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New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson is about as exciting and interesting an NBA player as we’ve seen in years. The 19-year-old has stepped up in a crisis, offering to pay all wages for the stadium workers at the Smoothie King Arena where he plays while the NBA season is on hold because of the COVID-19 crisis.
In a post on Instagram, Williamson said,
some of the most special people I have met are those who work at smoothie King Center…. these are the folks who make our games possible, creating the perfect environment for our fans and everyone involved in the organization. Unfortunately, many of them are still recovering from long term challenges created by Katrina, and now face the economic impact of the postponement of games because of the virus. My mother has always set an example for me about being respectful for others and being grateful for what we have, and so today I am pledging to cover the salaries for all of those Smoothie King Center workers for the next 30 days.
Zion is not the only NBA player who has ponied up some of his own mega-salary to help those most hurt by the stadium closures. Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Detroit Pistons’ Blake Griffin have all donated $100,000 to arena workers. The Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry brought together players and management to pay $1 million in order to aid Chase Center employees in the Bay Area.
President Obama gave them a backslap on Twitter, writing, “A shout out to Kevin, Giannis, Zion, Blake, Steph and all the players, owners and organizations who are setting a good example during a challenging time. A reminder that we’re a community, and that each of us has an obligation to look out for each other.”
Let’s unpack that term, “obligation.” What the generosity of individual players really highlights is just how few billionaire NBA owners have stepped up to aid the low-wage workers that make their stadium economies hum. So far, owners of only roughly half the teams have pledged to help.
NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement: “NBA teams, arena owners and players are working together in partnership to support arena employees impacted by our season hiatus. Within the last day, many have already announced their plans while others are in the process of formulating them.”
They need to move faster. Credit to Mark Cuban of the Mavericks, for leading the way. And credit to Atlanta Hawks franchise owner Tony Ressler, who said,
We have a pretty clear set of priorities in this kind of remarkable time that we’re living through. Protecting our fans, protecting our employees, and protecting the reputation of our league, all of which is important, but let there be no confusion, that means taking care of all of our employees, our full-time, our part-time.
This commitment to “taking care of all of our employees, our full-time, our part-time” should be league wide. As Obama said, they have an obligation to do so. This isn’t about feel-good generosity, it’s about right and wrong. When NBA teams get hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds to build new stadiums, it is always done with the promise of jobs. These promises are always problematic, since they often, when not unionized, don’t come with a living wage and of course by their nature comprise seasonal, as opposed to year round, work. The coronavirus response has shown just how precarious these workers’ jobs are.
Now is put up or shut up time. The ownership plutocracy must provide paid leave for these workers, because promises made have to be matched by promises kept. One team, my hometown squad the Washington Wizards. and team governor Ted Leonsis will be doing the right thing and funding salaries of arena workers during this crisis. I spoke to one, who said to me, “Paid leave means I can stay home, care for my kids when they’re home from school. That means groceries. That means everything.” It’s unconscionable that half the teams are still dragging their feet. It shouldn’t take a 19-year-old rookie to shame these cosseted billionaires into doing their duty and to make sure everyone can play a role in getting us through this pandemic in one piece.