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Economic and social justice: What can players and leagues really do?

Charles Grantham, former NBPA executive director, has five ideas that just might work

When President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the South Carolina congressman who was slain along with eight others in his church by a white man in Charleston, South Carolina, he challenged Americans on their racial attitudes. He pleaded that, after the funerals, the cameras and national coverage were gone, we refrain from going back to business as usual.

He called for all Americans to confront the “uncomfortable truths” of racial prejudice that still exist in America today, and for us not to settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the difficult work it takes to change. He warned that it was the “comfortable silence” into which we retreat to avoid confronting the uncomfortable truths about the racism that plagues our nation and keeps both personal prejudices and systemic bias in place.

San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick brought that challenge to the sports industry. He has exposed its comfortable silence on racial injustice. Kaepernick’s kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games, against the backdrop of a presidential election in which race is front and center, has served not only as a litmus test of racial attitudes, but also highlights the inadequacies of race relations in America.

According to public polls, white America is largely opposed to, and uncomfortable with, the protest. Kaepernick is now, reportedly, the most hated sports celebrity in the country. Black athletes are left in a difficult position. I think most of them support this protest in sentiment, even if they feel uncomfortable or unable to participate. As approximately 70-80 percent of the NFL, NBA, and WNBA players, black athletes have their own histories and experiences with police, mourn the losses of those who look like them, and feel the potential dangers of forthcoming encounters. I believe more and more of them are, and will, join Kaepernick’s protest. But where will it end?

Any solution will require a financial commitment and a strong political lobby. Are the athletes willing to commit financial resources? They are making a powerful political statement by raising the consciousness of America while trying to determine their collective role in a potential solution. The immediate goal is action: something athletes can come together to do that will result in keeping black men and, increasingly, black women, safe in any routine or low-level encounter with police officers. But they can’t do it alone: Change will require the help of those who own professional teams as well.

Our most prominent black professional athletes, male and female, have initiated a potential change in the tolerance of these incidents. The protests, with sports as the platform, have opened a conversation that is long overdue in this country, and each day more people are brought into the debate, either offering support or condemnation. Throughout there has been a comfortable silence from the segment of the sports community that can actually effect the very change Kaepernick and others are seeking: the predominantly white owners of the NFL, NBA and WNBA.

This is the same comfortable silence demonstrated by the NBA owners when they failed to unanimously vote to strip Donald Sterling of his Los Angeles Clippers franchise for his inappropriate racist comments in 2014. It’s also the same comfortable silence by the majority of whites in reaction to the current protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, of police killing a black man in each of those cities. The most recent violence has expanded the protest movement to athletes at all levels. Now, young football players, from grade school through college, have joined the movement by kneeling during the playing of our national anthem — many from the very inner cities affected by the violence.

Members of the Boston Celtics link arms during the singing of the national anthem before their game against the New York Knicks at TD Garden on October 17, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Members of the Boston Celtics link arms during the singing of the national anthem before their game against the New York Knicks at TD Garden on October 17, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

As more professional athletes are speaking out, their protest is a call for direction and leadership, as they seek answers to complex issues, ones that have never been fully addressed or reconciled in this country. At the same time, public schools, professional sports leagues, college conferences and universities are scrambling to decide how to respond to the protests. Is it again time for the sports industry to demonstrate leadership by making a profound social justice statement and by taking action?

As done in the past on drug addiction and HIV/AIDS, the players and owners need to engage in a “principled negotiation,” one rooted in collaboration that stresses mutual issues, rather than the positions of the parties. For example, as the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) negotiate an extension to their current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), a path forward by the players and owners could begin by agreeing to take a small amount of their shared revenue (perhaps one-half of 1 percent) to create a fund to use sports as a tool to address the inferior education of inner-city schools and the deteriorating relationship between young black men and law enforcement in all NBA cities.

As youth demonstrations continue to expand, any action plan must begin with them. The joint fund could be used to financially support basketball in the public school systems, grades 5-12 in the NBA’s 30 cities, freeing school funds to be redirected to academic programs. The action plan would require the mayor, police chief and school superintendents’ cooperation to receive the funds. It could use appearances by current and retired NBA players with law enforcement officers to create and inspire improved relationships in the communities. This can also be achieved by the NFL/NFL Players Association (NFLPA), despite their poor labor/management relationship. The leagues’ political lobby could aid the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the NAACP should they pursue an amendment to the Civil Rights Act, in order to allow the Justice Department prosecutorial authority in the most egregious instances of officer-involved shootings.

Ultimately, it will take the integration of several forces to effect the necessary change in attitudes and behaviors of law enforcement in their policing of our black communities and, in particular, our young black men. Are the leagues and their players capable of working together on issues bigger than the games they play and can they use the games they play to effect change? Now that they have raised the consciousness in America, what actions are the players willing to take as a collective?

Kaepernick and 49ers CEO Jed York each contributed $1 million to a charity fighting inequality and injustice, as did Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Hornets, who contributed $2 million. If the other NFL and NBA owners and the players are willing to commit financially, here are five thoughts on how and why a professional sports initiative can contribute to an action plan while influencing a long-term change.

  1. The NFL, NBA, and WNBA are powerful economic and political entities with the same highly successful business model: All are governed by collective bargaining agreements that include a “revenue sharing and salary cap system,” which provides a fixed percentage of defined revenue for salaries and benefits for the players. This amounts to about a 50-50 split of the defined revenue between those who own teams and those who play on them. This business model has allowed for the substantial increase in total revenue and franchise values. The NFL now generates approximately $13 billion and the NBA about $6 billion to $7 billion annually, with franchise values averaging $2 billion in the NFL and $1 billion in the NBA. This year’s NBA salary cap grew from $70 million to $94 million per team. So both leagues and their players have done exceptionally well financially as corporate entities. As corporate citizens — and in many cases using publicly financed facilities — isn’t there a social responsibility to assist these communities?
  2. The NFLPA and the NBPA, as the exclusive bargaining units of the players, must do a better job taking a stronger public stance on the players’ right to protest. This is a labor-management issue, not necessarily a labor-management conflict. The union’s mission is to advance the interest of its players, not just to be management’s adversary in the battle over wages, hours, and working conditions. Both parties need to know what things to fight over and what things to fight together. In the NFL, Kaepernick’s protest challenges a leaguewide player practice, as he is not required to stand for the national anthem. However in the NBA, all players are required to stand as per “policy.” The NBA policy needs modification. Both unions need to better clarify the message of the protest. Then they can seek a collective solution as partners with the leagues and their owners. This would be the result of the “principled negotiation” because it is an interest-based negotiation and focuses on the mutual interest of the parties. They both are better off seeking a common result. It would produce a joint contribution to the community to implement programs to reduce crime, improve law enforcement and gain youth access to education and sports. This would be analogous to the NFL’s CBA, which allows for the owners to take a “stadium credit” deduction from total revenue before determining the owner-player share and establishing the salary cap.
  3. The NFL and NBA have organizational structures to accommodate a centralized action plan, and it’s time for “Football is family” and “The NBA Cares” to live up to the images they present as corporate citizens, by giving back to the community. For example, in Charlotte, where was, and is, the response of the Carolina Panthers ownership and NFL? Their primary concern was security for the game played after the rioting in Charlotte. On the other hand, Jordan, the only black NBA owner, has responded with concern and financial support for both a workable solution and the team’s commitment to the community. The centralized response of the leagues could bring sponsors to an action plan. The time is now for them to do more than make commercials about racial equality and relations.
  4. Professional sports organizations have a formidable political lobby. A commissioner and ownership of the leagues, as part of the collaboration with the players, could agree to use the same political lobby that obtained special congressional legislation for the AFL/NFL and NBA/ABA mergers and creation of the Sports Broadcasting Act. It’s this lobby that can persuade policymakers to create legislation to increase the authority of the Justice Department.
  5. Professional sports organizations, athletes and schools are good partners. By providing sports programming in public schools, the athletes and their leagues could relieve taxpayers of some financial burdens while increasing money available to improve education in their cities. They could also create the opportunity to improve community and law enforcement relationships by establishing a workable plan for the future. Such a plan would be consistent with the CBC’s objectives to provide improved public education and sports to aid black communities, and could ultimately lead to changes necessary in policing.

Coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs said to The Spurs Nation in response to the protest: “I absolutely understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and I respect their courage for what they’ve done. It’s easier for white people because we haven’t lived that experience. It’s difficult for many whites to understand the day-to-day feelings that many black people have to deal with. If it’s not your daily experience, you don’t understand it. I didn’t talk to my kids about how to act in front of a policeman when they get stopped. I didn’t have to do that. All my black friends have done that. There’s something wrong with that and we all know that.”

This is the challenge to the nation’s comfortable silence.

Charles Grantham served the first Executive Vice President of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) and was its first Executive Director. He helped transform the NBPA from a mere bargaining unit to a multifaceted organization designed to enhance the league’s image and protect the NBA players. He helped establish the league’s four Collective Bargaining Agreements and was an architect of the industry’s first revenue-sharing/salary cap business model that guaranteed a fixed percentage of NBA revenue to players. Grantham is currently Director for Sport Management and Associate Professor in Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business.