Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores said Saturday that a recent advertisement calling on the league and its owners to force him to sell his club because of his ownership of a prison telecom company "hurts" and that he is committed to changing the system.
"It hurts," Gores said during media availability ahead of Detroit's home opener. "I'm not gonna tell you that it doesn't. I have a family, but then I always kind of look at things and say, 'Life's happening for a reason and you're put in that place to make a difference, so maybe that's a blessing.' Then I also think about people, especially in the African American community who have gone through a lot more judgment and pain than I have. They might judge me a certain way, and then I say, 'Get your s--- together, Tom; let's go fight this fight.'"
The full-page advertisement in the Dec. 20 edition of The New York Times read: "If Black Lives Matter, what are you doing about Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores?"
Bianca Tylek is the founder and executive director of Worth Rises, the New York-based nonprofit that paid for the advertisement.
It also urged readers to check out a website that details how Gores' ownership of Securus Technologies helps to set the pricing for phone calls for jailed inmates in hundreds of counties nationwide, in some cases charging up to $15 for a 15-minute call.
"Don't expect somebody who's exploiting struggling families to tell you that they're gonna keep exploiting struggling families," Tylek told ESPN. "The bottom line is, Tom is in a tough position at this point because he's getting a lot of bad public press."
"The most important point is that we are three years into his ownership of the company and he's talking about changes now," she added. "Like, if that was really sincere and he had plans to do all of those things, what has he been doing for three years? And the little that has happened all happened in the last few months, all happened while the business was in a huge boom because of COVID, unfortunately. Right now, prison visits are shut down."
Platinum Equity, Gores' private equity firm based in Beverly Hills, California, acquired Securus in 2017 for $1.6 billion, but activists argue that this ownership doesn't align with the NBA's support of social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Gores said he is committed to changing the system but that it will take time and patience.
"We have been doing. It's just that not everybody knows and maybe we've even undercommunicated on it, but we have been really doing a lot of work to reform the industry and even forgetting the company," Gores said. "And it's crazy, it's not that I'm excited about it; I just think this is a unique opportunity for me and for us to impact our country and the world in a bit, because it's not really about this one company -- it's about an industry that really does need to be changed."
"We've recognized it, but we've been doing it also, and we can communicate with you guys more and more on this topic," he continued. "We've been doing it; we're aligning ourselves with really important people, influential people. The one thing about the space in that industry is that we really have to keep partnering with people. We have a very, very productive activist that we're speaking to. We're drawing on people from the league. We're discussing things with the players' association. So I think we're doing it, and this is even beyond basketball. Basketball is basketball."
Gores resigned from his role as a trustee at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in October amid the controversy surrounding the way he manages the phone services Securus provides to prisons. Gores had been a trustee of the museum since 2006.
Gores claims that he and his team are pushing to stop the exploitation of prisoners and their families, notably through prison phone firms.
In December, he also helped the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program deliver more than 10,000 toys, bicycles and tablet computers to Michigan families, notably in Detroit and Flint.
"I'm just a little boy from Flint, grew up in Flint ... the way I look at is sometimes you're thrown into something and you might not have signed up for it, and then you run into these things that do need change and progress and so on," Gores said. "I happen to really care about it, and people have asked me, 'Hey, should you sell the company?' No, why would I walk away where we can make change?"
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, endorsed Gores' efforts at Securus in an op-ed piece published by the Michigan Chronicle on Dec. 8. Chavis, once an assistant to Martin Luther King Jr., noted major change still needs to happen but that the efforts were an "important start."
Platinum Equity has vowed to support efforts to reform business practices in the corrections services industry, such as reducing the average cost of calls by 30% over the past three years while promising to commit an additional 15% reduction over the next three years, according to company updates.
Gores also has agreed to give all of his personal profits from Securus to reform efforts, according to Mark Barnhill, partner at Platinum Equity and alternate governor for the Pistons. Barnhill also said Worth Rises has been invited to join in that collaboration but that the group declined in favor of shouting from an isolated fringe. Tylek vehemently denies that was ever the case.
"This idea that he's a change agent, it's honestly so remarkably paternalistic. Like, it's so patronizing to people. It's like, 'I have $6 billion, but I see this as a remarkable opportunity for me to do something good for society,'" Tylek said. "We're not asking you to come save people; we're asking you to stop taking from them. To stop hurting them, to stop harming our communities. So before you can argue that you want to do something good and all these things, you have to stop doing the harm that you're trying to unwind. Those two things can't operate in the same space."
The NBA acknowledged Worth Rises' passion for prison reform and told ESPN in a statement that it has been "in regular communication with Tom Gores regarding their concerns." The league said Gores and his colleagues have had ongoing discussions with a number of nonprofit organizations focused on similar reform and "we support their efforts to address these important issues."
"I really believe, and this is kind of what I believe and maybe I'm crazy, that ultimately it'll be a blessing that I'm in there and that somebody cares about what's happening," Gores said.
ESPN's John Barr contributed to this report.