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Racism Behind Lack of NBA Interest?

2011 February 24
by Brian Goff

Racisim is a ready-made sociological explanation for many outcomes.  After all, it has long existed in many places and times (see Thomas Sowell’s Race and Culture).   However, it is often an incomplete if not totally wrong explanation and usually a lazy answer (again, see Race and Culture).  Buzz Bissinger at the Daily Beast (of Friday Night Lights fame) asserts that white fans have left the NBA because of its blackness.   To his way of thinking, fans no longer have Larry Bird or John Stockton to soothe their seething racist hearts.

While simply asserted (Bissinger admits that he doesn’t have any evidence), this is ultimately an empirical question.   Sophisticated tests can be devised, but race as a big influence (as opposed to a small one) doesn’t pass even an empirical smell test.   The NBA’s popularity vaulted during the 1980s and 1990s with Bird as MVP but also with Moses, Magic, Michael, Charles,  David, Hakeem, and Karl — all African American.  Larry Bird was the truly iconic white player, no argument there, but he retired in 1992 with the league ascending in popularity long after.  John Stockton, Mark Price, Tom Chambers, Chris Mullin — All-Star players but hardly the face of the league, at least no more than Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, or Manu Ginobli.  Oh, but he argues that white-Americans do not root for them because they are foreign born; Canadian, German, and Argentinian, respectfully. (I guess racist and xenophobic.)

Beyond the iconic players, African Americans dominated the ranks of the best players during the rise and the decline.  From the 1985-86 to the 1994-95 season, black players made up 129 of the 150 spots on the first through third team All-NBA lists.  From the 2000-2001 through the 2009-2010 seasons, the number actually dropped (slightly) to 124.  Data from Pro Basketball Reference.

Many influences could factor into the NBA decline, particularly the rise of entertainment alternatives whether much wider TV options, college basketball, NASCAR or others. Race may play some minor role.  I’m certainly willing to entertain the idea that consumer likes and dislikes of players, individually and en masse, matters, but it is not nearly as simple as black and white.  Consumers form emotional connections to players based on more than just their team affiliation.  Michael, Magic, Bird, Charles — whatever their private foibles — came across as hardworking, team-oriented players.  Is that LeBron’s image? Kobe? Iverson?   Michael stood as the face of the wildly popular Bulls team of the 1990s and of the whole NBA, not Dennis Rodman or even Scottie Pippen.   Which players do Iverson, Anthony, and LeBron more closely resemble in the eyes of these non-consumers of the NBA?

Are white, suburban consumers who feel disconnected from a gangsta, hip-hop-themed, tatooed- culture, whether displayed by Iverson or by Denver’s “Birdman” Chris Andersen, racists?  (The KC Star’s Jason Whitlock has discussed these themes for both the NBA and NFL over the past few years and taken considerable flak for it).

For some, the failure to embrace a Chris Andersen, Allen Iversen, or Carmelo Anthony just passes the racism along to another level.   I guess that charge can be made, but there is something very different about holding back your consumer dollar because of a player’s skin color (racism) and holding back because you find player choices/personna distasteful.  Would a black consumer be a racist for failing to embrace a Skoal-dipping, shotgun-toting, country-music-listening redneck driving in a NASCAR series?  Individuals are free in our society to embrace counter- and sub-cultures even they draw from destructive or violent influences.  Berating consumers as racists for not paying the salaries for these counter- or sub-culture personal expressions invokes quite a broad definition of racism.

7 Responses
  1. Greg Pinelli permalink
    February 24, 2011

    There seems to be a misunderstanding between a culture based and a race based response by fans to the NBA…a few points..

    1. Boston has always been a very divided city concerning race..having a nearly all black team has hardly hurt Celtic attendance. The same for the Warriors..a few white players..but..even if they weren’t playing it wouldn’t change attendance a bit.

    2. Some of the places where attendance is not great simply have bad teams…others have ordinary teams and poor economies.

    What is off putting to many is the culture of the NBA..which still plays to thuggish, low class athletic presentation. Culture crosses racial lines. How many black fans in Cleveland strongly dislike the ethic of LaBron James..that’s culture..not race.

    As soon as the race card is pulled out I start sniffing the air for a foul, manipulative odor.

  2. Dan permalink
    February 25, 2011

    Does Bissinger realize how stupid he looks throwing out the racist charge without any evidence? Or is it acceptable in his circles to make a vile insult toward the people that buy his books and enable to him to live better than the normal toothless hicks he thinks we are?

    How does Buzz explain the decline in ratings and popularity of NASCAR? Did one of the crews hire a black mechanic and since all NASCAR fans have white sheets and hoods in our closet we’ve turned our attention to demolition derbies? I don’t have any more evidence than Bissinger does but man oh man it sure is easy to accuse people of racism.

    That’s why boxing’s popularity dropped after Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler retired and Mike Tyson forgot how to beat a biscuit like Buster Douglas. White boxing fans kept longing for the next great white hope like Leonard, Hagler or Tyson.

    The summers when I was a kid, my friends and I would always try to go to games at Busch Stadium on the days a certain pitcher was scheduled to start. We’d get there early to sit in the front row of the left field bleachers. I guess we were too stupid to know we shouldn’t be rooting for Gibson and Brock. Maybe having Dal Maxville at shortstop was the real reason we went.

    I’m sure Bissinger’s next book will flop once people figure out he keeps a crew of pool boys in his basement for his carnal pleasure. I have as much evidence of that as he does of his racism charge so I’m sure he’s cool with me saying it.

  3. Bryan permalink
    February 25, 2011

    Setting aside the subject of race, it seems to me the popularity of most sports is directly proportional to how much their regular seasons matter toward making the playoffs. In otherwords, how many of the games are ‘must watch.’ Football is the most popular because there are so few games and the records are normally close enough that every team has the possibility of making the playoffs until the last few weeks (not to mention its one game a week, with a deadicated time). Baseball has found increased popularity since it instituted the wild card because more teams are still in the running to make the playoffs late in the season. Even still, relatively few teams make the playoffs, so must watch games start earlier in the season. With the NBA and NHL, very mediocore teams make the playoffs, and some that do know they have no chance of winning it all. The players don’t care until the playoffs start and neither do the fans.

  4. February 26, 2011

    There’s also the fact that the NFL’s popularity just keeps growing and growing, despite the fact that a gathering of its players will never be mistaken for a KKK convention.

  5. February 26, 2011

    Maybe it is the fact that the players only play hard the last few minutes of the game. I can watch the NBA once the playoffs start but the regular season isn’t entertainment.

    Lastly, I cant remember a positive news story of a NBA player. Market what these guys are doing for their communities and I might gain some interest. Until I have some respect for the players I have little interest in wasting my time or money to follow the sport.

    Black, white, green or purple it isn’t the skin that is the problem it is their lack of heart on the court, and their lack of a brain off the court.

  6. Phil permalink
    February 27, 2011

    I much prefer the college game. The NBA, for my tastes, is too glitzy and glamorous, and too player-centered to boot. Plus the restrictions they put on the defense teams can play makes it a less-enjoyable product for this particular sports fan.

  7. February 28, 2011

    I lean towards a cultural explanation myself, although I’ve only got one anecdotal piece of evidence to back it up. In Oklahoma City, we’ve really embraced the transplanted Thunder, and I think a reason — besides their recent successes — has been that the team is made up mostly of guys who work hard, aren’t covered in ink and don’t show up on the police blotter. That’s even truer of two of the most visible team members, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

    I’d never place us at the cutting edge of racial harmony in the U.S., even if the stereotype of a white hood in every closet is way, way off. But I’m pretty sure the team’s community involvement and the high character of its members and on-court leaders did more to make OKC home for the Thunder than any 20 glitzy NBA PR campaigns.

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