5-13-14 12:57 PM EDT | Email Article
 

By Tim Mullaney

 

As the nation howled about Donald Sterling's instantly infamous racial stylings, everyone noticed that LeBron James took a clear stand that the "owner" of the Los Angeles Clippers has "no place ... in our league." I noticed something else: James, the second most powerful person in basketball, according to Sports Illustrated, referred to Miami Heat managing general partner Micky Arison as "our owner."

 

Yeah, the future billionaire said "our owner." On a team with 13 black players out of 15.

 

And it wasn't just James. Charles Barkley used "our owner" on TNT three minutes after saying Sterling was unacceptable because "we are a black league" the day the Sterling news broke. If there'd been any silence in America's conversation that day, you'd have heard that discordance like a fart thundering through church.

 

It's time for all sports leagues, and especially the NBA, to retire the term "owner" once and for all. It's an unwelcome reminder of the plantation legacy of race in America, and increasingly inaccurate as teams are bought by corporations or partnerships. It's out of sync with corporate America, which calls CEOs just that, even if they own a lot of stock. And it's bad for business, with the league sporting a majority of minority fans and a business model that divides basketball-related revenue between mostly black players and mostly white team stockholders.

 

The NBA can force change by requiring bidding groups for the Clippers to find something else to call their leaders, assuming the other 29 teams force an auction as expected. There are three big reasons. One, of course, is history. One is business -- black league, with disproportionately black customers. The other is simple accuracy, including consistency with other top reaches of big business.

 

It's hard to make a case for calling someone a team "owner" when hardly anyone owns a team alone.

 

Joe Lacob, the CEO of the Golden State Warriors, has partners, no matter how many reporters call him the team's owner. Ted Leonsis is the majority (not exclusive) owner of Monument Sports, which owns the Washington Wizards. The Los Angeles Lakers are almost always described as being owned by the heirs of Jerry Buss, but Phil Anschutz-controlled AEG Entertainment owns 27% of Lakers shares. And the Knicks are owned by the Madison Square Garden Co. (MSGNV) -- no matter how many times Jim Dolan, MSG's executive chairman and the leader of a family group that owns about 20% of MSG, is called the team's owner.

 

Neither do these guys usually call themselves "owner" in their other businesses. Hall of Fame point guard Magic Johnson calls himself chairman and CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, even though his Web page says he's a minority "owner" of baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers. In corporate America, we'd say Johnson owns a minority stake in the Dodgers.

 

Arison's titles are managing general partner of the Heat and chairman of Carnival Corp. (CCL) Vivek Ranadive calls himself chairman and CEO at Tibco Software (TIBX) but majority owner of the Sacramento Kings. Josh Harris is managing owner of the Philadelphia 76ers but managing partner at his hedge fund.

 

It's understandable if people who control sports teams want extra credit: The Dallas Mavericks' Mark Cuban said via email that "I get called the owner of my other businesses all the time. I like it." (The NBA, Kings and Wizards didn't respond to e-mails; the Warriors referred questions to the NBA.) And sometimes it comes their way without asking: The Knicks' Web page uses Dolan's proper MSG title, but tabloids generally don't.

 

But underneath this little joke about status anxiety lies a serious point -- one comedian Chris Rock was getting at in a routine about the difference between being rich like Shaquille O'Neal or wealthy and powerful like the people who signed Shaq's paycheck when he was playing.

 

"Wealth will set us free," Rock ranted, before other observations that would get a lesser talent in trouble. "Wealth is empowering. Wealth can uplift communities from poverty."

 

Ditto for dignity -- including every person's right to know he or she is the captain of their own ship. Dignity is empowering. It sets you free. And no one should have an owner.

 

With billionaires lining up to pry the Clippers from hands controlled by Sterling's cold, dead brain, the league's leverage to force this change in culture -- the league's, and in a small way, the country's -- couldn't be higher. If you can afford the $1.75 billion the Clippers might cost once half of California's billionaires consider springing for a lifetime ride on the Good Ship Ego Trip, you can afford the humility of calling yourself CEO rather than owner.

 

Even Michael Jordan's title with the Charlotte Bobcats is chairman, though he owns a majority of the team's shares. No one is more entitled to hoops honorifics -- or has a bigger ego. Which, for once, His Airness sublimated.

 

Be like Mike.

 

Tim Mullaney writes mostly on economics, health care and technology. Despite diligently saving, he does not yet own an NBA team. Contact him at tim.mullaney@outlook.com or follow him on Twitter, @timmullaney.

 

More from MarketWatch:

 

Model Elin Nordegren succeeds where IMF's Christine Lagarde can't

 

Donald Sterling, as we know him, will live forever

 

Sterling apologies on CNN, insults Magic Johnson, African-Americans

-Tim Mullaney; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com

 

Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

05-13-14 1257ET

Copyright (c) 2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Copyright 2014 MarketWatch
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Morningstar - 2014/5/13 - UPDATE: It's time for the NBA to retire the term 'owner'
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