When an ‘owner’ goes wild, it raises bigger and more sensitive questions

OAKLAND, Calif. — Attention to those confused: You can own the team. Not the player.

And you can do and say what you want, just know there are consequences.

Golden State Warriors part owner Mark Stevens apparently didn’t get the memo when Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry jumped into courtside seats for a loose ball, and Stevens shoved him and allegedly told Lowry to “go [f---] yourself” in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals. He got the message when the NBA banned him for a year and fined him $500,000. Now, the fine is a drop in the bucket for a billionaire, but the punishment is more severe than what Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban received from the NBA last year for the sexually charged and hostile work environment women had to endure for years within his organization.

Yet it still isn’t enough, and it certainly wasn’t enough for the players when the announcement was made following Thursday’s media availability. Players from the Warriors and Raptors seemed satisfied with the temporary steps the league had taken to that point, as statements from the Warriors and the league indicated further investigation was necessary before a ruling.

But shortly after Lowry’s news conference ended, the NBA’s punishment was alerted to the public. The league can only do so much to an investor’s pocketbook, but taking away access is where it hurts and removing the ability to be heard and seen courtside is a start.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 05:  Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors yells at a fan in the second half against the Golden State Warriors during Game Three of the 2019 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 05, 2019 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Kyle Lowry confronts Mark Stevens during the fourth quarter of Game 3 on Wednesday night. (Getty Images)

But it’s just a start.

Who cares if Stevens were liquored up or charged up during a highly emotional NBA Finals? What if Lowry, being in a heightened emotional state and in the midst of competition, had retaliated? In the eyes of the public and everyone there, he would’ve been wrong for defending himself because he, as a player, is held to a higher standard.

The money and stature and social norms dictate Lowry and other NBA players treat these matters with a certain amount of decorum, and many point to their salaries as the reason to absorb verbal shots or physical contact from strangers.

Shouldn’t a billionaire have higher standards than the players and not treat them as, dare we say, property?

“Any time you're in a situation where you can do no right, like in defending yourself, you're vulnerable,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “So I think it's no different when you start talking of anybody in any ownership group in the league. You're held to a different standard. You can say it's unfair or not, like whatever your opinion is on it, whether you're one way or the other, that's just the reality of it.”

That’s why the league has to take seriously the thought of removing “owner” from team titles. Many use “managing partner” or “chairman” instead, and who knows if those terms are used because they want to get away from the notion of “owning” players.

Players have to endure fans taking liberties verbally because they bought a ticket and feel as if it’s open season when they are within earshot. It’s not a stretch to see someone with infinite wealth taking a similar tact, and if nothing else the league needs to be sensitive to the optics here.

Black employees, white employers. If the word "owner" doesn't make you feel icky, or at least ponder, there are questions to be asked.

“And I can say for sure that guy makes me feel like that,” Lowry said when asked if he agreed with Green’s suggestion about the word “owner” being removed. “Mark Stevens, whoever his name is, makes me feel like he's one of those guys. Draymond with that, I remember him saying that. I believe it's true. We call it the ‘Board of Governors,’ but people in the world would call it the ownership. It should be changed. And a guy like that definitely shows that's what he feels, to me.”

Owning a team is not like owning a house or car or piece of property. That property doesn’t walk and talk the way NBA players do, and even though they are paid handsomely they are often shuffled around like chess pieces in a cold business that draws billions of eyeballs every year. It’s the covenant the two sides enter into, one that’s supposedly born of respect for the other’s attributes.

When instances like this happen, it strips away at that fabric because seemingly, Mark Stevens has friendships and relationships with people within Warriors ownership. And if he’s harboring views that caused him to tell Lowry to “go f--- yourself,” he’s likely expressed them in like company before.

African-American players have the burden of being judged, positively or negatively, against stereotypes that have nothing to do with their own actions. They know when one of 450 messes up, it paints a picture they can’t often escape. But when Donald Sterling or this fellow does or says something that gives that uneasy feeling, players are often told the man is a lone wolf, that he isn’t representative of something more sinister or damaging or dangerous.

That’s the double standard, and that’s what the NBA has to be careful about if it wants to address the inequities it didn’t create — because the players didn’t create the barriers they have to face, yet must do so anyway.

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