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NBA players want change. (So do we.) What can NBA owners do?

Everyone can do something to help enact the changes the NBA players seek. But it starts at the top.

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2020 NBA Playoffs: NBA players want change. (So do we.) What can NBA owners do? Larry Tanenbaum, Kyle Lowry Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors were originally scheduled to play Game 1 of their long-awaited playoff series last night. As we all know now, that didn’t happen, and we all know why.

We still don’t know exactly what happens next. The players and the league have said they will resume play, but no plans have emerged beyond a vague “hoping to restart this weekend.” More importantly, we don’t know what the league and owners have told the players they will do to help enact the change that the players are looking for.

And that’s what I want to talk about today. What can NBA owners do? Let’s look at what one group of owners, right here in Toronto, can potentially do.

Money Talks, and NBA Owners Can Talk A Lot

NBA owners are rich. Like, rich rich. NBA players are rich, absolutely. Owners are obscenely, disgustingly rich.

That’s not even all of them! Missing from that list is MLSE, owner of our Toronto Raptors, as well as the Maple Leafs and Toronto FC.

MLSE is 37.5% owned by Rogers (reported net worth of $21 billion), 37.5 % owned by Bell Canada (reported net worth of $39 billion), and 25% owned by Larry Tanenbaum (reported net worth of $1.5 billion).

I’m no math expert, but even my non-expert analysis says: that’s a lot of money. These aren’t figures I can even comprehend. But to put it in some context: Kyle Lowry has made approximately $160 million in his NBA career. Again, we think NBA players are rich. And the richest Raptor has made about a 10th of what the team’s minority owner is worth.

How do NBA Owners Enact Change?

So what, you may say, what does that have to do with system racism, or defunding the police. They’re businesses, they don’t make policy.

Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. Bell and Rogers lobby governments all the time.

(“Lobbying” is when a private party chats up the government in order to influence policy. You and I can do it too, technically. But actual lobbying businesses exist just to lobby on behalf of people or businesses that pay them to do so. It’s a very literal representation of the phrase “money talks.”)

Rogers and Bell do it in their own self-interest, of course, in order to ensure those big ol’ dollar figures keep getting bigger, and to ensure that your phone and internet bills stay disgustingly high. These companies lobby the government so much and so often, even Stephen Harper complained about them.

Another thing NBA owners lobby for? Arenas. How do you think public funds get allocated to build stadiums for private businesses? Even though all the data suggests that those stadium deals are never worth it?

In other words: When big businesses, or wealthy individuals, want to influence policy or make regulatory change happen for their own benefit, they can. Because they have the money to do so.

And this is exactly what NBA players are asking their owners to do, now. To direct those same efforts that they use to make profit or to build arenas to combat racism and police violence.

For example: Many politicians across North America have introduced bills and motions to reduce or redirect police funding. In most cases, those bills and motions failed to pass, including an incredibly modest motion right here in Toronto.

What if, instead of using their lobbyists to make your phone bill higher, Rogers and Bell used their lobbyists to encourage politicians to support bills and motions that promise to reduce police funding and redirect into community programs?

Too Many NBA Owners are Part of the Problem

Furthermore, if you want to talk about systemic racism, well, I don’t think I need to tell you about how our justice system and police forces target Black people, and how that results in a massively disproportionate number of Black Canadians in our prison systems; while Black Canadians are only about 3% of Canada’s total population, Black Canadians represent almost 9% of the prison population. And Indigenous Canadians? Despite being only 5% of Canada’s population, Indigenous people make up as much as 30% of our federal prison population.

But maybe you don’t know about Bell’s prison phone policy?

The gist of it is this: Here in Ontario, Bell has the exclusive contract to provide phone service to prisons. If a prisoner wants to make a phone call, it must go to a landline (they can’t call cell phones) and it costs a dollar per local call, and up to $15 for a long-distance call.

And you think, OK, a buck here, $15 there, not so much right? But when you don’t have an income because you’re in prison, and that number gets passed on to your family, who by the way also must pay for a landline they probably don’t want because, you know, it’s 2020, it adds up. Especially when you consider that phone calls to friends and family are often the only means of a support a prisoner has. And since it’s mostly black and Indigenous families bearing the brunt of these costs, it thus turns into another form of economic suppression that prevents BIPOC from acheiving the same level of wealth and status as white Canadians.

Other NBA owners are just as problematic. The Magic are owned by Dan DeVos, whose wife, Betsy, is gutting public schools across America which, you guessed it, disproportionately affects Black and Latino families, many of whom can’t afford private schools or tutors, thanks to decades of economic oppression. Houston Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta is a Donald Trump supporter, as are a couple of other owners. And, over in the WNBA, I mean, let’s not even get started on Kelly Loeffler.

So what can wealthy owners do? For a start, they can stop profiting off of an inherently racist prison phone contract, or stop supporting a racist President. For another, they can use their economic power to help enact real change.

But, They’re Donating Money, Right?

At the start of the Bubble, NBA owners agreed to donate $300 million over 10 years ($1 million from each owner, annually) to a newly-formed foundation that will “improve the Black community’s access to economic resource and empowerment.”

Which is great! But I fear that it’s a band-aid. If that money helps Black children in low-income areas get a better education, that’s awesome, but it doesn’t solve the problem of why so many Black children live in poverty and don’t have access to good education and opportunities in the first place.

When we talk about combatting system racism, that’s what we’re talking about. Getting to the root of the problem. And that gets back to actual, real policy and regulatory change.

Again, this is a good start, and it will help Black communities in a very real way. But it’s only a start.

Players and Owners Have to Keep Pushing

It’s not fair that so much of this is falling on NBA players. As Donovan Bennett says in his tweet above, it shouldn’t be on the oppressed to be the catalyst for change. But someone has to do it. The owners won’t; after all, it’s not like NBA owners just got rich and decided to do something. They’ve been rich all along and haven’t acted, and they’re getting richer all the time. And a chunk of that profit comes from the NBA’s mostly-Black labour force.

This is only happening because the players acted. I know it’s not fair to ask them to do so, but I hope they keep acting, and keep pushing. As Chris Webber said, it’s critically important for future generations to see that someone made the effort. Action today inspires action tomorrow. And nothing changes without it.

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None of this is easy. It’s way, way easier for me to sit behind a keyboard and write about it than it is for an NBA player to decide walk out of a game. It’s easier for me to say, “Rogers, do something” than it is for Rogers to actually use its resources and power to do something. None of this is not an overnight fix. But it has to start. It can’t wait. It can’t be someone else’s problem.

Meanwhile, we can all do our part. We can donate to relevant causes; Dylan has great ideas here, and Conor has even more here. We can write to our elected officials. We can march in protest, and we can do it as soon as this weekend:

We’re not billionaire owners, but we all have a part to play.