Challenging Monopoly: Race and Labor in the 1970s NBA

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 9:30 AM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Theresa Runstedtler, American University
My presentation will examine the efforts of professional basketball players to oppose the autocratic power of National Basketball Association (NBA) and its team owners during the 1970s. African American players were at the center of several antitrust lawsuits (Connie Hawkins v. NBA, Spencer Haywood v. NBA, and Oscar Robertson et al v. NBA) that fundamentally reshaped the relationship between players and team owners. Basketball players not only took their grievances to the courts, but they also shared them with Senate and Congressional investigations in an effort to gain more control over their labor and a greater share of the profits. Freedom of movement was foremost on their minds. Through their efforts, they managed to block the merger of the NBA and the rival American Basketball Association (ABA) until they gained a form of free agency. Unsurprisingly, the leagues fought back in the media, blaming rising player salaries for pushing their teams into the red, all while courting the support of white fans who saw the young black players as lazy, overpaid, and ungrateful. After all, salaries for these young black athletes seemed to be rising exponentially just as deindustrialization, stagflation, and the gutting of unions were threatening the livelihoods of basketball fans.