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Tsai: ‘very, very emotional conversations’ with players led to social justice initiative


In an hour-long “fireside chat” with Yale students —recorded on September 10 and posted Friday— Joe Tsai says some “very, very emotional conversations” with his players led him to make the commitment he and his wife Clara have made to social justice, including his $50 million Social Justice Fund for Brooklyn announced in August.

Tsai, who spoke via Zoom to students at the Tsai Center for Innovational Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY) didn’t detail which players he has spoken with, but he described the discussions as intense and emotional and his response as necessary.

“The background is the Brooklyn Nets and the NBA,” said Tsai when asked about his commitment. “Since the killing of George Floyd, I think the country has been thrown into kind of a turmoil.

“The teams and the team owners and the players have kind of felt this very strongly. The fact is with the NBA we have a league where our elite players, our stars, are 70 to 80 percent black. and this is very, very personal to our players and by extension, when we have our conversations with our players, I started to realize that the issue of racial injustice is a deep-rooted problem with 400+ years of history that you can’t solve overnight but you have to face it like directly. You have to face it now. You have to have that conversation. You can’t skirt it.”

Tsai said he was particularly moved by discussions with his players on the issue of racial bias in policing.

“I’ve never come across this, but when I see a policeman on the streets, I don’t run away. There’s no fear, but as I have conversations with our players and also some friends, people that we know who are black, they start to pour out,” said Tsai, who grew emotional himself as he described the conversations.

“I mean they ... it’s a very, very emotional conversation. We’ve been in a lot of these emotional conversations about the kind of life that they lead that’s different because certain people see other people by the color of their skin and not by what they do and what they accomplish...

“So that’s why my wife and I started an initiative to say that we’re not only going to put money resources behind a social justice program but also look inward and look at our own organization. ‘Are we diverse enough?’ ‘Are we doing everything we can?’ to promote the social justice cause, especially the issue facing the black community today.”

Tsai spoke about the Nets hiring of Steve Nash in the context of diversity —and race— as well, telling students at his alma mater, you can’t be afraid to discuss the issue. It was Tsai’s first public comment on the controversy.

“I will give you an example. A couple of days ago, we hired Steve Nash, as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets,” Tsai noted. “Steve Nash is a two-time MVP, one of the most talented point guards that ever played basketball. For him, it was an incredible ‘get’ for us to be able to convince him that he would come into Brooklyn and coach us, coach our team. The problem is Steve Nash is white and in the context of this whole social justice.

“We came under a little bit of criticism —I’m sure some of you have seen what Stephen A. Smith what he said on ESPN. He said Steve Nash got his job because of ‘white privilege.’ So when Steve Nash was put on the spot during a press conference by a reporter and the direct question (from NetsDaily) was ‘Hey Steve what do you think, did you get your job because of white privilege?’ what Steve said was very sensible and sensitive. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’ve been the beneficiary of that, but I don’t think that is an issue that applies in this particular case but having said that we need to have this conversation.’”

Tsai in fact credited Smith for bringing up the issue, calling it important to the current debate.

“Neither Steve Nash nor I blame Stephen A for raising that question ... even though the example he uses in this particular case may be misapplied ... but having that conversation is important. So I think this is a very good example of rather than just shouting at each other and saying, ‘Hey look, we understand that white privilege is an issue. We need to talk about it. In this case it doesn’t apply because Steve Nash is the best person for the job, but we are still not afraid to talk about it. I think this where you need to have a rational discussion.”

Diversity is just as important as the First Amendment, he argued at another point in the talk, and noted “The foundation of excellence is diversity.” On Monday, he explained his position further on Twitter...

Tsai spoke as well as how NBA owners have to see their players, particularly their superstars, as partners, in part because of the financial power of the players.

“There’s a very fair sharing of economics between teams and players,” he noted in answer to a Nets fan from Brooklyn, Perry Wang. “if you go to buy a team in Europe, a soccer team, there’s no salary cap. So a lot of the owners lose money,” he explained.

“But in the NBA, per the collective bargaining agreement, you basically have a 50-50 share of the economics between players and team owners. So in a way our players are not our employees, they’re our partners in the business and understanding that nature, understanding that they’re our partners, that they’re superstars and there’s a special way of establishing relationships with players ... being able to understand that is very, very important to ownership.

“And so nowadays, to get fans into the building, get fans to watch the games, you have to do a lot of marketing,” adding that once he understood that, he started his Twitter account, never having been on that social media previously.

“I started a Twitter account a few years ago so I can communicate directly with our fans,’’ Tsai said. “Up to that point, I had never used Twitter. I didn’t think it was important to me. I can’t understand the idea of limiting the number of words you can post on social media. Because of the Nets, I now have a Twitter account.”

He was even asked about investing in sports media!. A questioner noted that The Athletic had just passed the one million subscriber level and asked about his feelings about sports media in general. “What is sports without fans?” he noted.

Noting that the sports business and sports media are closely tied, Tsai described The Athletic as a site for “crazy fans.”

“Something like The Athletic is for the, uh, crazy fans, the people who are really into it, into all the in’s and out’s.” Tsai said with a smile. “You want to know everything about the NBA Draft, coming up and who’s going to pick first through 30, you read The Athletic and I think there is a market for that kind of thing. It’s a subscription based model and I think these really good newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have proven that the subscription-based model works if you have proprietary content and really good content.”

However, Tsai noted that there’s an issue.

“I think that there are too many competitors like The Athletic. There are a number of other sports websites or apps that you can get a lot of information from. There’s almost no barrier to entry in the area of specialty information or analysis about sports ... It’s a very competitive space.”

Tsai was asked what drove him to buy the Nets. He revealed that he reached an “inflection point” in May 2018 that drove his decision

“The watershed moment was in 2018 when Yale lacrosse won the national championship. I went to the game and it was one of those moments where I thought to myself that a goal i that nobody thought would be obtainable was actually achieved maybe a couple of years ahead of time, ahead of time,” he recalled.

“So for me, I started to think how I want to structure my life, how to sort of re-plan my career or re-plan my life. I had already gotten to a stage of relative success and comfort and it was time for me to slow down a little bit at my work, my full time job and start focusing on my family, start focusing on my passion which is I wanted to get into sports a little.”

Tsai who had purchased a minority stake in the Nets in October 2017 with an option to acquire the remaining shares in 2021 instead accelerated his purchase and completed the sale in August 2019.

In discussing the need to learn from history, Tsai had strong words for President Trump’s treatment of Asian-Americans, but pointedly called him, “the guy in the White House.” Tsai is a native of Taiwan with Canadian citizenship. His wife and children are U.S. citizens.

“I say, history does repeat itself because of what I’ve seen in the recent environment with sentiment in society against, for example, Asian-Americans because of COVID and because you know the guy in the White House is communicating a message that affects all Asian-Americans.

“You know during World War II, when America went to war with Japan, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and put into these internment camps because they were not trusted as Americans. It only happened 60, 70 years ago, it could repeat itself. So for me, going back in history is very important.”