There's been more OJ Mayo discussion the past few days but, at least in the blogosphere, the battle has been joined. Bill Simmons penned a screed against Mayo on Thursday, and several bloggers, including Dwil and Stop Mike Lupica hit back hard. Simmons' piece (aptly titled Down with the OJ Mayo Era) juxtaposed OJ Mayo to Kevin Love, the (white) power forward who's on his way to UCLA and is regarded by many as the best high school player in the country (of course, many others give that label to Mayo). Here's Simmons:
With Mayo joining a loaded USC team and Love playing 20 minutes away for a Final Four team, that's looming as a dynamite rivalry and the most intriguing media subplot for the 2007-08 season. After all, Love represents everything good about basketball (unselfishness, teamwork, professionalism) and Mayo represents everything we've come to despise (showboating, selfishness, over-hype). If Love were black, this would be a much easier topic to discuss. But he's white. So even though there's a natural inclination to embrace Love's game and disparage Mayo's game -- you know, assuming you give a crap about basketball and care about where it's headed as a sport -- there's also a natural inclination to hold back because nobody wants to sound like the white media guy supporting the Great White Hope over the Black Superstar Du Jour.
Simmons goes on to criticize Mayo's now infamous final dunk in his final high school game, compares Mayo to the "me-first" superstars Stephon Marbury and Vince Carter and, for good measure, notes that Mayo represents "a certain demographic" and symbolizes everything that is wrong in our attention-seeking culture. And, like Doug Gottlieb peddling his AAU-Kids-don't-care-about-winning-theory, Simmons says that today's generation of player, whether his beloved but hapless Celtics, or the unbeloved Mayo, just don't care about wins and losses.
Stop Mike Lupica is, as I mentioned above, all over Simmons, including this concluding paragraph, responding to Simmons' criticism of Mayo supposed lack of desire to win this week's McDonald's All America game:
Yeah, you're right. Mayo should care more about winning an ALL-STAR GAME. What a selfish prick. Oh, you might want to fail to mention that on March 17, 2007, Mayo led Huntington High School to its third consecutive Class AAA basketball championship in the state of West Virginia with 103-61 rout of South Charleston. Mayo finished with a triple-double: 41 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists.
You might want to leave that out, because the winning three championships in a row thing might make it seem to ignorant people like me like Mayo cares about winning somewhat. Or those 11 assists in the championship game might make him seem like an odd choice to criticize as selfish.
Dwil zeroes in on what he regards as Simmons' trafficking in racism. It's clear from the first paragraph above that Simmons is self-conscious about the charge, and it's not the only time in the column that he feels it necessary to point out that his love for Love and antipathy toward Mayo is not racist. Dwil's having none of it:
I’m tired of reading Bill Simmons (and others of his ilk, as Michael Wilbon would say) and his depiction of black athletes - and black people. However, somebody has to make absolutely sure that the watchers are watched, that people of all colors can see racism, even when it might be “unintentional.” Yet, with Simmons, who appears to be intensely self-aware. it’s difficult to believe that he’s not just trying to cloud his racism with some pithy rhetoric. And since Simmons is so well-known it is important to point out his racist tendencies. It’s important because others might just begin to perceive the same in themselves; because some people might just begin to recognize it in other circumstances; because some people might begin to articulate something that can be subtle enough to go unnoticed.
I share SML's and Dwil's criticisms of Simmons here, but I wanted to try to sort out these issues a bit also. To be clear, liking Kevin Love and disliking OJ Mayo is not, in itself, racist. The problem is not with preferences for individual players (nor do I think SML and Dwil are suggesting otherwise). The problem is with representations. We no longer live in an era in America where direct, overt expressions of racism are acceptable in mainstream discourse. You can't any longer say that Black people are inferior, or less intelligent, or whatever, without being condemned by most Americans (see Michael Richards). In her brilliant book, The Race Card, the political scientist Tali Mendelberg shows how we live in an age where the overt norm in our society is an egalitarian one but that this norm has only pushed still-existing racism into a more complex semi-conscious (for many) arena. And, in that arena, indirect appeals to race can have a powerful affect on people. Mendelberg's book focuses on the 1988 presidential campaign and how strategists for Bush the elder utilized such indirect appeals to charged racial representations in their successful bid for the White House.
Now, Bill Simmons is not Lee Atwater (who played Karl Rove to the current President's father). But, wittingly or not (I personally would argue for the latter) he's trading in highly charged representations that have inescapable racial content. Simmons has managed to attach Mayo to everything scary about American culture today for many (white) Americans: rap music, disrespectful teenagers, contempt for tradition and proper structures of authority. And, that's why this conversation isn't really about the state of basketball, as Simmons puts it. It's deeper than that. It's about America - the kind of society we live in, the values we hold, the prospects for our future well-being - those things are all implicitly at stake in this hand-wringing about OJ Mayo who, incredibly, is already symbolic of an entire era.
What are Mayo's actual crimes? Well, like Terrell Owens, only less so, when you line them up end to end, you can work yourself into a nice little lather, but cumulatively they amount to nothing. Nobody's been hurt (unless you count the referee who appears to have taken significant artistic license with his flop when Mayo brushed against him in a game earlier this season), nobody's life has been materially affected. Mayo's been vilified for his decision to take matters into his own hands, by choosing USC instead of passively waiting to be courted by colleges. But, this, it should be obvious, was not the act of a self-seeking self-aggrandizing individual given that much of the corruption in college sports undoubtedly comes when top recruits are weighing multiple offers and incentives abound to sweeten the pot for those recruits, including under the table.
Now, Mayo's decision to choose college rather than wait for colleges to choose him and the reaction to that fact is also not inherently racial. There are all sorts of examples of athletes, Black and White, getting slammed for refusing to play for the team that drafted them (JD Drew being a classic example), and part of that has to do with the expectations that fans of American team sports have about how athletes should show their gratitude for their great good fortune.
But, the problem with branding an entire era the Mayo era, in addition to its obviously absurd, over-the-top character, is that it plays on still simmering racial resentments felt across the length and breadth of this land, wherein a better, more orderly past is giving way to a more uncertain and dangerous future and the face of that future is, for many, a menacing face that looks different from the faces we associate with tradition, order and the good in America. It's easy to stir people's racial and ethnic animus when one preys upon their anxiety and uncertainty in this way, even if one doesn't mean to.
I want to step back here and say something about playing the proverbial race card: writers who raise the issue of race, whether in sports or politics and culture more generally, often get accused of inflaming passions by unnecessarily bringing race into the conversation even where it's not appropriate. Jemele Hill, the African American woman who writes for Page Two, gets accused of this alot, though she often frankly bends over backwards not to. And, if you listen to enough sports talk radio, you'll hear regular complaints from hosts and callers about "playing the race card." But, raising race where it's appropriate, even if not overt (and, as I've said, overt expressions of racism have been largely marginalized in mainstream culture), is not playing the race card. If you want a good example of doing so, of gratuitously making an issue of race or ethnicity when it's obviously not relevant to the situation at hand, just consider Rush Limbaugh, who is now pathetically arguing that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has obvously repeatedly lied about his role in the unfolding scandal about fired US attorneys, is being attacked because he's Hispanic. Limbaugh is transparently a racist, so there's reason to be skeptical about any such claims he makes to begin with. But, furthermore, historic stereotypes of Hispanics have played absolutely no role of any kind in discussions of the scandal generally, or Gonzales' conduct specifically. And, given that Gonzales is the top attorney in the United States, the power dynamics that often make racial appeals so insidious (imputing to marginalized minorities - or high school teenagers - a degree of power over society that they obviously don't have) is just not in play here. Limbaugh's just reaching - lacking any better explanations for why the administration he's shilling for would be under such fire for yet another crystal clear display of its shameless corruption, Limbaugh's throwing a hail mary pass. That's a classic example of playing the race card.
On the other hand, pointing out that an 18-year old kid from extremely humble origins might be unfairly branded as the worst exemplar of a hopelessly lost generation because of lingering racial resentments - that's in an entirely different category.