Sunday, June 1, 2008

Academic Break pt. 3: The NBA

A league that is slowly becoming less black is the NBA. This is also a league with an interesting situation. Most of the best basketball players in the U.S. are young black males. Many of them are firmly entrenched into the hip-hop culture that Jason Whitlock hates and many in the mainstream are afraid of.

The Pacers/Pistons/Fans brawl a few years ago seemed to legitimize the fears of those on the outside of the league. It also helped people paint a picture of the NBA as a league full of thugs. (Funny how a fight between white players and fans was barely talked about by the media.)

On top of that, the players are perhaps the most visible in the NBA, on and off the court. On the court, we can see almost all of their tattoos, of the court their wardrobes and jewelry are under scrutiny. When an NBA player gets in trouble, or says something silly (i.e. Josh Howard), it becomes big news. And now the NBA has an image problem.

They have gone through great lengths to change their image from the dress code, to the NBA Cares program, to tougher penalties for things like fighting, but the whispers are still out there. People still say they don’t watch the NBA because it’s not good anymore, the players are lazy and selfish, it’s a league of thugs, etc. Meanwhile, the NBA is finishing up the best season since Jordan was in Chicago.

A lot of the league’s image problem is the players’ fault, but in a lot of ways they are the product of the system around basketball. Camps, AAU leagues, sneaker companies and traveling teams have more influence in basketball than in any other sport. If they’re good, players are coddled throughout their grade school years and into college. At the camps, they are under intense pressure to standout among hundreds of kids, so in a way they’re bred to be selfish.

Even though David Stern is doing his best to change the image of his black players, he’s not stupid. Larry Bird said it best; more white people would watch the game if they could root for white players. It’s not a racist thing, it’s an identification thing. The NBA is immensely popular in the hip-hop circle and among young blacks because they can relate to the game’s stars. More than any other sport, the NBA’s true fans are priced out.

The non-PR response to the criticism has been to replace American-born black athletes with foreigners. Only a few teams (Boston, Charlotte, Indiana, LA Clippers, Miami) don’t have foreign players. The Toronto Raptors have six foreign players and another, Anthony Parker, who was the Euroleague MVP before coming to the NBA.

These foreign players aren’t necessarily better than black or white Americans. We get the cream of the crop from other countries, whose abilities range from poor to MVP caliber. For NBA teams, they are three benefits to having European players.

First, they are usually inexpensive. It costs an NBA nothing to draft a foreign player in the 2nd round and let him develop in overseas, compared to drafting an American and having to pay them to sit on the bench and develop.

Second, it adds some diversity to the league. The NBA became mostly black because basketball is the most popular sport among African-American youths, especially in the inner cities. Basketball is cheap; all you really need is a ball. If your friend has a ball then you’re set. While other kids spend time and money playing other sports throughout the year, inner city kids just play ball. A player that plays basketball everyday will probably be better than a kid that just plays during basketball season, if they are comparable athletes.

By bringing in European players, you can give the fans white players to watch. Rooting for Dirk Nowitzki is not the same as rooting for John Smith, but it might make fans more comfortable than rooting for a cornrowed, tattooed LaAnthony Jenkins.

Third, teams don’t have to deal with the baggage that comes with inner-city kids. The off the court struggles of some athletes receive a lot of play in the media, giving all of them a bad image and in a lot of ways making them less desirable.

Without the power to make executive decisions, all the players can do is continue to play. In the coming years, watch the NBA become more and more international as black Americans are replaced by Europeans, South Americans, Africans and Asians, kind of like baseball.

Once again, to get a better perspective, read $40 Million Slaves.

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