Thursday, April 13, 2023

Theresa Runstedtler's "Black Ball"

Theresa Runstedtler is a scholar of African American history whose research examines Black popular culture, with a particular focus on the intersection of race, masculinity, labor, and sport. She is the author of Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line (2012), a book that explores the first African American world heavyweight champion’s legacy as a Black sporting hero and international anticolonial icon. Her book won the 2013 Phillis Wheatley Book Prize from the Northeast Black Studies Association. Runstedtler has also published scholarly work in the Radical History Review, the Journal of World History, American Studies, the Journal of American Ethnic History, the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, and the Journal of Women’s History, and book chapters in Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance Beyond Harlem, and In the Game: Race, Identity, and Sports in the Twentieth Century. She is a professor at American University and lives in Baltimore with her husband and son.

Runstedtler applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA, and reported the following:
Page 99 is part way through the third chapter, “Bondage,” which explores Oscar Robertson et al v. NBA, a class action lawsuit against the NBA and ABA that helped to block the merger of the two leagues and eventually brought down the reserve clause in professional basketball. In this section of the chapter, we see that white sportswriters tended to blame the majority-Black players for the intensifying labor struggles in pro ball.
As the battle heated up, white sports columnists expressed their nostalgia for a mythical NBA of the past, when the league was supposedly unencumbered by racial conflict and labor strife. “There was a time in the early days when $6000 was a top salary, and the payroll of any club did not go over the $60,000 mark,” Bill Mokray of Basketball News recalled. It was a simpler time, when white players such as Bob Cousy and Frank Ramsey purportedly signed blank contracts and let the Celtics’ management fill in their salaries. Now, troublesome NBA players, represented by high-powered agents, demanded astronomical, no-cut contracts. The payroll of the NBA champion Knicks had apparently expanded to $700,000 for the upcoming season. “Not so long ago that would have been enough to cover the complete expenses of a team, including travel, salaries, rent—and still leave a profit,” Mokray reminisced. Even when compared to other US professional sports leagues, the majority-Black NBA seemed to be totally out of line. The Philadelphia 76ers had a reported payroll of $842,000 for twelve players, he noted, but the Philadelphia Flyers of the NHL had a payroll of just $450,000 for twenty-one players.

Bob Maisel, sports editor of the Baltimore Sun, agreed: “They are already easily the highest paid of any team in pro sports.” There no longer seemed to be any honor or loyalty among ballplayers. “Obviously, what they seek is to force the two leagues to keep going to ridiculous figures to acquire their services while they continue to jump back and forth offering themselves to the highest bidder.” This “burden” was hurting both the profitability and stability of professional basketball.
The Page 99 Test works well for my book. This racial dynamic, in which white sportswriters tended to side with white team owners in opposition to the majority-Black players, was common throughout the era of pro ball that the book explores. That said, this page doesn’t really reveal the agency and activism of Black players in contesting the sport’s racial and labor status quo throughout the 1970s.

“NBA and Cocaine: Nothing to Snort At,” declared the Los Angeles Times headline wryly. “There are no reliable figures on the use of cocaine by players,” writer Chris Cobbs admitted, “but estimates by people in the game range from 40 to 75%.” When that story ran in August 1980, the NBA appeared to be a league in crisis. And given that around 75% of the league’s players were African American, it appeared to be a Black crisis. This was a public relations nightmare for a majority-Black league that white sports fans already perceived as being violent, criminal, and out of control.

Yet, rather than revealing the truth of the NBA’s so-called Dark Ages, Cobbs’s sensationalistic story throws into relief the fault lines of a decade-long struggle in the NBA over the future of the sport—one that intersected with broader racial politics. As Black ball became a referendum on Black freedom, the professional game emerged as a kind of morality play about the shifting place of African Americans in U.S. society—a site where the contours of Black citizenship and belonging in the post–civil-rights era were rehashed and reshaped. The supposed decline of professional basketball became a metaphor for the first decades of racial integration in America: The rules of the game had changed, allowing more Black people onto a formerly white playing field, and now they were ruining everything.

However, in reality, this was hardly the case. As they challenged the status quo on and off the court, African American players from the 1970s laid the groundwork for the rise of the dazzling, star-laden NBA we know today.

With Afros waving in the breeze, Black players remade the professional game by infusing it with the aesthetics and ethics of African American streetball. They also leveraged the existence of the NBA’s competing league, the American Basketball Association (ABA, 1967‒1976), and turned to legal strategies and union organizing to push for better salaries and benefits, as well as more control over who they played for and under what conditions. What’s more, their growing prominence helped usher in some of the first Black coaches, general managers, and even league executives, who sought to change the NBA from within. Unfortunately, these rapid developments bred racial resentments: white fans, league officials, and sportswriters blamed Black players’ alleged pathologies (violence and drug abuse) for the NBA’s declining fortunes. Though sometimes disparaged and often disregarded, this earlier generation helped pave the way for the growth of the NBA as a global profit machine and cultural force.
Visit Theresa Runstedtler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue