An all black basketball league?

Larry Johnson was a junior college transfer who became the top star of the 1989-1991 Running Rebels of UNLV, leading them to two final four appearances and one championship. He later had a successful ten year NBA career with the Charlotte Hornets and the New York Knicks.  In 1993, Johnson signed what was at the time the most lucrative NBA contract in history -- $84 million over 12 years. Nevertheless Johnson apparently believes that  NBA players, despite their compensation levels,  are still slaves to their white masters, and wants a new all black league.  The idea for an all black league was Johnson’s initial angry reaction to the story that sports networks and sportswriters are now obsessing over, the racist comments of 80 year old Los Angeles Clippers’ team owner Donald Sterling.

What would the diversity counselors say about Johnson’s approach?  African Americans make up about 13% of the US population, but 76% of NBA players, a percentage that has hardly fluctuated in recent years, even with the surge in European players joining the league.  African American make up 68% of NFL players, and 9% of major league baseball players, a percentage that has been dropping for many years as Hispanic and Asian players have come into the league, and young blacks show less interest in the sport.  A surprisingly large number of NHL players are black, almost 5%, 3/4 of whom are Canadian.  

In the NBA, the new immigrant NBA players have basically replaced white American NBA players, rather than African Americans..  African Americans today fill almost half the head coaching and assistant coaching positions in the NBA and also a high percentage of front office positions with both teams and the NBA league office. A 2013 racial and gender report ranked the NBA far above other professional sports leagues on racial and gender inclusiveness in hiring :

“Orlando, FL June 25, 2013 – The 2013 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC) was released today and showed that the NBA continued its leading position in the sports industry with its commitment to and record for racial and gender hiring practices during the 2012-2013 NBA season.

The NBA received an A+ for racial hiring practices, a B+ for gender hiring practices with scores of 96.5 percent and 85 percent, respectively. The overall grade was an A with 90.7 points. While the NBA is the still best for all three categories among the men’s professional sports, it did slip significantly in gender hiring practices as the NBA went from an A- with 89 points in 2012 to a B+ with 85 points in 2013. “

Apparently, A+ is not good enough for Johnson, now an executive with the New York Knicks. His tweet on l’affaire Sterling included these comments:

“Black people your (sic) Focusing on the wrong thing. We should be focusing on having our own, Own team own League! To For Self!!’’

Johnson has a history of referring to the NBA’s very well paid players as slaves.  He stated that there “were a lot of rebellious slaves” on his 1999 NBA title contending Knicks team. He was criticized for this by Bill Walton, a former NBA star and then broadcaster  who called Johnson and his play “a disgrace.” Johnson’s response from the pre-tweet age was this:

“When Johnson was asked about the play of San Antonio Spurs point guard Avery Johnson in Game 4, Johnson again shifted the topic to slavery: "Ave, man, we're from the same plantation. You tell Bill Walton that. We from Massa Johnson's plantation."

Would an all black league be better for the black players, and open up ownership opportunities?  The answer I think is the same as to a question of whether black players did better financially in baseball before the game was integrated. 

The great majority of fans attending NBA games are white (a study done 20 years ago showed that about 15% of NBA fans were African American, about double the percentage  for football and baseball .

Given what has happened to ticket prices (and salaries) the last 20 years, it might well be the case that the black percentage attending NBA games has dropped.  Could an all black league attract enough high paying fans of any color for a league that was deliberately racist in the selection of players?  The answer seems obvious. What would happen to advertising contracts? Would players in all back league get $20 million a year from the shoe companies, if many fewer whites watched the games or attended them?  Would a competing white/Asian league develop with better attendance and commercial opportunities?

Major League Baseball dealt with Reds owner Marge Schott pretty quickly after problematic comments on blacks and Jews. I suspect the NBA and its new Commissioner Adam Silver will do the same with Sterling.  Maybe Sterling will be suspended, or forced into a sale, which, given the quality of the Clippers team (probably the best it has ever been), might be at a fire sale price given the circumstances. Maybe Magic Johnson or another wealthy African American will buy the team. Sterling may have enhanced the gain potential for a new owner with his remarks.  In any case, the Sterling story is manna from heaven for race baiters who want to claim that America is still in the Jim Crow era, or in Larry Johnson’s case, in pre-Civil War days.