Sports

Catching up with A.P. Brantley: Race and Professional Sports

During their medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on October 16, 1968, two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the US national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” Photograph: AP


Published 6/29/2020|Reading Time 7 min 54 sec

By Autumn Brown, Senior Writer

Unless you have been sleeping under a rock, you know the racial socio-political climate sweeping the globe.  Akin to Emmett Till’s murder, a catalyst for the worldwide Civil Rights Movement, George Floyd’s killing by Minnesota police on May 25, 2020, sparked outrage globally.  Floyd’s murder was the string unweaving the entire tapestry of America’s insidious problems: White supremacy and police brutality.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests spread like wildfire, blazing through Poland, Tokyo, Colombia, London, and other parts of the world.  Further, during this worldwide phenomenon of activism comes a challenge of global policies and political ideology.  Since the 1960s era of Civil Rights, we have not seen protests on this level.  Though each country has taken on a different issue, at the core of our outcry is a struggle against white supremacy and skewed ideology perpetuated in global culture.

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Half a century ago, mass protests ensued, leading to political gains for Black Americans, like voting rights laws and the dismantling of legalized segregation.  Like the BLM movement today, the Civil Rights Movement’s influence was not confined to American borders.  Ideologies of Black liberation, peaceful protesting, and securing the rights of Black Americans spread to all parts of the world, thus inspiring political change.  

For example, in March 1957, Ghana became the first African nation to gain freedom from colonial rule.  This political victory garnered a celebration attended by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Additionally, in 1963 Paul Stephenson, a young Black British social worker, mirrored the Montgomery bus boycott tactics in desegregating Bristol Omnibus Co.  His boycott forced the company to hire Black and Asian bus drivers.

Though, a surprising ally in this movement against systemic racism is the industry of professional sports.  I say it is surprising because the world of professional sports is only just coming around and acknowledging that racism is pervasive not only in American culture but is also woven into the culture of the professional sports industry.  The best example of how professional sports have turned a blind eye to race is its treatment of former San Francisco 49er, Colin Kaepernick.   

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Kaepernick, second-round draft pick in 2011, led the 49ers to the Super Bowl the next year.  All continued well with his career until he made the bold decision to kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner” on September 1, 2016, in protest of the country’s oppression toward Black people and people of color.  Kaepernick’s silent protest resonated among other players in the league, and soon his teammate, Eric Reid, and many other NFL players began kneeling.  

Despite former President Barack Obama supporting him, widely condemned were his actions, and he faced great scrutiny despite his constitutional right to partake in peaceful protesting.  On January 1, 2017, Kaepernick played his last NFL game against the Seattle Seahawks.  On March 3, 2017, he opted out of his contract, and he remains blackballed from reentering the league.  

Professional sports were not ready to tackle race relations during Kaepernick’s time.  With dominant American culture under fire, though, professional sports leagues are no longer able to turn a blind eye to systemic racism as more players are speaking out against white supremacy.  Players like Lebron James (NBA), Steph Curry (NBA), Kyrie Irving (NBA), and Bubba Wallace (NASCAR), and many others are coming forward and leading the charge against racism and police brutality.  Now, the world of professional sports must reckon with a subject they have worked so hard to stifle.  

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I caught up with Autry Parker (A.P.) Brantley to discuss race in the NBA, and how the league may participate as an ally in this modern-day era of Civil Rights.

Q:  Considering the current political climate, we are seeing more NBA players speak out against racial injustices pervasive within American Culture.  Most notably we’ve seen how involved Lebron James has become, and the backlash he has received. With it being said, “[He] should shut up and dribble.” How is equity/equality achieved in the NBA?

A:  Well first there’s a difference between equity, and equality.  While equality occurs when provisions are evenly distributed among all people, equity occurs when support is given to level the playing field for all people.  Historically, equality is strategically pushed and embraced, because people are confused or cowardice about what minorities truly need, as greed masquerades as scarcity and socialism.  As such, the players, coaches, team management, and governors should speak up, as the influence of their celebrity is “impactful,” and support by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has helped.

Q:  How has Adam Silver fostered this culture of equality/equity in the NBA?

A:  Wow, Adam Silver is arguably, thus far, the most respected Commissioner in NBA history.  He has demonstrated not only cognizance of the issues, but the courage to rectify.  The amount of money players earn today is, in large part, the fruit of his global labor under the late David Stern, and it was his influence behind the influx of women in various roles at almost every franchise in the Association.

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Q:  How do you feel about women in the NBA?

A:  Well, it depends on the roleSwin Cash is in a very apt role.  Among my colleagues, the views are mixed, with about 51% being infuriated about the coaching hires.  Personally, I don’t like the fact Stephanie Ready is often snubbed from being the first woman to ever coach a men’s professional basketball team, an NBA team, and win an NBA championship.  As an assistant during the 2001-02 season, she was a part of Milton Barnes’ NBA D-League Greenville Groove coaching staff.  Many qualified people are seeking work in the NBA, and there are a number of former NBA veterans that have been striving for roles they are not getting, based on many factors.  So, when you add the “equality” push for women as an obstacle, it becomes even more challenging.  Of course, women feel the same way about the WNBA, and rightfully so. 

Q:  Not too long ago, MIT Sloan held their annual Sports Analytics Conference, tell me about the influx of analytics into sports? 

A:  Personally, the culture of sports is more nepotocracy than meritocracy.  You know, it’s all about “who you know.”  So based on my NBA experience, I – among my colleagues – wonder if analytics were only implemented as a gatekeeper; a façade of a “higher standard” to dismiss or validate not hiring someone, and/or to substantiate hiring family and friends, or occupy those from obnoxiously distracting former players employed in the front office.  I’m not insinuating that it’s a kakistocracy or ineptocracy.  Billy Beane’s story Moneyball indicates it was found useful in developing an objective-based human capital decision-making culture, as opposed to some of the asinine subjective decisions made about player personnel.

Professionally, and generally, stats in perhaps the form of analytics – and the processes thereof – are merely a tool utilized to predict value. Statistically, quantitative analysis is only a small key performance indicator of the human capital predictability in sports and entertainment.  More specifically or contextually, the stats a player and/or team may produce are the results of the allowances and constraints by a coach, player, opposition, and/or officiating crew.  So, the variability of the environment a player’s performance requires contextualization, if any sort of accurate predictability is to be relied upon.  So, watching practices, and live games is vital.

Q:  What are some differences you’ve experienced working with the National Basketball League of Canada v. NBA; in terms of player health and finances?

Per my NBA experience, the difference between the ABA, NBLC and NBA is pecuniary (i.e. billions v millions).  An operating budget in the NBA is roughly $500M. Whereas, an operating budget in the ABA or NBLC is approaching $5M.  There are just simply more monetary assets involved in the NBA.  Of course, that’s not how the NBA began when the NBL Detroit Gems eventually became the Minneapolis Lakers, and now the illustrious Los Angeles Lakers many know and love today.  As such, good things take time.

As the NBLC was founded in 2011, it is Canada’s longest-standing professional basketball league.  We play 40 games, as opposed to 82.  The compensation a draft-eligible player, or free agent could be offered is: Housing, medical/health care/training, transportation, meals depended on sponsor(s), and up to $10K CAN per month of which $10-13K is free of Canadian taxation — the reminding subject to tax goes to their Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) which is like our Social Security in the U.S. *contingent on what team hires him, as each province (like our states) tax laws differ.  There are wonderful people in Canada, which make for amazing cities, and fantastic fans.

So, as we approach our 10th season, the NBLC has proved to be more stable than my start with the ABA Motown Jammers and the culmination of my ABA experience as the Norfolk Navigators’ EVP / Assistant GM. In addition, the NBLC has been competitive with the NBA G-League. The utopia would be a merger of the CEBL and NBLC, as the BAA, NBL, and ABA did to eventually become the NBA, or in my vision — for us — the NBA G-League North.

Q:  How has your sports experience helped you in your current position?

A:  Well, in hindsight, 2000-2008 was interesting.  I was inexplicably fortunate; blessed and highly favored.  My start in professional sports was in the C-level suites, with the Detroit Tigers, and Detroit Pistons, and Orlando Magic.  So, my initial exposure was from the senior level management prospective.  I wanted to be like Wayne Embrythe first African-American general manager & president in NBA history.  The finance work with the Detroit Tigers taught me business strategy and how to finance professional sports franchises.  The strategic communications work with the Detroit Pistons taught me how to market brand and develop brand currency.  After we won the NBA Championship in 2004, I wanted to be like my childhood hero Joe Dumarsthe first black general manager and president to win an NBA title.  The player development work with the Orlando Magic taught me how to keenly evaluate players with respect to offering guaranteed contracts.  Those experiences and insight made me very comfortable in my executive role reporting to ABA Norfolk Navigators ownership on investor relations, brand management, and basketball operations.  So, all of those experiences, especially the connections have helped me expeditiously in my current position.

Q:  One hot topic today is that the NBA is slated to return under a 22-team playoff model.  With limited staff due to COVID-19, how will staff employees be impacted by this model?

A:  It’s uncertain; to be determined, to be announced.  I can only speculate that they will work to protect everyone by prohibiting fans, isolate the teams as much as possible from the community, and conduct continuous testing for known symptoms of COVID. 

Q:  How do you feel about Damian Lillard’s decision to sit out if Portland does not have a chance to make the playoffs?

A:  Well, you’re asking me about a guy who convinced his team to donate – via vote – the full share of their playoff checks to team staff.  The money is typically divided among support staff, with some getting more than others contingent on their role.  Uncertain that this season’s playoff pool will be as large as it typically is, but he’s a man of humanity.  From what I’ve heard, he’s good about coming back.  He said, ” I think the plan going forward is fair.”  He had the same concerns about exposure to the Coronavirus as others players did, and any person would, and some still do, but it seems all is good, as the NBA will take every step necessary to keep them safe.  


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Autumn Brown is a doctoral candidate in social foundations of education at Oklahoma State University. Social foundations analyzes and explains educational issues, policies, and practices through the lenses of history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies. Its goal is to improve the educational experiences for members belonging to marginalized groups. Her dissertation will be educational biographies of Clara Luper, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, and Nancy Randolph Davis. She also researches racial body politics, sexuality, and intimate justice for black women. She has published a book chapter titled “Breaking the silence: Black women’s experience with abortion,” and has presented her work on the intense policing of the black female body nationally. Autumn plans on continuing her pursuits in bringing awareness to the injustices imposed on members within her community, and advocating for equitable education for black and brown students. She plans on finishing her Ph.D. in December 2020 and hopes to move into a tenure-tracked faculty position at a top tier research university or into the Non-Profit Sector.

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