Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Why So Many Race Conversations About the NBA?

[This Scribe has been sick, otherwise, this would have been published over the weekend. Hey, black history, as that of everyone in this world, is written every day, not just February.]
Recently, yours truly participated in a panel about the perception of African-Americans in the media at the CUNY School of Law which was put together by the school’s Black Law School Association chapter. It was a privilege to be a part of this for three reasons.

One, those who attended already had a long day of classes and they stuck around to listen to my drivel instead of going home right away. Two, the fellow panelists are far more distinguished than I am, yet, I felt like I was on that level, if only for an evening. Finally, for my perspectives to be considered in what is always a lightning rod for controversy said a lot about where I’ve been, where I’m hoping to go and how much more I have to learn.

From the diverse angles of media, law, finance, legislation, politics and academia, all of us were asked about how the images of blacks have an effect on daily life.

The moderator and longtime friend, Jamaal Bailey, directed several questions unique to the expertise of each panelist. He asked me that of all the sports I follow and have covered, in which sports organization does the topic of race come up with the most.

It was interesting because no matter what level of play, race does come up in every sport. It’s not just about how someone will espouse ignorance, but it’s also about what each observer brings to the table. Our experiences can cloud or clarify what we see on the field, can enhance or debase what we talk about and can inspire or belittle those with an investment in these contests.

However, considering that this was focused towards a predominantly black audience, I explained that I found race come up most often in two sports; boxing and basketball, specifically the NBA brand. And although boxing has always found a way to use prejudice to its promotional advantage, that’s certainly not the case for the NBA.

Courtesy of technovore
So why are there more race discussions about the NBA than everywhere else in our sports landscape? Well, it would be too easy to give this Scribe’s take, though you can always ask. However, I asked this question recently through social media and received a few interesting responses. What you’ll read might speak to a common thread, but each brings something else to consider. It’s easy to agree or disagree, but one thing’s certain, we don’t talk about any other league like this.

Jessica Bader (Colleague with The Perpetual Post): It's the one major sport where the athletes never wear a helmet (making them individuals rather than part of the faceless masses of the team) and the one in which the uniforms expose the most skin (disastrous short-lived Chicago White Sox experiments notwithstanding).

Merv Matthew (Assistant Professor at DePauw University, Indiana): It's the only league of the top four where a single minority group has all the best players. Football has a lot of top black players, but they also have the Mannings, Brady, etc. Hockey has a bunch of foreign dudes, and baseball has a pretty big mix. When was the last time anyone other than a black guy was in consideration for being the best player in the NBA?

I'm not sure how much the skin exposure counts, but Jessica has a point with the faces being exposed. People get to see the NBA athletes more than any other athletes on their playing fields. Throw in the fact that the smaller rosters make anonymity even harder to achieve in the NBA and it becomes easier to understand.

Pedro Cruz (Previously contributed to piece for Norman Einstein’s): It could be that the mainstream consciousness still sees predominantly white as the norm, the baseline upon which everything else can be added, like a junior partner in a firm, to compose a minority, but never really to take majority control. It may be what fuels the "fear" of the United States becoming predominantly Latino by 2050, the lionizing of segregation-era baseball, the continued worship of a ballplayer from that era still being hailed as the greatest player of all time even though he never played a regulation game against a player not from his own race.

It could also be what fuels many folks to speak of hockey's "old-school" mentality, of how NHL players are of a unique quality...even though they fight far more often than any other American athlete and routinely take cheap shots at each other. Why was Donald Brashear considered such a dirty player when he was no more dirty that Marty McSorley or any other NHL tough, and was the victim in his most infamous on-ice incident? Why is Peyton Manning, or more comparably Brian Urlacher, always hailed for his intelligence and leadership while Ray Lewis is praised for his physicality and brute strength? As a baseball guy, I hear some similar things about Latino athletes, especially black Latino athletes. Maybe the discussion will mirror that of the NBA if black Latino players become a large majority…

Mainstream consciousness just sees white as normal, along with it this protestant work ethic which seems to be freely assumed of white players more easily than those of color, leadership roles naturally belonging to them too, and anything outside of that as a "problem" in need of solving. The NBA is predominantly black. This may well be the reason. Infuriating, I know.

Shirley Huang, Esq. (Attorney in Ft. Myers, FL): I think the NFL and NBA both have a lot of discussion about race but it's slightly different. In the NFL, it's a white-black thing mostly when it comes to quarterbacks and everyone else... There's the whole "quarterbacks (i.e. predominantly White players) are the intelligent ones" and everyone else (Black players) just has athleticism" debate. The thing with the NBA might be that the highest paid players are (probably--I'm just guessing because I don't pay attention to salary reports) all Black. You have fans that are of all races who might "love" Kobe Bryant or LeBron James but hate Black people.

I think part of it is also due to the "thug mentality" that some might believe dominates the league. You have very few white American players in the league so I'm sure there has to be some resentment there. I mean look at that one guy who tried to create an all-white basketball league that was going to be all about "fundamentals."[Ed. Note: ah, yes, can't ever forget this]. There's already a league that's all about fundamentals; it's called the WNBA!

David Lee (Also contributed to piece for Norman Einstein’s): NHL gets a lot of conversations about race as well, seeing how it’s predominantly white. In fact you could say it’s more drastic in the NHL than the NBA. In the NBA there are several All Stars (or former ones) who were not black (Nash, Nowitzki, Yao etc). In the NHL, there aren’t many. The only current player I can think of is (Jarome) Iginla.

1 comment:

Billycock Mafia said...

Merv Matthew hit the nail on the head.

His point has got to be the biggest reason for "race conversations" in the NBA.