Is 'owner' in sports a racist term? Survey says Americans aren't convinced it is

The NBA has moved away from the use of the term “owner” to describe the individuals who hold controlling interest in its franchises, a move that some have praised as forward-thinking and racially inclusive, and others have derided as overly simplistic and unnecessary. Where does public sentiment lie on the issue?

“I don't want to overreact to the term, because as I've said earlier, people end up twisting themselves into knots avoiding the use of the word ‘owner,’ ” commissioner Adam Silver said recently in acknowledging the change. “But we moved away from that term years ago at the league. We call our team owners ‘governor’ of the team and ‘alternate governor.’”

Changing the descriptive term for someone who possesses a majority or complete financial stake in a professional sports organization is one of those instant-classic late-2010s sports stories: good intentions and progressive thinking colliding head-on with traditionalism and common-sense questions, with a healthy dose of take-no-prisoners, less-than-good-faith arguing ladled over the top.

Is “owner” an inherently negative term in 2019? Is it a problem that organizations still use the term “owner”? To get a sense of the popular view of these questions, Yahoo Sports used Verizon Media’s in-house research arm to survey a cross-section of Americans.

Adam Silver is moving away from the use of the term "owner" in the NBA. (Getty)
Adam Silver is moving away from the use of the term "owner" in the NBA. (Getty)

How we got here

Before we dive into the results, let’s lay out the foundation here. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has indicated that the league is moving away from the use of the term “owner” because of its connection with slavery, a context that’s important when you’re talking about a league with majority white ownership and a majority black workforce.

Context is key here — “owning” a basketball team implies a different connotation than, say, “owning” a phone. Plenty of words, phrases and references that exist just fine in a vacuum take on unwanted or racial overtones when applied in certain contexts, and to Silver’s thinking, the word “owner” now falls into that category. (The outright racist behavior of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling dovetails neatly with this line of thinking.)

At the other end of the court is the contention that “owner,” under its most basic and obvious meaning, is simply the best and most applicable word for an individual who has purchased a franchise that plays professional basketball. “Ownership” is a term that exists independent of slavery implications. Plus, there’s the not-insignificant angle that your average NBA player earning millions has very, very little in common with a slave.

This is where arguments tend to extend from the realm of fact into the world of outrage, so we’ll stop right here and focus on the results of the survey.

Survey results: Is ‘owner’ an offensive term?

The survey, conducted this week, was comprised of more than 1,200 Americans across all demographic groups. Here’s the first question of the survey:

The word "owners" is used to describe individuals who have controlling interests in sports teams. To what extent do you view the word "owners" as positive or negative when it comes to sports teams in general?

The results (green is positive, red is negative, blue is neutral):

(Source: Yahoo Sports)
(Source: Yahoo Sports)

It’s clear that across the demographic spectrum, roughly half of Americans don’t associate any positive or negative context with the word “owner.” Males have a higher regard for the word, with 41 percent viewing it in a positive light versus 27 percent of females. Worth noting: At least 40 percent of blacks and Hispanics both viewed the term “owner” in a positive light, more than whites (31 percent) ... but blacks also had the highest demographic number of negative reactions, at 20 percent.

The second question: Do you believe the word "owner" used to describe these individuals who have controlling interests in sports teams is or is not racially insensitive in the NBA?

In this graph, green is “not racially insensitive,” red is “racially insensitive,” and blue is “don’t know.”

(Source: Yahoo Sports)
(Source: Yahoo Sports)

Overall, 57 percent of respondents said the term is not, in itself, racially insensitive. Nearly two-thirds of all males felt that way, while barely half of females did.

The “not insensitive” figures drop to about 47 percent when considering the 18-to-34 age group and when considering black respondents.

Overall, 16 percent of respondents said “owner” is a racially insensitive term in the context of the NBA. And 24 percent of 18-to-34-year olds, and 28 percent of blacks, saw the term as offensive.

Finally, the question of whether the respondents supported the NBA’s decision provided some clarity. (Green is “support,” red is “oppose.”)

(Source: Yahoo Sports)
(Source: Yahoo Sports)

Almost across the board, half of all respondents had no real opinion on the NBA’s decision to move to “governor” and away from “owner.” Worth noting: even though relatively few respondents saw the term “owner” as a negative, nearly one-fourth (24 percent) supported the NBA’s decision to move away from the use of the term.

The highest measures of support came from blacks (44 percent) and respondents aged 18-to-34 (35 percent). Whites and older respondents had less than 20 percent support for the decision.

Source: Yahoo Sports: NBA Owners Online Survey, Total sample size was 1,237 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between June 26-27, 2019. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (age 18-plus).


Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

More from Yahoo Sports: