of food from the arena, as we thought there wasn’t going to be work, and then what we continued to be doing is testing. So we’ve used our physical footprint to help organizations test and be a site for free testing in and around the city. And we’ve processed thousands of tests for it. So to give you the longest answer in the world, I think we’re in a place where the challenges of COVID aren’t going away anytime soon, and the need to help is going to be endless for a while.

You all announced the Team Up for Change initiative with the Sacramento Kings two years ago after incidents in Sacramento and in Milwaukee involving African Americans and police. What do you hope that partnership will look like in the future now that we’re living in a post-George Floyd era?

So much has changed. In the short term … the Timberwolves have joined it. I think several other teams will join the Team Up for Change. I think it’s put social injustice up on top of what the issues are. I think our platform and our players and our media vehicles are such that if we can circle around a group of teams or all the NBA teams to really click on the Team Up program, it’s one of the [reasons] why we did it. How to build awareness, how to build programs to affect change, what are actions that we can take and the strength of an NBA team.

So the Team Up for Change is one of those perfect, really focused, great programs that — how do we expose? How do we discuss? And then how do we attack and solve our social injustices, which with the pandemic and with the recession, is I’d say the third leg of the stool that’s really made this one of the most challenging times, at least in recent history.

When we spoke in Boston, you talked about the tightrope the Bucks had to walk in 1) supporting the law enforcement necessary for the team and 2) combating police violence. How has that changed now that there is even more national unrest when it comes to Black people’s relationship with the police?

Well, it’s amazing. We’ve had town halls every other week. In our last town hall, we had the police chief of Milwaukee [Alfonso Morales] as our Q&A, and it was an open forum, no questions. We talked about Sterling, we talked about brutality, we talked about Black Lives Matter. So, what’s the tightrope? I think the tightrope has changed a little bit where there’s a real position where you’ve got to take a stance and have a voice, of which we’ve had. And I think there’s been a little changing of the tide, where you have a police chief leader in a city like Milwaukee who’s started to step up and say what’s wrong is wrong in the operations of a police department, and what the rules and regulations are, and what punishment should be. I’d say, optimistically, it’s a real step forward where we’re having transparent, real-time open dialogue, and, cautiously, there’s still a long way to go.

In light of everything going on surrounding racial inequality right now, there’s conversations between the National Basketball Players Association and the NBA about how that manifests in the league and its hiring practices. You all exceeded your diversity and inclusion goals in the construction of the arena, but what, if anything, are the Bucks doing to create pipelines for more African Americans in front-office positions?

I think the whole world has learned … there’s so much work to be done with just understanding, and I think we might have taken for granted, like a lot of people, that people are comfortable, they understand situations of other people, they understand injustice, they understand incidents or things that might affect other people. And the truth is we probably weren’t servicing our marginalized community at all.

It’s opened my eyes and opened our organization’s eyes to how do we rethink the way we’re doing things. Because I think if you looked at it, when we talked four or five months ago, you’d say, ‘Yeah, compared to the NBA and to other teams we’re doing great,’ and compared to the five years before we took over and what our plan was, you’d be like, ‘Oh, this is a great success story.’

I think what this has opened our eyes to is this is about ongoing conversations about ongoing actions, ongoing success that never stops. It’s not just about what your percentage numbers are. It’s not just about your promotability, but it’s culturally, an organization, something that has to be right up there in your mission statement. If you care about it, and you’re going to be culturally diverse, and that’s part of the fabric of your organization, you better understand what that actually means and what you’re going to do to make that happen.

I also asked you about how some fans want athletes to stick to sports, and you explained why some things are just beyond sports when it comes to social politics. So, especially now, why do you and the team find it important to not stick to sports?

I think it’s all about voice. There’s no way you can shutter an NBA player’s voice, or I would shutter the voice of an employee. The league is 80, 85% African American, these guys have circled around to have tremendous impact and influence. And if individuals feel that they can use that impact and influence to affect change, that’s a pretty strong, great thing. We promote it, we encourage it, we think it’s part of what makes the NBA so good and great. And I think it’s one of these moments where the power of the NBA, of these individual players, of social media — this is one of these moments in time where we can really affect change in a big way.

So for us, organizationally, down from our owners to our players to management, I think we’re pretty well-grounded in really standing for something and think it’s a real responsibility to be part of the community and do the right things for the right reasons.

In that same vein, earlier this month, there was interest from the Bucks in you jumping on the More Than a Vote campaign, as far as making Fiserv Forum a polling station in November. Is there any update?

So I think we’re down the road for early voting. I don’t know about physical voting because we’re navigating the Board of Elections in the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin. And by the way, what we want to do is anything that’s positive and additive to the system — how we can make it easier, how we can promote registration, how we can promote voting. I can tell you — from the players to management to ownership — everybody is [for] the cause of voting, both for registration, both for physical voting. That’s one of our causes that we really want to support. So I think what you’ll see on our platform is certainly a big push towards registration.

And by the way, completely apolitical, agnostic to just get citizens to understand the importance of registration and voting. So, we will definitely be involved in pushing registration. I think we’ll be involved in early voting as a physical place, and then the actual voting in November, I’m not sure if we’ll be a site, but we have opened up ourselves to everybody in the state and city to say if it’s additive, and we can help orchestrate it, you have our 30 acres, too, and as well as the arena to help execute.

The NBA is in Orlando this summer to finish the 2019-20 season, but what plans are being made for the 2020-21 season, as far as physically playing at Fiserv Forum and fans having a chance to be in attendance?

I think we’re ready. I wouldn’t say we’re ready today, but I think we’re where we’ve got models for operational and financial scenarios that go from no fans to 20% fans to 100% fans. We’re thinking proactively on what does rapid testing look like as you get into November, December. Is there a means for tracking? Will we be in a place where we can actually test, where we can actually resume? And those are all interesting things, where we’re testing and playing within Orlando, as rapid response testing comes pretty quickly.

But I think we’re going to be prepared for anything. What we think about every minute of the day is the safety and security of everybody. Everybody thinks it’s about the fans, but I will tell you, I lose more sleep thinking about our employees, and on the service side of the business that we can’t open this up with the threat of endangering employees, players or fans.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"