The shove of Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry by Golden State Warriors minority shareholder Mark Stevens during Game 3 of the NBA Finals not only set off a debate about courtside behaviour, it’s also put the spotlight back on simmering tensions between players and owners.
Stevens was fined $500,000 US and given a one-year ban from games and team activities for shoving Lowry during the fourth quarter of the playoff game, after Lowry sailed into a row of courtside fans in an attempt to keep alive a loose ball.
Lowry was unequivocal when speaking to reporters about the incident afterward. “A guy like that showed his true class. A guy like that shouldn’t be part of our league,” he said.
Stevens, a venture capitalist worth an estimated $2.3 billion US, later apologized for his actions in a statement, saying he took full responsibility for his actions.
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But some argue Stevens’s actions were symptomatic of a bigger issue: that the owners see players as property. And that view has led to a movement by some calling for a ban of the term “owner” from the NBA lexicon.
The idea was first proposed by Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green in 2017. At the time, he was responding to alleged comments made by Bob McNair, the owner of the NFL’s Houston Texans, who reportedly said of the national anthem protests sparked by quarterback Colin Kaepernick: “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”
Taking to Instagram, Green wrote: “Let’s stop using the word owner and maybe use the word chairman. To be owned by someone just sets a bad precedent to start. It sets the wrong tone. It gives one the wrong mindset.”
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The racial sensitivity of the issue and connotations to slavery struck a nerve with many players, said former Washington Wizards forward Etan Thomas, who noted he called Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis “CEO” during his time with the team.
“With a history as ugly as the one in America, I would think that people would want to completely distance themselves from anything that could even remotely be connected to slavery,” said Thomas.
“Language matters and history matters. When crafting descriptions, you have to be sensitive to the people who are predominantly in the league. It’s disrespectful if you don’t.”
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A recent report from TMZ Sports suggests the idea may be getting traction, suggesting multiple teams have had high-level discussions about doing away with the term “owner.” The report also says the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers have already changed their policy, using terms like managing or limited partners and chairman.
“If there was a predominately Jewish league, you wouldn’t use a term that could be connected in any way, shape or form to the Holocaust,” Thomas said.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), the parent company of the Toronto Raptors, declined a request for comment.
But not everyone sees the term owner as a negative. Former player Stephen Jackson, speaking on ESPN’s The Jump, said the term can be empowering.
“I think people are looking too deep into the word ‘owner,'” Jackson said. “I love the word owner. I own a company and I love that I can tell my kids, or people that didn’t expect me to be where I’m at, to tell them ‘I own a company.”
In another discussion on the topic on The Shop, an HBO talk show starring LeBron James, rapper Snoop Dogg put it bluntly: “I own my own s–t. I like that word, f–k that.”
While some may see the issue as a question of semantics, others, like Martenzie Johnson, a senior researcher with ESPN site The Undefeated, argues that it’s not the word “owner,” but rather an “ownership mentality” that’s at the root of the problem and what manifested in the Lowry-Stevens incident.
“If you have this title ‘owner,’ you have this ownership mentality. You believe the players belong to you, that they are your property, that they are just your assets,” Johnson said.
Johnson is of the opinion that Stevens may not have acted that way in his regular workplace, but because of the racial composition of the league — nearly 75 per cent of its players are black — the Warriors minority stakeholder felt he was entitled to put his hands on Lowry.
When asked about the idea of an “ownership mentality,” Lowry agreed that some owners can make players feel more like assets than human beings.
“Not all of them, but certain ones, yes. And I can say for sure that guy makes me feel like that,” Lowry said. “Mark Stevens, whatever his name is, makes me feel like he’s one of those guys.”
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Lowry himself said he supports the idea of dropping the word owner from the NBA.
Even if the debate around the use of the term is relatively new, the league has a recent history of taking a firm line against bad behaviour by owners.
In April 2014, the NBA handed down a lifetime ban and $2.5 million US fine to Donald Sterling after a recording was released in which the then Los Angeles Clippers owner made racist remarks. Sterling was also forced to sell the team.
A good first step
It’s not clear if Stevens will be forced to divest his stake in the Golden State Warriors, but Johnson said the ban is a good first step.
“Outwardly, [the NBA] is saying that this is something that we can’t tolerate. But the idea that they’re going to change people’s opinions about black athletes overnight, I’m not sure of that.”
Etan Thomas said the fine and suspension sends a good message. He credits NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for giving players a platform to speak their minds — something players in other leagues aren’t as free to do.
“He is a lot more progressive, he listens to the players, he protects the players, values their thoughts and opinions and feelings in a way that David Stern never did,” said Thomas, referring to the previous NBA commissioner.
And Thomas said he hopes teams across the NBA do away with the term “owner.”
“The NBA has embraced the new wave of activism, instead of attempting to silence it and make an example out of a player, like the NFL did with Colin Kaepernick.”