In “Black Ball,” a new book about Black players in the National Basketball Association in the nineteen-seventies, Theresa Runstedtler, a professor at American University and a former member of the Toronto Raptors dance team, lays out a compelling history of the league, and the origins of what we today call player empowerment. One case study is the arc of Spencer Haywood, who, as a nineteen-year-old from Silver City, Mississippi, strained to remain apolitical while playing in the 1968 Olympics—he made the team only because stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wes Unseld had sat out as part of an unofficial boycott—and spent the rest of his career battling exploitative professional contracts in both the N.B.A. and its rival at the time, the American Basketball Association.
As a twenty-year-old star at the University of Detroit, Haywood had played on an all-Black starting five, a rarity at the time, and lobbied for the team to have a Black coach. When the university instead brought in a white coach with a reputation for disrespecting Black players, Haywood signed with the Denver Rockets of the A.B.A. He explained that his mother scrubbed floors “for ten dollars a week,” and that his decision was one that “anyone who loved his mother” would make. In response, the press corps, which was mostly white, jumped to defend professional-team ownership and the colleges that profited from keeping players like Haywood in school for as long as possible. The media began spreading fears about unruly Black athletes who were trying to upend the system by signing professional contracts before they were ready, and leaving their poor college programs in the lurch.
Haywood spent the first years of his professional career entangled in several contract disputes and a lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court; the Court ruled in his favor. He was part of a movement of players who, inspired by Black radical protest, began to advocate for more choice in where and when they played, and for a bigger share of the money they generated. Another such player was Oscar Robertson, who later went on to lead the N.B.A. Player’s Association. Robertson started his career with the Cincinnati Royals because he had played college ball at the University of Cincinnati, and the league at the time allowed teams to absorb anyone who played collegiately in their region. In the era before free agency, the league’s reserve clause bound Robertson to the Royals for the entirety of his career. After he won the league’s M.V.P. award, in 1964, Robertson was denied a raise in his second contract. So he did the only thing he could: he threatened to withhold his labor until he got a better deal.
The competition between the A.B.A. and the N.B.A. provided players with a form of leverage, and salaries rose as owners scrambled to keep their stars. But in 1970, talks about a merger between the two leagues–which would effectively destroy players’ negotiating power—began to intensify. Robertson, by then the head of the Players’ Association, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the two leagues to block the merger and won an injunction; the leagues wouldn’t merge until 1976, when the modern N.B.A. was born. Public response to Robertson and the players’ union was predictable, especially from the press, which called the players all the usual things—entitled, greedy—and waxed nostalgic for a fictitious past when players took small salaries and did it all for the love of the game and its fans.
In the late seventies, N.B.A.’s television ratings dropped, and some franchises struggled with attendance. From an economic perspective, these struggles made sense: the league was still going through growing pains from the recent merger of the N.B.A. and the A.B.A. But according to the press, the problem was player behavior and their sense of entitlement. The league was reeling from the fallout of an incident involving Kermit Washington, a Black player for the Los Angeles Lakers who, in the middle of a game in 1977, punched and seriously injured Rudy Tomjanovich, a white forward for the Houston Rockets. Three years later, Bernard King, one of the league’s biggest stars, was arrested in Utah for cocaine possession and forcible sexual abuse. These high-profile incidents, which shocked the country, led to a great deal of questioning, much of it seemingly warranted, about what, exactly, was happening in professional sports.
In 1980, Chris Cobbs, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, published a story about rampant cocaine use in the N.B.A and estimated that somewhere between forty-five and seventy-five per cent of players were on drugs. It was true that some players had recently been arrested for possession, but the story mostly reflected the way that the media, the league’s white owners, and many basketball fans looked at a league in which seventy-five per cent of the players were Black—and therefore too flashy, too street, too undisciplined, and, most important, far too ungrateful for the opportunity they had been given to play basketball for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars.