Sports Commissioners in the “Gangster” Era
“I talked to that whole staff. I said this is my city. I’m cut from a different cloth. None of them guys on their team is like me. I let the whole staff know none of them was like me,”… “We got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room. Not thugs, but tough guys on the court.”… “You don’t let people disrespect you. That’s what I’m about. I don’t regret anything that happened,”
These are excerpts of the post-game comments by Xavier’s star, Tu Holloway, following the brawl between Cincinnati and Xavier players earlier in December. The melee generated a huge amount of attention for its ferocity and length, rivaling the infamous “Palace” incident in Detroit (YouTube replay). Paul Daugherty at Cincinnati.com provides details of the fight and post-game comments, referring to one of the coach’s descriptions of a “‘complete embarrassment’ as an understatement.” Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports describes Holloway’s comments and a teammates as “sheer idiocy.”
After playing football in high school in a highly competitive environment, I don’t react much to the “miked-up” sideline woofing among teammates that may sound outrageous, or to on-the-field out-of-view trash talk. Although mostly unrepeatable, these hidden-from-view verbal jousts were often hilarious. It’s the “language of competition” to borrow a federal judge’s phrase, referring to the (un)importance of the government’s evidence regarding internal memos about a rival in an antitrust case.
But Holloway’s POSTgame, public comments, after a historically ugly fight — that isn’t just the language of competition. Moreover, it explicitly references the origin of the tensions — the “gangsters” mentality — or, at least, the silly faux-gangsta imitations seen in sports.
The incident draws attention to deep-seated issues and problems for decision makers in sports leagues. Whitlock calls out coaches who won’t take a stand because of their greed, a theme repeated in many articles after short suspensions were handed out to the players. I’m not absolving coaches and admire the Oregon football coach who suspended LaGarrette Blount for the entire season after sucker-punching a Boise State player. However, coaches respond to incentives, and taking a unilateral stance that leads to fewer wins self-inflicts wounds far beyond the ethical threshold of most coaches, like it or not.
Higher level decision makers face similar, if not stickier dilemmas. Brian Phillips at Grantland.com explores these issues in an unrelated article focused on David Stern’s leadership of the NBA.
In the past 15 years or so, the NBA has been haunted by a specter, one that began to coalesce around the advent of Allen Iverson before fully emerging in the wake of the Palace brawl. what he wanted by handing down a lot of petty decrees that — whatever the intention — came off as an attempt to make the NBA more palatable to white fans. … The problem is that you can’t run a sports league on the premise that the players are the fans’ natural enemies without undermining the compact that holds the sports league together in the first place. It’s hard to reduce all the overlapping messages of the NBA’s self-presentation over the past few years to one line, but if you tried, it would look something like: “Carmelo Anthony is spectacular! Buy a ticket and we’ll put him in his place.
Phillips both “gets it” and doesn’t. He makes very insightful observations about Stern’s dilemma (Roger Goodell and college conference commissioners and ADs face similar issues). The problem for them is that players with the “gangster” ethic make up a portion of their player pool. Trying to root it out with “petty” rules draws howls from the media who don’t see the bigger picture. In addition, these efforts and incentives have not stemmed the tide very much — embedded behaviors trump small incentives. In the end, the brand the league is trying to develop and (some) of its workforce don’t mesh. Would “gangsters” really work well as floor clerks at Bath and Body Works even if very skilled at running the register? I don’t see any easy solutions to the problem. Very strong punishment for major incidents has not worked very well either. It suffers from the “broken windows fallacy” — ignoring bad behavior because it isn’t murder doesn’t lead to nice, happy neighborhoods. In fact, evidence from non-violent drug policy experiments indicates that regular monitoring and (smaller) punishment for all offenses works best, even if it may seem “petty.”
Phillips also deserves credit for at least mentioning that the fundamentals behind these issues are more complex than race. Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, and many others past and present in the NBA and NFL were/are highly competitive players, are black, but in no way embodied or embraced the gangster silliness. It defines a sub-culture not an entire race.
Nonetheless, Phillips still casts the problem in terms of hip-hop players relative to “Red State” fans and leaves the impression that the cultural impasse really rests at the feet of “Red State” (aka bigoted) fans. He’s dismissive of Stern’s attempts at “petty” rules to reign in player behavior or appearance without really seeming to understand the “broken windows fallacy.”
The Xavier-Cincy brawl appalled more than “Red State” fans (Whitlock is no “Red Stater”). Yet, it comes from somewhere. The berating of the Cincy bench by Holloway and his post-game comments show that this didn’t just emerge out of thin air. Yes, there have always been some fans put off by showy celebrations of some black players back to Billy “White Shoes” Johnson or to Dr. J’s big afro. Holloway’s comments speak to a different worldview, a different ethic, something not merely about good-natured exuberance or innocuous bits of self or cultural expression. They speak to neighborhood thugs as role model.
What about thuggish behavior in the NHL, does it get a pass? I’ve written about that before on TSE. It’s a little different in that some fans want to see the fighting, but some of the issues overlap. Space limits a thorough discussion.