The NBA should be an ideal escape from the post-election blues. Basketball is our nation’s beautiful game, and this season boasts no shortage of enticing storylines: the Golden State Warriors superteam, LeBron James’ bid for a Cleveland repeat, the promise of young stars like Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid.
And yet the real world can’t help but intrude in the form of a divisive, racially-charged debate about politically appropriate discourse, pitting two NBA legends against each other. We suffered through Trump-Clinton. Now we’ve got LeBron James-Phil Jackson? Really?
A quick primer on the feud: Jackson, the New York Knicks president and Hall of Famer who has won a record 11 NBA titles as a head coach, referred to James’ associates––including his business partner Maverick Carter and agent Rich Paul, both longtime friends of James––as a “posse” during an interview with ESPN. James and Carter took exception. “If he would have said LeBron and his agent, LeBron and his business partners or LeBron and his friends, that’s one thing,” Carter said. “Yet because you’re young and black, he can use that word. We’re grown men.” James echoed Carter’s sentiment after a practice on Tuesday, saying he “had” respect for Jackson as a coach, while now, he’s “got nothing for him.”
James continued: “It just sucks that now at this point having one of the biggest businesses you can have both on and off the floor, having a certified agent in Rich Paul, having a certified business partner in Maverick Carter that’s done so many great business [deals], that the title for young African-Americans is the word ‘posse.'”
Jackson bares the blame here. According to academic experts who’ve closely studied race relations, James had every right to be offended. At its most benign, “posse” calls to mind hangers-on orbiting a celebrity or athlete, particularly an African-American basketball player. So by referring to James’ business team as a “posse,” Jackson linguistically derides their credentials, whether intentional or not.
A 2002 Sports Illustrated story exploring the growth and dynamics of NBA entourages noted that, “they’re often viewed with suspicion–and sometimes it’s justified–but many NBA players couldn’t cope without their posses.” The story touched on the racial elements:
In response to Jackson’s comments, Carter sent out this tweet:
“Posse” can have more sinister connotations. “The word ‘posse,’ in this case, is a term that I think of as being popular in the late 80s,” says Todd Boyd, professor of race and popular culture at USC. “It is something I associated with the era of the Central Park Five and wilding and such, this urban paranoia, racial paranoia connected to the crack epidemic. For a really brief period of time, there were some hip-hop artists who might have used the title. But once the mainstream began using that title in a derogatory way, and hip-hip started to move away from it.”
Poussaint, the long-time Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor quoted in the Sports Illustrated piece, tells TIME that posse “is also not used to describe groups of white criminals or mafiosos or anything else.”
To Boyd, it should’ve been easy for Jackson to avoid the word altogether. “If Phil is making a point about LeBron and his friends and family,” says Boyd, “there’s no need to inject a term that conveys a racial connotation. He could have very easily said friends and family or something else much more neutral.”
Jackson may not have known that for many people, “posse” is problematic. “For him to come out and say that is not necessarily a sign of some malignant racist degeneracy,” says sports sociologist Harry Edwards, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, “as it is a characterization rooted in the biases and stereotypes that we have in this country.”
Carter went out of his way to clear Jackson of bad intentions:
“What was in his head when he used the term?” says Poussaint. “We don’t know. But he has to be mindful, people have to be mindful, about how other people hear these words. That’s the key.”
While Jackson hasn’t responded directly to the criticism from James and Carter–– he did not respond to an interview request sent through a Knicks spokesperson––on Wednesday he retweeted a note from advisor and Knicks VP Clarence Gains about the Posse Foundation, which helps students secure college scholarships. The foundation takes its name from a student who remarked: “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me.” The Posse website says that since 1989, almost 7,000 students secured scholarships through the foundation, which has chapters in cities around the nation. The foundation’s founder and president, Deborah Bial, received a MacArthur genius grant in 2007; President Obama donated a portion of his Nobel Peace Prize — $1.4 million — to the foundation.
A positive connotation in one context, however, won’t erase negativity in another. For example, Boyd points to the feminist website “Bitch Media.” Its existence, he says, doesn’t give men license to address women with such a derogatory term. “This is an interesting time to have this conversation,” says Boyd. “There’s a debate going on in the culture about the substance of the worlds people use. Some people think it’s just words. But that’s very selective. Words have meaning. Words have connotations. And the people who say these things, the context changes from person to person. That shouldn’t be confusing to someone as intelligent as Phil Jackson.”
There’s also no confusion about this: the LeBron-Phil conflict–these guys are so big, you need no last names–requires a quick resolution. “We’re going to have to cut each other some slack,” says Edwards. “You can’t Sotell me they can’t sit across the table from each other and come away and say, you know, I understand what I heard isn’t what you meant, and what you said isn’t what I understood. Let’s get back on the path on this and move forward. I hope at some point, Phil and LeBron will be able to set that example for the nation. Because we need that more than ever. What we don’t need is another spitting and pissing fit by high profile public figures.”