NBA Has New Crisis on its Hands

The NBA has long considered itself the most progressive league among American team sports. So when it finds itself in a dilemma over a social justice issue folks tend to take a much tougher, more critical look at what is happening. But in a current case involving Detroit Pistons majority owner Tom Gores, things aren’t quite so simple. It seems he ha taken steps both publicly and privately to signal his support for organizations and causes that fit the league’s profile, most notably Black Lives Matter.

However Gores’ public statements are viewed as hollow by prison reform advocates. They instead focus on his fiscal interest in a prison telecom company. Gores’ private equity firm Platinum Equity purchased Securus Technologies in 2017. Securus helps set the phone call rates for jailed inmates to make phone calls to their families. A New York nonprofit Worth Rises claims Securus has been overcharging families to connect with their loved ones behind bars.

Their website contains this allegation: “Gores owns the predatory prison telecom corporation Securus, which is infamous for charging families egregious rates to connect with loved ones behind bars. His greed has broken up families and traumatized children, who are disproportionately Black and Brown due to racist policing and policies. If Gores cannot meet his responsibility to the public, and Detroiters specifically, the NBA must step in.”

“The charges, which can reach $15 for a 15-minute phone call, are criticized for being too high and separating inmates from support systems. A 2015 study by a collection of nonprofits found that one in three families go into debt staying in touched with an inmate. Most of those are women of color.”

The group originally demanded Gores divest his interest in the company Dec. 10. Then last Sunday they took out a full page ad in the Sunday New York Times. “If Black Lives Matter, what are you doing about Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores?” the ad read in bold letters at the bottom. It listed the 29 other team owners and NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

Gores has already stepped down from his position on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But Worth Rises maintains if he doesn’t divest his interest in Securus Technologies, the league should strip him of his Pistons’ ownership. “At the end of the day, [Gores’] business stands in complete tension with the notion that Black Lives Matter, and that’s something he has to reckon with,” Bianca Tylek, founder and executive director of Worth Rises, recently told ESPN. “In his current position and how he’s currently building his wealth and what he’s doing to our communities, he shouldn’t be allowed to own one of our favorite basketball teams,” Tylek said, via ESPN.

The only response thus far has come from Mark Barnhll, a partner at Platinum Equity. He told ESPN “[Gores] is directing any personal profits from Securus to reform efforts in this area.” He also responded to the Times ad by saying “Our commitment to the community and to social justice is visible every day,” citing the company’s work with numerous Detroit-area programs and nonprofits. “Securus is committed to shouldering “the heavy lifting necessary to transform the company and the industry.” 

Last January Securus announced it had lowered the average cost of phone calls by 30 percent over the past three years. It said it would decrease it an additional 15 percent over the next three years. It also pledged to donate $3 million to efforts aimed at reducing recidivism.

Thus far, none of that has defused the situation, nor been viewed as acceptable by Worth Rises. This is another ongoing controversy that bears further watching, particularly as neither the NBA office nor Players Union has yet been heard from on this issue.