Concerning the fight at the Garden, the race issue has become more of a topic of discussion as the week has worn on, so I wanted to survey some of it. On Monday, Knicks’ guard Steve Francis sparked additional controversy when he suggested that race was a factor in the attention the fight was getting. From the New York Post:
"In other sports, there are incidents that are way worse than basketball," the Knicks guard said. "So many worse things happen every game or four or five times a year, but because there are more black players in the NBA, it's under the microscope more than baseball or hockey."
The Post article added that: “the league disciplinarian who conducted the investigation, Stu Jackson, is black.”
On Tuesday, on the Dan Patrick show, sports talk radio’s most famous liberal, Keith Olbermann, responded to Francis. When Patrick asked him about Francis’ comment (and Patrick reiterated that Stu Jackson is Black,” K.O. emitted a deep sigh and said:
“Steve Francis is so stupid about this and so naïve about this that he could be running the New York Knicks.” K.O. and Patrick then spent the next several minutes discussing all the juicy plot lines that make the fight appealing as a news story: the George Karl/Larry Brown angle, the fact that it involved the NBA’s leading scorer, that it took place in the media mecca. All of which is fair enough – there are interesting subplots to the story. Then Patrick and K.O. ticked off a litany of other stories that get saturation coverage, including anything involving the Red Sox and the Yankees. K.O. then asked, rhetorically, whether Yankees/Red Sox coverage was racially motivated.
This last comment is the kind of embarrassing logical fallacy that Olbermann
has been hammering Bill O’Reilly for for years now, a variation on what’s
called an association fallacy. The fact that some are suggesting that race is a
factor in the attention this story is
receiving does not suggest that race
is a factor in the coverage of every
sports story. Not Keith's finest moment.
Jemele Hill, ESPN 2 columnist, (and the only regular African American woman sports writer in America), had this to say:
“It is what it is. A NASCAR guy can drop-kick another driver through his car window and it is just considered part of the sport. Hockey players drop their sticks and pound on one another on a regular basis and no one dares blame it on anything other than just a boiling, competitive spirit. When NASCAR drivers blast one another with their cars out of anger it isn't symptomatic of what's wrong with white people. So please don't turn a silly NBA fight into a town hall meeting about what's wrong with African Americans -- even though, unfortunately, something like this somehow winds up reflecting poorly on the entire black community.”
Along these lines, JA Adande, of the LA Times, gets to the heart of the matter (Hat Tip: duffbeer):
“Meanwhile, black basketball players fighting apparently is such an issue that it even competed for weekend air time with that other staple of saturation coverage — missing white people (on Oregon's Mt. Hood). The reaction to the New York Knicks-Denver Nuggets fight Saturday night has prompted players and fans alike to wonder whether there's a racial undertone to the extra attention paid to whatever goes wrong with the NBA….
Yes, there will always be racial components when you're dealing with a league in which more than 70% of the players are African American. But it's not that simple in this case. The NFL has a similar proportion of African American players (66% last year, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport), and almost all of the notable misdeeds, right down to the stomp on a helmet-less head by Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth — have been committed by African Americans.
Somehow NFL players have received the status normally reserved for white people in America: the right to be judged individually, not collectively. After Timothy McVeigh blew up that building in Oklahoma City, security guards didn't cast a suspicious eye on every white man driving past a federal building. But ask any person of Middle Eastern descent how hard it was for them to board an airplane after Sept. 11.
The same double-standard goes for the NFL. At most a misdeed will be grouped by a team, such as the rash of arrests of those on the Cincinnati Bengals roster. But it's rare to see the leap from "that guy" to "those thugs" in "that league," which is what happens when an NBA player does something dumb.
The NBA has always sold the personality of its players and the close proximity the fans have with them. In cases such as Saturday that can backfire, as Nate Robinson and J.R. Smith rolled over the courtside seats.
When NBA Commissioner David Stern announced the fines and suspensions Monday, he heard the old image issue again. At times such as these, Stern sees how that can work against them. "Our players are more visible," Stern said. "They are better known, they play a game where the best seat in sports is a courtside seat watching players without helmets, long sleeves, long pants. No glass [around the playing surface]. And the camera captures that as well.
"Over the years, that's been our burden. But that's also been our opportunity."I think we're judged by a stronger standard because of our game and because of our willingness to engage. We could have players coming off the bench the same way players come out of the dugout [in baseball]. We could have players stop and fight, the way they do in other sports that I won't name but are played on skates. But we don't. Not only don't we encourage it, not only don't we permit it, but we prohibit it. Having taken that tack, we're going to be judged harshly by it. And I understand."
Two points - 1) Stern has the order backwards here. The NBA is not judged more harshly BECAUSE it has decided to take a tougher stand. It has taken a tougher stand BECAUSE it's judged more harshly. Stern is spinning like crazy here, but there's no question of the causal order in this case.
2) I am dubious about the visibility argument, which we've been hearing a lot this week - that the NBA is held to a higher standard because of its "greater visibility" because its players don't wear helmets, or hats, or long pants, and because the crowd is so close. Kornheiser said this on PTI on Tuesday, Stern's been saying it, and Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp repeated it on Quite Frankly on Wednesday in a panel discussion in which he denied that race played a role in the nature of the attention the fight has been receiving.
I regard this line of argument as a good example of working hard to miss the obvious. First, except for the people sitting within a few rows of the court, most fans can't see the players that clearly. I go to most UNC home games and sit with a friend in the second level. We do not have anything like an intimate view of the players. And, since I am not Spike Lee or Woody Allen, I've never gotten to sit courtside at a Knicks game. Consequently, of the many basketball games I've watched at the Garden over the years, I've never gotten a great look at the players and, I dare say, my experience in this regard is more typical than those of the guys sitting on press row.
Second, there's no greater ability to show close-ups of basketball players on television than there is to show baseball players and, because of the nature of the action, we certainly get a better, longer look at a guy standing at home plate than we do at a basketball player during the normal course of a game. Adande rightly points out that, to some extent, what we're seeing now is the flip side of a marketing strategy that emphasizes individual players.
But, for the most part, this proximity and intimacy argument is, in my view, nonsense.
A casualty of the reverse political correctness that plagues our sports conversations is that any time race is raised as an issue, it’s met with tremendous anger and defensiveness. For a good sampling of that, check out some of the emails Adande received after his column appeared yesterday. George Vecsey, writing in the New York Times this morning, gave some nice perspective on the history of fighting in basketball, noting that it was at least as prevalent “back in the day” (by which he means the 1950s, not the 1980s – though it was more prevalent then, too). But, inserted into Vecsey’s column was this bizarre comment:
“I have trouble with the perception that the public is somehow turned off by fighting in the N.B.A. because the players are predominately African-American. The brawls I witnessed back in the early ’50s involved predominately white players, and I don’t remember there being any outcry about white violence.”
But, George, isn’t that the point? That, as Adande says, White players have earned the right to be judged as individuals, not as a part of a group?
If this kind of stuff is coming from the liberal, pinko-commie New York Times, or the ultra liberal Olbermann, you know it’s an uphill battle to have an honest conversation about race.