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Still Considered Property

Recently on the Ryen Russillo podcast, ESPN Senior writer, Jackie MacMullan referenced an “argument” she had with NBA star and Brooklyn Nets’ Point Guard, Kyrie Irving. The disagreement stemmed from Irving’s stance on the NBA draft as it relates to player empowerment and freedom of choice to play where they want. MacMullan concludes paraphrasing Kyrie's position with him stating: “we’re not someone’s property”; to which she casually responds by saying: “yeah you are, dude. That’s the way it works; that’s why you get paid all these millions''.

Irving has recently been in the headlines for sitting out the past several games due to “personal reasons”. During his absence, much speculation and criticism has been raised for how this leave of absence had been communicated and spent. MacMullan recalling this conversation held with Kyrie Irving during his time with the Boston Celtics was seemingly her way of trying to understand his current state of mind and why he has chosen to handle his time away from basketball in the way that he has.

Irving’s actions aside, the mindset that has produced the opinion that players are “property” is disturbing. Even more unsettling was how the conversation so easily proceeded without a single sound indicating discomfort or disagreement from the two other media members speaking in this podcast episode. No point was made to rephrase nor clarify the statement, leaving me to assume that this frame of thinking is normal and acceptable to these individuals. As writers and long-time members of the media, this collective of individuals is well aware of the power and impact of their words. There is doubt in my mind.

I suppose it would be fair to also point out the context that has contributed to this mindset. The current structure by which professional sports operate has been many times criticized for being oppressive, exploitative, and lacking equity in all types of ways. Check out William Rhoden's Forty Million Dollar Slave for some historical context. The NBA, much like the NFL, and the small contingent of mostly White men that hold controlling equity in the franchises that make it up, has been said to be dealing with what has been called a “plantation mentality” or what Martenzie Johnson called an “ownership mentality” in his 2019 article featured on the ESPN affiliate platform, “the Undefeated”. The irony.

Martenzie Johnson does well to highlight several of the NBA’s institutional practices that shape and reinforce a mentality of viewing and treating players as assets and commodities rather than as people. For example, the rules and narratives that surround the NBA draft and free agency are often at odds with player freedom of enterprise and autonomy as they attempt to control where players play/live/work and for how long. Perhaps this is the reality that MacMullan’s comments were simply pointing to, but from the sound of it, her sentiments more likely strengthen Johnson’s point that the owner mentality problem extends beyond the so-called owners of NBA franchises. “Some fans, executives, coaches and player agents view the players and their bodies as property of NBA Inc., there to be plundered, prodded and powerless”. He may amend this list to include some “members of the media”.

Whatever you may feel when you hear news that some player has decided to take his/her talents to another team or city, never forget that their services are contracted. The contract to play (work) for and represent a team is a legally binding agreement. It does not grant the team nor its stakeholders ownership of the player. Yes, many of these players are paid millions in exchange for their services. This does not make them property. It is disappointing that this point needs any expression, given that the large majority of the NBA player population is made up of individuals who at one time in this country were legally classified as actual property. What am I missing?

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