With his Quibi short-form series Blackballed, executive producer Will Packer set out to explore the intersection of race and sports, in the context of an explosive and pivotal moment in American sports history.
Directed by Mike Jacobs, the show dissects five days during the 2014 NBA playoffs, when Los Angeles Clippers players and head coach Doc Rivers were hit with a bombshell revelation.
In April of that year, longtime Clippers owner Donald Sterling provoked disgust and extreme outrage, in and outside of the NBA, when a private recording revealing his racist comments was released.
Soon, Sterling would be fined $2.5 million by the NBA, and banned from the league for life. But before that point, Rivers and his team were met with a crucial question: How do we respond in this moment?
Featuring commentary by the head coach, from players, including Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, as well as notable sports journalists, Blackballed details how the actions of this team set a precedent, in the NBA and beyond, leading athletes to use their platform to speak truth to power.
While prior to this moment, many stars athletes had been reluctant to speak up and rock the boat, what Blackballed speaks to is an idea that is prevalent in American culture, now more than ever before—the idea that silence is complicity.
“One of the sad truths is that everybody knew who Donald Sterling was. This was a poorly kept secret. This was a bad dude, but he was an owner, and that put him in a position of power. He was wealthy, and he was allowed to be that guy, and people looked the other way, white and Black. They knew who this guy was, but there was a feeling of, ‘Yeah, but what are you going to do?’ And we’re seeing a point now where, white and Black, and in between, everybody is saying, ‘No, actually, I can do something. Actually, that’s not okay. Actually, I am going to speak up,’” Packer says. “So, that’s a good thing. That pushes us towards progress as a society.”
Below, the executive producer reflects on the power of Blackballed’s story, the importance of looking at it with the distance of time, and the sea change he sees coming in America today.
DEADLINE: How did Blackballed come together? Why was this series an interesting one for you to take on?
WILL PACKER: I have been personally interested, for a while, with the intersection of race and sports. In our society, sports is the thing that galvanizes us, as a people. It’s the thing that crosses socioeconomic, ethnic, class, racial [differences]. If you and I are pulling for a team, it doesn’t matter what you look like, or what I look like: We’re just pulling for our team against the other team. Yet the thing that is obviously the third rail of American politics, social consciousness, and even sports, is race. So, I’ve always been very interested in how those two intersect.
Sam Widdoes brought this story to my company years ago, and there were conversations around it as a long-form doc. We wanted to find the right voice to do it, and we settled with Mike Jacobs and Quibi, which I thought was a very interesting way to go, because their format allows us to think about this narrative in a different way. By the nature of the format, you’re doing these bite-size, very concise, succinct, coherent portions of the story, and it allowed us to divide it up in a way we wouldn’t have been able to in a traditional long-form [doc].
DEADLINE: What was it about this particular story of the Los Angeles Clippers that spoke to you?
PACKER: My interest in this particular story is, I like the fact that we’re doing it years later, because with the context of today’s rear-view looking at that, you can see what an iconic moment it was, not dissimilar from Colin Kaepernick. He was viewed one way, when it was happening three or four years ago; he’s viewed another way today. He will be viewed, and that whole movement will be viewed a different way in 10 years.
So, one of the things that Chris Paul and I talked about was the benefit, especially for the players, of being able to step back, and not being in the heat of the moment, looking at how players in the Jordan era….And it was looked at during The Last Dance. It wasn’t just Michael Jordan that didn’t talk about politics and social causes and racial issues [during his career on the court]; that was the culture. Very few athletes were doing that; Muhammad Ali is a very notable exception.
But when you look at today and where we sit, it’s common to see athletes using their platform. Whether it’s an interview platform after a game, or their social media, whatever it is, it’s not uncommon to see them talk about how they feel.
Well, Chris and Deandre and Doc, those guys were forced into a situation when this was just starting to become a thing that was acceptable. There still was a lot of the “Shut up and dribble” folks, but it was starting, and they were thrust into it, and forced to make a decision. So, the benefit of having context, and having years removed, you realize what a monumental moment it was, honestly, around that issue.
DEADLINE: It’s interesting that you mention Michael Jordan, who, as you noted, has garnered enormous attention this year, with the ESPN docuseries The Last Dance. When you look back on his time in the NBA, do you give him a pass for remaining apolitical? Is it important to contextualize his actions within his specific period of time on the court?
PACKER: You know, giving him a pass, that’s up to each person’s individual perspective. For me, I wished back then, as a Jordan fan, that he would have used his voice in a different kind of way. As a young, Black male watching the biggest star in the world, and the whole “Republicans buy sneakers,” I did not like that. That did not sit well with me. But to your point, you can’t remove that statement, those events, that mentality from the context of the time period it was in. That is very important. You have to look at it through the lens of where the world was at that time—a different world, obviously, than we’re in right now.
DEADLINE: What was the process of landing your documentary subjects? Did you have preexisting relationships with any of them?
PACKER: I knew Doc, I knew Chris. I reached out to several other people that you see in the doc—Stephen A. [Smith], Jemele Hill, Kenny Smith and folks like that. But really, it was Doc and Chris, honestly. They were so very important. My first conversation was actually with Doc, and Chris is a buddy of mine. He and I are very close, personally.
But I remember one of my early conversations with Doc, and hearing him talk about that 24-to-48-hour time period after the [Donald Sterling] tape came out, then that next playoff game, and the players coming in and going, “You don’t get us. We’re not doing it,” being so upset, and him going, “Listen, guys. I’m a Black man just like you. I’m just as appalled, and we can handle this however you want to handle it.” Then, him hearing that Donald Sterling was going to show up…So, some of the things in the doc that I heard from Doc Rivers made me go, “Wow, I didn’t know any of that. And I didn’t know your perspective, and how you viewed it.”
I had the same conversation with Chris, and the thing that Chris said to me early on was something that is in the doc, which is, “I was getting calls from huge political figures, all the other players in the league, family members. Everybody was calling like, ‘What are you going to do? What are you going to do?’ But at the end of the day, I was going home and looking in the eyes of my kids, and I realized I have to do the right thing. Not just the ‘right thing,’ but I have to make a decision that they are then going to watch and say, ‘This is how you handle adversity. This is how you handle a challenge. This is what you do.’”
So, one of the things that I really respect and appreciate about that LA Clippers family is that there was the, “Do we burn down the STAPLES Center? Do we just say, ‘Listen, this is not about us, nothing to do with us,’ and act as if nothing happened?” Those are two extremes of a response, and ultimately, they found a way to do something in the middle, but work behind the scenes. You had this incredible event that has never happened before, where an owner of a major sports franchise was literally removed against their will and banned for life. Really major things happened, that now they’re out there, a precedent is set.
DEADLINE: Blackballed plays out seamlessly as a short-form series. But were there challenges in making the show work in this format?
PACKER: I give a lot of credit to Mike Jacobs. I think that with something like this, from my perspective, the team is everything. This is execution dependent. It’s an incredible story, but the telling of it, the execution of this production is ultimately what people are and have been judging it by. If you don’t get the right visionary to tell the story, it’s not going to have its intended effect, and Mike Jacobs had a very even hand. He did an excellent job of weaving together this narrative in this untraditional format—which, as I stated before, there’s advantages to it, but there’s also some disadvantages. Because you are forced to tell it in those succinct bites, and so there are things that you can’t have in.
But it started with Mike. He definitely got it, and his perspective was the right perspective, and that’s true of any doc. There’s so much power with somebody that is doing a nonfiction narrative because you are shaping the viewer’s perspective. The power and the skill set of a documentarian, especially somebody like Mike, is that you’ve got the truth. But you still are very much shaping the viewer’s perspective by the way that you are telling the facts, the way you lay them out.
DEADLINE: Do you think you’ll produce other short-form series in the future?
PACKER: I would. I’m hopeful that, as a platform, Quibi is able to gain real traction and resonate with audiences, because I think it’s exciting. I think it’s different.
I’ve always felt, as a content creator, I have to meet the consumer where they are. I can’t sit back and let them come to me. So, I do think that this is obviously intended to be tailor-made for consumer viewing habits, but I also just think that this style of narrative is the way we are consuming everything now, especially anybody that’s under the age of 40. So, as a creative, I am interested in this space. I think we’re all still kind of figuring out what works in the space and what doesn’t, and we’re all still figuring out the best way to position certain stories in this space. But it’s definitely something I’m interested in doing again.
DEADLINE: Do you intend to explore other stories, involving the intersection of race and sports?
PACKER: [There are] some that we’re talking about now. I just announced that I secured the rights to the story of Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. His story is absolutely incredible, and we’re in active development on that now, so I’m very excited about that project coming to fruition.
The interesting thing that Stephen A. Smith says in Blackballed is that athletes who are making their voices heard, who are using their platforms, they’re never doing it while they’re playing. They’re never doing it at ‘work.’ They’re doing it before, they’re doing it after, they’re doing it in between. It never takes away from the physical nature of what they’re doing between the lines, so to speak.
Race has always been, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be political. But in our society, and especially right now, where we are very consumed with race, and the ability to politicize racial perspectives and stances and causes, it puts athletes and those that cheer for athletes in an interesting position. It’s not totally dissimilar from movie stars, but in a way, movie stars are always pretending to be somebody else—and in theory, LeBron [James], or Tom Brady or Serena Williams, they’re kind of who they are at all times.
Do you separate the person from the persona, from the member of the team, from the person that does something that makes you cheer? Do you separate who they are and their beliefs and their suffering? Because these, at the end of the day, are real people. But we have idolized them, put them on pedestals, and we’ve done that for too long. And by the way, that allows athletes who behave very, very badly to get away with it. “Yeah, he committed a crime, but he’s a great player.” That went on for so long.
So, now we’re at a point where we’re saying, “Well, you know what? Actually, these amazing athletes, they are people, and it does matter who they are. It matters what they think, and it matters how they feel.” And I just think that we’re getting to that point where it will always be about what they do between the lines. You wouldn’t care what Chris Paul had to say, if he wasn’t an amazing point guard. But more than ever, because of where we are, because of how they use their voices, because of what happened with the Donald Sterling incident, you are now viewing them, as a society, through a different, more complete lens, and I think that’s interesting.
DEADLINE: Right now, American citizens are looking closely at the infrastructure of our society—particularly with regard to the police—questioning the way it has been set up. Your series addresses a problematic lack of diversity within the ranks of NBA owners. Do you think we’ll soon see a change in that arena?
PACKER: I hope so. I actually know a couple of owners, and am friendly with them, and those that are conscious and forward-thinking are those that say, “It’s really important for me to have a diverse group of minority owners alongside me in all my boards.” I’ve even had conversations about the term ‘owner,’ because [there’s] so many African-American players, and the owners [are primarily] white, and the conversation I had with the owner was like, “I have no attachment to that term. Let’s call them partners. That actually would be a more apropos way to describe the relationship from a financial standpoint, anyway.” So, I’m hopeful. I think that you’re seeing a sea change, and I’m hopeful that this moment will be about more than the moment.
A big part of it, the catalyst for this particular moment, obviously was the culmination of everybody being locked up for three months, sheltering in place, a global pandemic, and then multiple racial things happening, back to back to back, the big one being George Floyd. That really lit the match, and was so graphic and brutal. That’s what kicked it off, but it’s not stopping, the conversation, the movement. This sea change is not stopping with police brutality. That’s a good thing. So, that then lends itself to ownership in all sports, especially in the NBA. That then gets into the balance of power, into economic equity, into the economic oppression of minorities, and Black people in particular, in this country. And when we start to do things that address that, then we actually start to change the system. It takes time, because this system has been here a very long time, but as we start to change the system, things actually start to even out. The foundation’s being laid for changes down the line. I don’t know that I’ll see it in my lifetime, but for my kids and my kids’ kids, I’m hopeful.