The Spree Affair:
Yanking the Golden Chain

Revolutionary Worker #937, December 21, 1997

Two major stories from the world of professional sports came out of the San Francisco Bay area in the last couple weeks.

On December 1 Latrell Sprewell, all-star guard on the Golden State Warriors, lost his temper in practice, and allegedly put his hands around his coach's neck and told him to back off. The coach, P.J. Carlesimo, is known as a "screamer," whose coaching style is to constantly degrade and publicly humiliate players.

The other story was that San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo was about to be indicted, accused of handing a former Louisiana governor hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to illegally fix a gambling license for him.

One of these men voluntarily resigned from his position, turned his job over to his sister, and as a San Francisco Chronicle columnist described it, has been "idolized," in the media since his story broke. The other was banned from his profession and his sport for a year by the head of league, and described in the news as "declaring war on all sports authority figures" (Boston Globe), "making a terroristic threat" (Sacramento Bee), a "villain" (Newsday).

As everyone knows by now, it is Spree who has been banned from the sport for a year, and subjected to a media lynch mob, while DeBartolo remains in place as one of San Francisco's successful businessmen.


For years Eddie DeBartolo has been openly involved in the gambling business, despite the fact that the NFL supposedly has a rule against any league official associating with "gamblers or with gambling activities in a manner tending to bring discredit to the NFL." In 1992 one of DeBartolo's more notorious gambling deals turned a $1,000 investment in Louisiana casinos into an $85 million profit four years later.

And DeBartolo's professional and personal life is filled with the kinds of incidents that would get young Black men thrown out of sports if not thrown in jail. Last year DeBartolo assaulted a Green Bay Packers' fan and only had to pay a fine. In the same year he was named in a sexual assault case that was settled for cash.

The obvious double standard of justice for DeBartolo and Spree has angered many. There is word that a mysterious benefactor may be behind the youth showing up in expensive front row seats with signs of support for Spree. Two fans brought signs to a Warriors game saying "Free Spree," and "If the Coach Does Not Fit, You Must Acquit." Other fans have brought signs to games supporting Latrell, all of which have been torn from them by security guards. One sportswriter who interviewed fans at a game concluded that younger fans of all nationalities tended to support Sprewell and feel he was treated unfairly. And on the court, teammate Joe Smith has Spree's number 15 on his socks.

On Tuesday, December 9, Latrell spoke out at a press conference, accompanied by his agent, the NBA Players Association President, and his lawyers including Johnnie Cochran. In a dramatic surprise move, just as the press conference began, six of the current Warriors along with Roberto Horry from the L.A. Lakers dramatically filed into the room to stand behind him. Facing the overwhelmingly middle-aged white, male sports press world, Sprewell apologized for his actions in practice, but said he had been "vilified." He talked about how he "never saw pictures of myself where I had a smile on my face, and there are times when I'm on the court and I'm happy but I never saw that."

When a reporter from the RW asked if there was a double-standard in how Sprewell had been treated compared to DeBartolo, Cochran replied, "Obviously this is something people are looking at. It's a question of fundamental fairness. Is the penalty consistent with any mistake (Sprewell) made? We think not. We think this is a disparity."

The exchange between Sprewell and P.J. Carlesimo was an incident in the heat of practice that could have been settled. But clearly a decision was made in high places to make a public example of Spree. Sports columnists like New York Times Harvey Araton were quick to convict Spree with reminders that Spree is owned, not an owner: "Anyone who crosses this particular line plays by the rules of the common working man. Beat up the boss, you're fired." But firing was not enough for the NBA. After the Warriors fired Sprewell, he was contacted to join several other teams including the Washington Wizards, and it was at that point that NBA president David Stern stepped in--in a heavy-handed move--and banned Spree for a year. After only 48 hours of investigation--where Sprewell was not even allowed to tell his side of the story--he got the longest suspension in the NBA for a non-drug related offense in 20 years.

One columnist in the SF Chronicle wrote that "In the places where business is conducted and opinions are formed, they'll tell you people like DeBartolo built this country and people like Sprewell are tearing it down."

Why is the NBA so determined to send this punishing message? As one commentator asked--maybe they are afraid of a "slave rebellion" in the ranks.

The NBA makes billions packaging the "ghetto" and Black players as role models. As long as it suits their purpose, the NBA is only too happy to hype the egos of star players, pit star players against each other and the rest of the team, and promote all manner of ugly competition among players on and off the court. But players who buy into the golden chains of the NBA star system learn fast and hard that challenging authority is not part of the role model the NBA wants to project. One minute you are making 30 mil and the next minute your future is in doubt. Among the justifications for Spree's banning, a New York Times columnist wrote that Spree was "said to have been loud and jovial on the team plane and bus after blowout losses, often questioning Carlesimo's offense within earshot of the coaching staff."

The Golden State Warriors are known as one of the worst plantations within the NBA--where the discipline of "street" players is an obsession and grown men are treated like reform school boys. Carlesimo was fired from Portland after players told team owner Paul Allen that if he wanted to win he better get rid of the abusive Carlesimo. And the Golden State Warriors hired Carlesimo to boss their team. Carlesimo persisted in getting in Spree's face--as if to say, you are gonna take whatever I dish out and you can't do nothin about it. Spree told a San Francisco television interviewer: "I just couldn't take the verbal abuse that he's been giving all the guys over the past month or so." In his press statement Spree said he should have "gone public" with his complaints about the abusive Carlesimo instead of taking it personally.

Spree is a young black man with a cornrow hairstyle, a hell of a game and an attitude that gets under the skin of the powers that be. Hitting Spree with a year's suspension is a message to NBA players that you might be a millionaire, you might be on TV, but you don't own this game and if you don't fit the system's game plan, you could end up back in the ghetto. And in this time when ghetto youth are being criminalized in U.S. society, that's a message that is intended to be heard far beyond the NBA.

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