by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
In headline after headline, in commentary after commentary, the NBA lockout has been described as a battle between “millionaires” and “billionaires.” Reductionist in many ways, the effort to construct the lockout as a struggle between two different yet similar parties (the owners are not part 99% although some of the players surely are) reflects a problematic conflation of two distinct groups.
In “Why We Can’t Dismiss The NBA Labor Dispute As ‘Millionaires Versus Billionaires,’” Scott Keyes warns against the tendency to link and otherwise obliterate substantive differences between players and owners: “Conflating the two groups as similarly-placed economic royalists, neither of whom deserve sympathy from an American public grappling with a depressed economy, is understandable. But to create an equivalency between millionaire players and billionaire owners obscures a scarier picture regarding the players’ long-term economic prospects.” Discussing the very different long term economic prospects between owners and players, Keyes points to several larger issues at work: the differences between workers and owners, the differences between a salary and an investment, and the very different economic futures of each group.
Yet, one of the more striking aspects of the media coverage and public discussions of the NBA lockout is a continued inability to distinguish between income and wealth. This isn’t surprising given shows Cribs and media focus on player salaries. The danger, however, is quite evident. In a society where, according to a recent study from Brandeis University, black and white wealth inequality has dramatically increased in the 23 years from 1984 to 2007, the failures to distinguish between the wealth of players and owners has a larger context. Accordingly, Thegap between Black and white households ballooned during the 23-year study period, as white families went from a median of about $22,000 in wealth to $100,000 – a gain of $78,000. In the same period, Black household wealth inched up from a base of $2,000 per family to only $5,000. The sweat and toil of an entire generation had netted Black families only $3,000 additional dollars, while white families emerged from the period with a net worth of 100 grand that can be used to send a couple of kids to college, make investments, help out other family members, or contribute to the larger (white) community.
In other words, despite the accumulated income (some wealth) by a handful of African American athletes and entertainers, and a growing black middle-class, black-white wealth disparities have increased and that was before the economic downturn. The NBA lockout offers a window into the larger issues of wealth disparity and power differentials and the ways in which race-based wealth disparities operate in myriad of American institutions. The efforts by the owners to further the disparity in income and wealth, while very different given the salaries of scale, illustrates the level of disparity that defines class and racial inequality in the twenty-first century.
To illustrate this point, lets look at the NBA’s top owners: Mikhail Prokhorov (pictured), who is worth a cool 13.4 billion, owns the New Jersey Nets; Rich DeVos, of Alticor and Amway fame, is worth 4.3 billion; he owns the Magic; Lester Crown, who is worth 4.9 billion, owns a major stake in the Chicago Bulls; Mickey Arison, owner of the Heat is worth roughly 4.1 billion; Paul Allen, with 13 billion in net wealth, owns the Trailblazers; Glenn Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves is worth 2.2 billion; Michael Heisley, who owns the Memphis Grisley, is worth 2.1 billion; The Los Angeles Lakers are owned by Philip Anschutz, who is worth 7 billion, and Jerry Buss, who as of 2005 was worth 380 million; James Dolan, the fearless leader of the Knicks, made 15.33 million in 2010, making him only the 55th highest paid CEO in America; Mark Cuban = 2.3 billion; Ted Leonsis, owner of Washington Wizards, is worth 1 billion; Herb Simon (Pacers) 1 billion, and E. Stanley Kroenke (Denver Nuggets) 1.8 billion
Even Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, both long retired and focused on various business ventures, aren’t part of the billionaire club, worth an estimated 500 million each. In other words, to paraphrase Chris Rock, if any NBA billionaire owners woke up with Kobe or LeBron’s net wealth, they would not be happy.
The billionaire owners, along with its other owners, mere high millionaires, all possess huge amounts of assets and wealth. Yet, this only tells part of the picture given the amassed wealth of the teams themselves. For example, Mickey Arison purchased the Miami Heat in 1988 for a mere 33 million dollars; today the team is worth 425 million dollars. Similarly the Lakers and Mavericks, which were purchased 20 million (1978) and 280 million (2000), are respectfully worth 643 million and 438 million. Even the Knicks, who haven’t won much of anything of late, has seen its value increase 300 million (1997) to 655 million.
What is striking about the overlap between NBA owners and Forbes richest people in the world is the level of wealth and capital possessed by many of these owners. Dave Zirin describes Ted Leonsis wealth as transcending the numbers of zeros next to his name: Ted Leonsis also claims to be losing money by the boatload. The problem is that it’s all an artfully crafted lie. Leonsis and other NBA owners might be losing money on the team, as bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell recently explained, but that’s just one part of the story. It doesn’t take into account the mammoth tax breaks, the publicly funded arena, and the immediate real estate that surrounds their home base. Factor those in and, well, there’s a reason why Ted Leonsis is a billionaire. To create the Verizon Center in the heart of DC’s Chinatown, residential housing was razed, businesses were shuttered and families were priced out of the neighborhood. Now instead of Chinese families, we have Starbucks and Chipotle with Chinese lettering above their blaring signage. As for “carrying the country” on his back, Leonsis might want to thank his army of minimum wage Verizon Center workers for keeping his ample frame in fancy suits.
He similarly documents the political and economic power amassed by Magic owner, Ted DeVos: As co-founder of Amway, the 83-year-old DeVos has amassed a fortune of more than $4.4 billion. Through Amway, he popularized the concept of what is known as network marketing, where salespeople attempt to lure their friends and neighbors into buying products. Sixty percent of what Amway sales people traffic are health and beauty products. The rest of their merchandise is a veritable pu pu platter of homecare products, jewelry, electronics and even insurance. To put it mildly, DeVos doesn’t do his political business off company time. Amway has been investigated for violating campaign finance laws by seamlessly shifting from network marketing to network politicking.
DeVos has used not only his company but his own epic fortune at the service of his politics. He could be described as the architect, underwriter and top chef of every religious-right cause on Pat Robertson’s buffet table. The former finance chair of the Republican National Committee, DeVos is far more than just a loyal party man. For more than four decades he has been the funder in chief of the right-wing fringe of the Christian fundamentalist movement. Before the 1994 “Republican Revolution” made Newt Gingrich a household name, Amway contributed what the Washington Post called “a record sum in recent American politics,” $2.5 million. In the 2004 election cycle Amway and the DeVos family helped donate more than $4 million to campaigns pumping propaganda for Bush and company, with around $2 million coming out of DeVos’ own pocket.
The NBA’s ownership group exists in a world apart from the players, and most certainly the many workers who make the NBA experience happen. The exist apart because of the wealth they have amassed (on the backs of the players and many others) and how that wealth translates into cultural capital and political power that not only impacts the NBA but illustrates their reach into all walks of life.
In a brilliant article about the NBA, economics, and the New Jersey Nets, Malcolm Gladwell summarized the larger issues at stake here: We have moved from a country of relative economic equality to a place where the gap between rich and poor is exceeded by only Singapore and Hong Kong. The rich have gone from being grateful for what they have to pushing for everything they can get. They have mastered the arts of whining and predation, without regard to logic or shame. In the end, this is the lesson of the NBA lockout. A man buys a basketball team as insurance on a real estate project, flips the franchise to a Russian billionaire when he wins the deal, and then — as both parties happily count their winnings — what lesson are we asked to draw? The players are greedy.
Yet as evident in the NBA, the process of blaming, scapegoating, and constructing the players as greedy emanates from a white racial frame just as public policy debates about welfare and the housing bubble have sought to demonize and identify blackness as the source of larger problems. The nature of that inequality is in many ways cut along racial lines. According to a recent Pew Research Study, white families have amassed wealth rates 20 and 18 times of black and Latino families. The NBA lockout doesn’t merely point to wealth inequality and the failures of public discourse to move beyond individualize narratives that blame the other 99% for not being part of the 1% but highlights the ways in which anti-black racism and the structures of racial inequality operate within and through these realities.
Over this past summer, Michael Tillery masterfully laid out the plans for the formation of the National Players Association, which would turn “Kobe and his peers would go from 40 Million Dollar Slaves to billionaire owners.” Tillery provides a roadmap to forming a league that “will undoubtedly revolutionize sports.” Yet, more than providing a plan to bring basketball back, one that would change the sporting landscape, Tillery elucidates the larger potential in converting millions of dollars into wealth, power that transcends the game. As Chris Rock reminds us, “wealth will set us … free. Wealth is empowerment; wealth will uplift communities from poverty.” The lessons of the lockout are not only the disparities of wealth, but the power differentials that exists between those with wealth and those without. The NBA lockout is not battle between billionaires and millionaires but one where the wealthy are trying to exert its will and power against not only its rich players but the thousands of workers who are neither rich or wealthy. “Not talking about rich, but wealth”
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs @ No Tsuris.