Zion Williamson stepped up on Friday.
The New Orleans Pelicans rookie pledged to pay the salaries of all the arena workers at Smoothie King Center for 30 days as the NBA embarks on a hiatus in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
While the sports world hits pause for an indefinite period of time, ushers, concession vendors, security personnel and others who make their living keeping events moving are suddenly out of work during a time of unprecedented crisis.
Williamson cited his upbringing for his decision, writing on Instagram that his “mother has always set an example for me about being respectful for others and being grateful for what we have.”
It’s an admirable stance. It’s also one that begs a question.
Why isn’t ownership taking it?
Philanthropic owner makes puzzling decision
Team owner Gayle Benson is noted for her philanthropy. She and her family have donated tens of millions of dollars to the New Orleans community over the years.
In 2015 she and her late husband Tom Benson donated $20 million to cancer research and care services in the Gulf Coast region. In 2019 she donated $3.5 million to a local food bank on behalf of the Gayle and Tom Benson charitable foundation. She’s supported schools. She’s supported medical centers.
But when it comes to the workers who help her business run, there’s no support to be found.
The Pelicans released a statement Friday praising Williamson for his pledge. It came attached with a bizarre explanation as to why the team isn’t helping out.
‘A bit more complicated’
“The Pelicans say thank you and applaud Zion and his family for his generous giving today to the employees of ASM New Orleans and the Smoothie King Center during this very unfortunate and troubling time,” the statement reads. “Earlier this morning, the Pelicans engaged with management at ASM New Orleans to determine what the team could do through ASM New Orleans to assist their employees.
“While it is a bit more complicated being that the Pelicans are simply the tenant of the building, the giving and helping this community in a time of need by Mrs. Benson and her organizations is unquestioned. When people need help, there is NEVER a question of who will be there.”
It’s a “bit more complicated”?
It didn’t seem complicated for Zion to step up.
The right thing and the right business decision
Complications aside, this is a spot that calls for action from management. Staffers have seen their livelihoods and potentially their health put in peril by extraordinary, unforeseen circumstances.
Ownership is in the best spot to help out. It’s the right thing to do. It’s also the right business decision to ensure that employees are kept healthy and afloat.
Players chip in
Meanwhile, all around the league, players are stepping up.
Kevin Love pledged $100,000 for the workers at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Giannis Antetokounmpo has done the same for the staff at Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum. Blake Griffin is reportedly dedicating the same total to Little Caesars Arena employees in Detroit.
Mark Cuban leads owner charge
Ownership groups are doing their part as well. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was the first to raise awareness of the issue when the league abruptly canceled its season Wednesday night. As the league fell into chaos, he immediately thought of the workers.
The Mavericks followed through on Friday with a plan to pay the staff that works games at American Airlines Arena for the six games they’re scheduled to miss during the initial 30-day hiatus.
Atlanta Hawks owner Tony Ressler has made a similar pledge. As has Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, Houston Rockets CEO Tad Brown, Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers management, and Philadelphia 76ers management.
Other ownership groups are also likely devising plans as well.
It all makes the statement from the Pelicans and their normally charitable owner that much more surprising.
Will NBA make the call?
Like so much during this unprecedented week in the sports world, leagues and member organizations have made fragmented, disparate decisions on how to manage the pandemic before the vast majority of them finally got on the same page to halt play.
It’s a lesson the NBA should apply when it comes to the plight of arena staff league-wide.
Instead of leaving the well-being of workers to the whims of players and owners in their cities, the league needs to come up with a plan in case there’s a situation without a Zion Williamson to step up when a Gayle Benson doesn’t.
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