The pro sports term ‘owner’ is sparking new and necessary debate.
A recent report from TMZ Sports, states several teams in the NBA are considering eliminating the term “owner” when referring to the (now here’s the tricky part) owner of a franchise. The prevailing thought being the term “owner,” in a league overwhelmingly comprised of Black players, is racially insensitive at best and at worst a harbinger of deep seeded resentments and divisions of otherness stretching back to colonial slavery.
Let’s unpack this.
What is an owner? According to Merriam-Webster.com, a noun. A person who owns something: one who has the legal or rightful title to something: one to whom property belongs.
Sounds pretty simple and straightforward. Individual X purchases team Y for a specific amount of money. That individual now owns said franchise/team. But what is the franchise or team? Is it the logo? Is it the name of the franchise/team? This individual now has legal title for what? What property belongs to the owner?
In a 2018 episode of HBO Sports’ The Shop: Uninterrupted, comedian Jon Stewart brings up the subject of sports owners and if the labor of people is the primary product of your ownership endeavor, doesn’t the term “owner” sound feudal in nature? Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, said the term “owner” shouldn’t be used.
That exchange gets to the crux of the matter entirely. What is actually owned? A franchise/team is nothing without the human beings working in their various roles. From players, coaches, and trainers, to the individuals working on the business and operations side. Without these men and women, a team is a hollow vessel just a logo and a name that appears on uniforms, paraphernalia and letterhead.
Yes, in practice, an individual owns the team/franchise. But that is only a concept or an idea. It does not become tangible or real until you have the players and people (read: labor). You don’t own people. At least, not anymore, according to the laws of the United States of America.
One of the things we, as a consuming public, have a difficult time processing is sports. For us, it is entertainment. Something to escape the monotony of day-to-day life. A place where “we” go to have fun for a few hours. Always remember for the players, particularly, this is not entertainment. This is their livelihoods. It’s how they put food on the table and support their families.
At your place of employment, do you and your colleagues refer to the person (if alive) who founded the business as the owner? Maybe some of you do and some don’t. If you worked at the Global Investment firm KKR, would you ever refer to Henry Kravis as your “owner”? What if you worked at The Home Depot? When Arthur Blank visits the store where you work, would you say “there is our/my owner?” Maybe you would. Maybe you wouldn’t. Perhaps it’s just semantics and not a big deal.
On a recent episode of ESPN’s The Jump, host Rachel Nichols, sportswriter Jackie MacMullan, and former player, Stephen “Stak” Jackson, discussed the issue.
We can all agree. The optics of majority white owners and majority black players (again, read: labor) does not look good. Language matters. We need to move past these, at best antiquated, and at worst abhorrent ways in which we classify human beings. But as Nichols, MacMullan and Stak asked in their discussion, what is being implied and inferred by the term “owner”? In this case, context matters as well.
Based on the previously mentioned TMZ report and conversations happening around the league, it is clear many of the players and teams are having very serious discussions about the use of the word “owner”. It’s not that hard to change the title to CEO, Chairman, Managing Partner or something that makes it clear who is in charge. As the person who had the resources and wherewithal to purchase a team/franchise, that is a right you are afforded.
But, where the subtle difference lies between sports and other businesses, is the labor force, and the NBA labor force is extremely powerful. If enough players, and it seems like there are, don’t like the term “owner” it will be changed. The obvious question that needs to be asked is, why are players feeling this way?
We don’t have to look any further than the current NBA Finals. During game three, Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry dove into the front row chasing after a loose ball. Lowry was shoved and repeatedly told to “go f--- yourself!” by a man, who as it happens, is Golden State Warriors “minority owner” Mark Stevens.
As an “owner”, Stevens is afforded certain rights and privileges. One of them being courtside seats for his team’s NBA Finals games. But putting his hands on Lowry and shouting obscenities at him is not within his rights. One can easily make the argument that Stevens’ mentality and his status as an “owner” emboldened him to behave in a truculent manner towards Lowry.
Stevens has since been fined $500,000 and banned from all games and team activities for one year. According to NBC’s senior media reporter Dylan Byers, Stevens will likely be forced to sell his shares in the Golden State Warriors before the start of next season; a loss that could see him gain a cool 180 million profit.
Since the incident, many NBA players have come out in support of Lowry including LeBron James and the Warriors own Draymond Green. Following the game three incident, Green said:
“Any time you're in a situation where you can do no right, like in defending yourself, you're vulnerable. So I think it's no different when you start talking of anybody in any ownership group in the league. You're held to a different standard. You can say it's unfair or not, like whatever your opinion is on it, whether you're one way or the other, that's just the reality of it.”
Green is on record saying we should remove the term “owner”, and following up on Green’s comments Lowry said:
“And I can say for sure that guy makes me feel like that. Mark Stevens, whoever his name is, makes me feel like he's one of those guys. Draymond with that, I remember him saying that. I believe it's true. We call it the ‘Board of Governors,’ but people in the world would call it the ownership. It should be changed. And a guy like that definitely shows that's what he feels, to me.”
That’s the thing about feeling otherness or believing race plays a part in the way in which an individual is treated. Unless you have first-hand experience with it, you have no idea. Anyone can spot the white hood wearing overt and obvious bigot. But it’s the countless day to day microaggressions, that look, that tone, or that implication made by someone not wearing a white hood that leaves you feeling some type of way in white spaces and tirelessly explaining yourself to those who can never fully understand.
To be clear. Changing the name from owner to something else will not stop racism, classism, or any form of otherness. It would, however, be in lockstep with the times we live in and human decency. At its core, that’s what this is about. Recognizing and allowing all people, their humanity. We cannot have that when words like “owner” demean and strip away their NBA players humanity. For all you purists and traditionalists, please, let’s not waste any breath on the “tradition” of sports. There are many things we call “tradition”, all in the name of a game, that are just plain stupid.