NBA Stops Using the Term ‘Owner’—Racial Sensitivity or Senselessness?

NBA Stops Using the Term ‘Owner’—Racial Sensitivity or Senselessness? July 14, 2019

Photo by Abhishek Chandra on Unsplash

“Y’all are smoking crack!” declared sports media personality, Stephen A. Smith in response to the NBA stopping the use of the term “owner” to describe, well, franchise owners. These individuals are now called “Governors” and “alternate Governors.” Was the term  “mayor” or “senator” taken?

The term “owner”  has been considered racially insensitive in a league where almost three-quarters of the players are Black.

Is this announcement reflective of “smoking crack,” racial sensitivity or have they lost their racial senses over the term “owner?”

I have three issues to discuss about the decision. I close using a Harriet Tubman imaginative inquiry.

1. Racial Over-Reach

We have a right to our feelings. Contrary to numerous critics, I do not think the players are being “over-sensitive.” I think the underlying issue is allowing racial over-reaching to inform decisions.

“Owner” can be used to identify a person’s financial/leadership role within a business entity, regardless of employee demographics. To think otherwise is probably a reflection of your personal perspectives not the reality.

Smith explained:

It’s my house! I own it! I don’t own you, but I own it! The idiocy! In this politically correct world  that we’re living in where we gotta to literally have a discussion to the point  where it becomes a media- a media story line. Oh my God! An owner says he owns his team, that’s offensive to people. Y’all—Y’all are smoking crack! Something is wrong with you people. What the hell has this world come to?!

We have a right to our opinion and causes. If the word “owner” is the racial justice cause of Black NBA players, I choose to disagree.

I do not think the NBA is smoking crack for their decision.

Maybe, they are smoking too much “woke” weed.

Definitely, not crack.

I agree with Smith in that owners own it, the franchise, not the people.

I am going to go out on a limb here to make this statement: Most people in the United States of America understand that a person who owns a company do not own the people who work there.  I think most owners of franchises and their employees within any industry understand this concept.

If the White owners have been stating/implying that they own the Black NBA players, then we would have a case for racist dynamics.

If the NBA owners had titles like “overseers” or “masters,” a term far removed from contemporary business relations, then the grounds for name change due to racial insensitivity would be much more solid.

If the owners were abusing/overstepping their roles due to the title of “owner” because of the racial demographics, then changing the language, leadership, and culture would well justified.

From a leadership standpoint, we pick our battles. We give and take, looking at the bigger picture. The giving might not even make one iota of sense, but if changing a word will miraculously boost morale and win team championships, then I can see why NBA franchise leaders  would change “Owner” to “Governor,”  “Mayor,”  “Grand Puba,” “Your Royal Highness,” or “Captain.”

The Role of Our Feelings

Our feelings are valid. Words have power and can be used to reinforce racial hierarchy. Also, our feelings about a term and its usage do not automatically prove the word is being used to invoke racism.

We can react and act without reflecting on what is behind our feelings. Some of us assume that we are 100% accurate identifying racism, professional athletes included.

Our valid feelings do not always validate making policy changes—even about race. I said it.

I have experienced it. As a matter of fact, earlier this week, it happened. Recently, I came across content that I found to be racially problematic. I felt perturbed because I thought the content nodded at some older racist tropes used to denigrate the image of Black people.

After reflecting and hearing different perspectives,  I realized that my sensitivity about a certain issue was more personal than anything else. I could see how the content could be perceive from multiple perspectives without any racial offense. In other words, it was not the reason to launch a social justice campaign.

Various people are not stopping to unpack our personal feelings and if/how they merit structural changes.

Unresolved emotions or trauma can show up in our emotional responses to different words, people, and contexts.

At times, our individual feelings might be something that we need to address within ourselves and not for an organizational or societal cause. Other times, our valid feelings align with cause for organizational or societal change. By doing self-leadership work, we increase our capacity and tools to distinguish between the two.

Professional athletes benefit from this growth process because they are still human.

2. Vision-Driven Dialogue

A vision-driven dialogue refocuses the conversation back to the vision, while honoring feelings of all parties involved. It guides people to developing agreements in consensus, instead of majority rules or the “squeaky wheel gets the oil” types of practices.

The  latter works in the short term, yet it risks misalignment with the long-term vision.

If leaders feel uncomfortable with guiding nuanced discussions that challenge and hold empathetic space for all parties involved, then they will find themselves making decisions that skew towards reactionary.

I think the decision shows the need for more support in guiding complex equity, diversity, and inclusion issues. We need to be able to have capacity for empathizing with people’s feelings and  have robust conversations about the issues that lead to more transformative changes.

How did the NBA facilitate individual and group conversations about their feelings and race within the organization?

Black players were not the majority within the NBA from the outset. The league did not allow Black players until three years after its establishment.

That is, this matter is more than about Black players feeling like they are the Kunta Kintes of professional sports.

Do all of these players commit to using alternative terms to “owner” for businesses they own or have part ownership?

After all, numerous athletes, who agreed to multi-million dollar contracts with NBA franchises, have leveraged their opportunities and celebrity status to increase their material wealth and become owners of their own companies.

What is the end goal of the language change:

  • To have a world where only Black people can be owners and White people cannot?
  • To have a world where White people have alternative titles that make us feel comfortable without changing the systems to expand economic opportunities for Black people and People of Color?

In keeping with the logic of the certain concerned players, Black people can call ourselves “owners” of companies, but White people are not allowed to if most of the employees are Black and highly visible to the public.

What is the vision? If the vision is a world where everyone has freedom of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to create a just and equitable world, then we would welcome all people to be owners and focus our time on remedying hindrances to making it happen.

Changing our language use to be more culturally relevant and respectful is part of this effort. In this particular case, however, I believe the term “owner” does not fall under racially problematic language.

By the way, are we going to take away the moment in history when Robert Johnson became the first African-American majority team owner in the NBA?

3. Racial Justice Performance

The changing of the word owner is like a racial justice performance.

If players want to discuss racial justice and the NBA, then more would be on the table than a word that mainly impacts the NBA Black players.

Are they challenging the franchise owners to create more opportunities or pathways to ownership?

Besides, the NBA players are not  protesting by refusing to play over the term “owner” or anything that impacts the lives of  Black people.

Think about it: Over the last decade, when have all of the Black NBA players protested/refused to work because of a racial cause for the millions of Black consumers?

The NBA has made great strides to increase diversity. If they really want to get radical, more of players can advocate for Black women to be hired as NBA head coaches and to have more roles within the franchises.

They could use their status to argue for increasing WNBA players’ salaries.

According to Selena Hill, for Black Enterprise,

…the starting salary for the NBA for the 2018–19 season was $582,180. Overall, the average WNBA players make around $79,000 while the maximum salary caps at $117,500. The minimum player salary for players with three or more years of service is $56,375.

If we are going to talk racial sensitivity, then let us not stop at the term “owner.”

I am racially sensitive to NBA players who treat women like objects to be used and owned.

I am racially sensitive to players having babies out of wedlock without supporting them, cheating on their wives as if this is what they signed up for, and covering for each other.

I understand that chances of infidelity dramatically increase for professional athletes, due to travel, temptation, women constantly throwing themselves at them, loneliness—because they can and want to.

Are we supposed to ignore this open secret because it might hurt certain athlete’s feelings, too?

What about the feelings of the children and women?

Instead of performative race politics, they can provide support for each other to resist temptation and live authentically rooted in a healthy lifestyle. I think it sends a positive message to the million of Black youth and men who look up to them.

Closing: Imagine Asking Harriet Tubman About “Owner”

As for the Black people who deal with discrimination and hostile work conditions, the word “owner” is not going to trickle down to impact most of our lives, other than encourage faux progress through over-policing language use without substantive discourse.

Please bring this  “owner” complaint to someone with the vision, resilience, and real-life slavery experience like Harriet Tubman. I can imagine the following interaction transpiring:

Harriet: Go on and speak, Child. What is on your mind?

NBA Players: Uh, well, Ms. Tubman, the owners of the team that we work for call themselves “owners.”

Harriet: *stares, waiting for to hear the concern* And?

NBA Players: Most of them are White and most of us are Black. How are they calling themselves owners like we are their property or something?

Harriet: Are they forcing you to work for them?

NBA Players: No ma’am.

Harriet: Are they not paying you?

NBA Players: No ma’am.

Harriet: *looks confused* Are they not paying you well?

NBA Players: *looks embarrassed and mumbles* We make millions.

Harriet: What was that, Child?

NBA Players: The starting salary in the profession is around 500 grand. We can make endorsement deals to earn even millions more.

Harriet: Yet, you think the term “owner” is the same way the White man tried to own me and the people I led to freedom?

NBA Players: *looks down* Yes, ma’am.

Harriet: You have three seconds to clear this room. One-

NBA players take off running.

If these players brought this complaint before Harriet Tubman, they would be looking 12 years a $40 million slave ridiculous.


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