By SI.com Staff
Bryant Gumbel raised eyebrows with comments he made on HBO’s Real Sports on Tuesday. In his closing monologue, Gumbel said NBA commissioner David Stern wants to be seen as a “modern plantation overseer” and is trying to show that he can keep “hired hands in their place.” The racial connotation and comparison to slavery generated plenty of response among media and fans. Some said the HBO host went too far in his criticism. Others said his statements were taken out of context and, if anything, Stern deserves to be called out. (Through HBO, Gumbel declined SI.com’s interview request on Wednesday afternoon.)
Here are some of the many reactions to Gumbel’s controversial words:
• Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Gumbel’s comment matters, and not as an isolated attack on Stern. It’s important as a real subtext of the talks going on right now. Since writing the other day that part of what’s motivating players is an urge to reconcile exploitative white owner/black player relations of the past, I have heard from any number of sources from the players’ side of the talks saying, essentially: “Exactly.” Gumbel’s argument might be an awkward one for the NBA, but it’s hardly one that can be ignored.
• Charles Barkley, on the Dan Patrick Show: I thought [the comments] were stupid. Disrespectful to black people who went through slavery. When [you're talking about] guys who make $5 million a year.
• Kelly Dwyer, Yahoo! Sports: Any goodwill that David Stern may have created in his decades-long stewardship of the NBA has been shot to hell over the last few months. Not only has his ego reached a breaking point in negotiations with both players and the NBA’s referee union, but his rhetoric and lack of good-faith negotiating has led to a lockout that’s course is straying far, far away from the course we saw in the 1998 lockout. That labor dispute included conditions and changes to the collective bargaining agreement that were much more significant to the admittedly myriad and complicated changes the sides are trying to agree on in 2011.
No, Stern has not come off well. And he never wanted to save the beginning of the 2011-12 NBA season. But he’s also not a “plantation overseer,” as HBO’s Bryant Gumbel called him.
• Glenn Vallach, Yahoo! Sports: I’m not even sure what it means, but it sure doesn’t sound like a comment that would escape the news wires…which, I’m suspecting, was exactly the point. That kind of slur doesn’t find its way onto the page, and then off the page and onto the airwaves, unless it is intentional. In other words, this was no slip. You won’t hear, “I was misquoted.” Gumbel’s seeking some attention for himself and his long-running HBO program by stoking the promotional fires with an inappropriate comment.
Here’s a better idea. Buy some advertising.
• Michael Wilbon, on ESPN Radio: It is not surprising language to me. … I don’t know that I would’ve used that language, but I don’t know that I disagree with it and I’m going to tell you why. Fifteen, 20 years ago, David Stern was seen in just the opposite way at the opposite end of the spectrum. But there has been such a value in the NBA in keeping what has been built as opposed to expanding, and all the creativity we saw in from the league in the ‘80s — most of it’s gone, it’s just kind of stale, it’s just sort of “let’s keep the players in place.” And Bryant Gumbel took … it to a different level. And, again, I wouldn’t have used the language, but I’m not going to disagree with his interpretation or his depiction of it.
Gumbel should apologize for that nonsense—
Harvey Araton (@HarveyAraton) October 20, 2011
• Jason Whitlock, FoxSports.com: Gumbel is pandering to a choir that loves hearing that black people are always the victim of racism, a power imbalance and America’s refusal to recognize Jay-Z’s birthday as a national holiday. … But these NBA players are not victims during this lockout. Not of David Stern. They’re victims of their own immaturity, stupidity and delusion. They have the wherewithal and resources to stand toe to toe with Commissioner Stern, but they are improperly using and undermining their power. Gumbel’s commentary on HBO’s Real Sports won’t help them realize and effectively utilize their power. It will assist the players in curling up in a fetal position and playing the victim.
Bryant Gumbel comments get worse more I think about them. Having covered a lockout, I think that idea is absurd. It's a business negotiation—
Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) October 19, 2011
• Jonathan Feigen, Houston Chronicle: There have been issues that Stern could deserve criticism, but Gumbel did not bother to be informed enough about those topics to cite any of them. And though Stern’s ego might seem an easy target, Gumbel can reserve those shots for when they get together at Egomaniacs Anonymous.
• Bob Raissman, New York Daily News: The case Gumbel tried to make against Stern was beyond weak. The only legs he had to stand on were his own perceptions. Our perception is this: Gumbel’s central mission here was to highlight Stern’s patronizing, condescending style over the course of these negotiations. Among other things, Gumbel was offended by Stern saying union boss Billy Hunter was providing players with “inaccurate information.” Gumbel was looking to turn some heads here. A measured, clever approach wouldn’t seal the deal, so he dropped the bomb, turning over the race card on Stern.
• Marc Berman, New York Post: Gumbel branded Stern a “modern plantation overseer treating NBA men as if they were his boys.’’ Disgraceful. The usage of “plantation’’ and “boys’’ appeared to be Gumbel’s attempt to brand Stern a racist — a reckless, inappropriate charge. Stern is a lot of things, but bringing race into the picture was an unfortunate mistake. Stern is a lot of things, but he is no racist. Stern is owed an apology by HBO.
• David Whitley, Sporting News: When it comes to labor wars in sports, fans have almost no sympathy for owners. But they have even less for the players. That’s not fair, but it’s the price of fame. Players are in the crosshairs of resentment, especially when unemployment lines could circle Eddy Curry 10,000 times. …The NBA players, average salary $5.1 million, had done a good job avoiding putting their sneakers in their mouths this time around. Then into the breach rode the high horse of Gumbel. … If players don’t come out of it looking like a bunch of spoiled idiots, it will be in spite of Bryant Gumbel, not because of him.
• Barry Patcheski, Deadspin: Plantation is the key word. Plantations date back to the latifundia of the Roman Empire and continue to exist today, and they have only relied on slave labor for a small proportion of their existence. Disparity of wealth is not the concept Gumbel seizes upon; it’s disparity of power. And in the sense that David Stern has long suffered from a megalomania that makes him treat his players as insignificant employees instead of valuable allies in a multi-billion-dollar corporation, Gumbel’s not wrong.
The lockout is all about who has to give up the money to close the gap between what the system was and what it has to be. But both sides will have to give something up in the end, and both will agree on the eventual solution. Believe it or not, they’re all in this together.
Partners! There’s a novel way to look at the NBA. The owners wouldn’t be able to get rich without the draw of the actual players’ play, and the players wouldn’t be able to get rich without the organizational infrastructure and marketing put in place by the league. This, I think, is what Gumbel was hitting at before the baggage that comes with his plantation metaphor dragged his point down, out of the discussion. If David Stern were to treat the players as his colleagues instead of as children, mediation sessions wouldn’t devolve into screaming sessions with Kevin Garnett. This is a lockout, not a strike, and the man in charge of it all is expending his effort on telling the players they’re in the wrong.