Buying an NBA franchise takes, on average, a couple of billion dollars.
But that doesn’t make you an “owner.” Majority stakeholder, maybe, or managing partner, perhaps. Or, as the league prefers, “governor.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in an interview that aired Monday his office is done using the word “owner” in a league where 74% of the players are black and the term is increasingly considered racially insensitive.
The commissioner’s comments come as teams in the league are avoiding or dropping the term altogether amid criticism from players, including Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, who said in an appearance last year on LeBron James’ HBO show “The Shop” that he finds the word offensive.
Mr. Silver told TMZ that he respects those who object to the word.
“I don’t want to overreact to the term because, as I said earlier, people end up twisting themselves into knots avoiding the use of the word ‘owner,’” he said. “But we moved away from that term years ago in the league.
“We call our team owners ‘governor of the team’ and ‘alternate governor,’” he said. “I think it makes sense.”
Mr. Silver acknowledges the term occasionally pops up in league memos, but he said he is “sensitive” to the issue. There is no hard rule banning the title, and many teams — including the Warriors — continue to use it.
A few others — such as the Los Angeles Clippers and the Philadelphia 76ers — use different designations. Philadelphia, for instance, uses “managing partner” to describe Josh Harris, who led the investment group that purchased the 76ers in 2011. The Clippers, meanwhile, list billionaire Steve Ballmer as their “chairman,” abandoning the word “owner.”
The Washington Wizards refer to Ted Leonsis as a “majority owner” in the team’s media guide. But Mr. Leonsis’ biography on Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s website refers to him as a “majority shareholder.”
Sports owners, of course, do not technically “own” their employees. They do own the company, including rights to the team’s name, logos, marketing and typically the arena where the team plays.
Still, the debate about the dynamic between professional athletes and owners in sports has intensified in recent years. The late Houston Texans owner Bob McNair came under fire last year when comparing NFL players refusing to stand for the national anthem to “inmates running the prison.”
James, the NBA’s biggest star, has dismissed NFL owners as a bunch of “old white men” with what he called a “slave mentality.” San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, too, described Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as having an “old plantation mentality” about player protests.
But not everyone agrees, especially when it comes to not using the title “owner.”
“You can’t even satirize American society anymore,” conservative Fox Sports analyst Clay Travis tweeted. “It’s wild to me leagues don’t understand how many fans they lose over stupidity like this. No one with a functional brain is offended by the term ‘owner.’”
Mr. Travis then tweeted a poll asking readers whether they agreed with the league’s decision to replace “owner” with “governor.” Based on nearly 74,000 votes, 91% of responders voted “no.”
Mr. Silver said he’s heard both sides of the debate from players, noting how some felt the “greatest thing that ever happened was when Michael Jordan was able to call himself an owner.”
In 2017, Green got into a back-and-forth over the term with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. The Warriors forward first said the word sets a “bad precedent” — leading Mr. Cuban to call Green’s remarks ridiculous.
“For him to try to turn it into something it’s not is wrong,” Mr. Cuban told ESPN. “He owes the NBA an apology. I think he does, because to try to create some connotation that owning equity in a company that you busted your [butt] for is the equivalent of ownership in terms of people, that’s just wrong. That’s just wrong in every which way.”
Green did not apologize and has continued to voice his opinion about the topic. After Mr. Cuban’s comments, Green responded during a keynote address at Harvard University telling the students he was trying to raise awareness, not create more division.
“Mark Cuban will never know or understand how it feels for me, a young black African American, to turn on the TV and see what happened in Charlottesville,” Green said, per ESPN. “He’ll never have that feeling. So, when I say, ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t use that word,’ to be honest, I really don’t expect him to understand where I’m coming from because he’ll never feel what I feel when I turn on the TV and see however many people are taken down by the KKK or whatever group it was.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at email@example.com.
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