You'll notice that Bryant Gumbel never once used the s-word in his criticism of David Stern last night. His extended analogy called the players "hired hands," which ought to put the lie to any suggestion that actual, literal slavery was being evoked. That hasn't stopped the usual backlash that comes up whenever anyone even goes near that third rail of American everything. ("If he's saying NBA players are slaves," reads the highest-rated comment on Pro Basketball Talk, "bring back the plantations and i'll sign right up.")
Plantation is the key word. Plantations date back to the latifundia of the Roman Empire and continue to exist today, and they have only relied on slave labor for a small proportion of their existence. Disparity of wealth is not the concept Gumbel seizes upon; it's disparity of power. And in the sense that David Stern has long suffered from a megalomania that makes him treat his players as insignificant employees instead of valuable allies in a multi-billion-dollar corporation, Gumbel's not wrong.
I don't want to offer platitudes about the lockout being about respect, not money, because that's false. The NBA is a system that worked well when the money was flowing, but between the dried-up national economy and the inexorable creeping of richer, longer contracts, it no longer works as well. The lockout is all about who has to give up the money to close the gap between what the system was and what it has to be. But both sides will have to give something up in the end, and both will agree on the eventual solution. Believe it or not, they're all in this together.
Partners! There's a novel way to look at the NBA. The owners wouldn't be able to get rich without the draw of the actual players' play, and the players wouldn't be able to get rich without the organizational infrastructure and marketing put in place by the league. This, I think, is what Gumbel was hitting at before the baggage that comes with his plantation metaphor dragged his point down, out of the discussion. If David Stern were to treat the players as his colleagues instead of as children, mediation sessions wouldn't devolve into screaming sessions with Kevin Garnett. This is a lockout, not a strike, and the man in charge of it all is expending his effort on telling the players they're in the wrong.
It's all power, dickwaving and power. (Kurt Helin hit on this in a roundabout way when he noted the owners' frustration at their powerlessness to keep their star players from jumping ship, then masking it as "competitive balance.") When Stern says the players shouldn't have the power to choose their wardrobes, and shouldn't have the power to question referees' calls, and shouldn't have the power to accept a six-year contract if someone's willing to offer it, that's paternalism gone wild. I know what's best for you, the commissioner coos. You don't.
Gumbel could have gone with dictator instead of overseer, nanny instead of bossman. But he chose the plantation and its racial undertones because that's what comes to mind in a workplace where 83 percent of employees are black and 97 percent of bosses are white, and one of them is a racist piece of shit like Donald Sterling. Gumbel also chose it because he knows the value of getting attention when making a point worth hearing. (See Jason Whitlock's "slave catchers.") But here we are, reduced to actually explaining that slavery was worse than playing professional basketball, all the while ignoring the fact that this lockout is so caustic and intractable because the man dictating the process is consumed with putting himself above his own pile of shit.