Archive for Buzz Bissinger

A Sensitive Subject

Posted in Rants and Random Thoughts, Sports with tags , , , on February 23, 2011 by Joe

Let’s have an honest and frank discussion about what is usually off the table when it comes to dinner conversations, Race. Much like politics and religion, the topic of race makes a lot of people very uncomfortable, and understandably so. Nobody wants to say the wrong thing and look like a racist with hatred in their heart. Words and thoughts can easily be misconstrued and twisted into meaning something other than what the person actually meant it to be. Friendships and relationships can be destroyed.

The reason I decided to jump onto this subject was because of an article a friend of mine sent to me the other day by Buzz Bissinger. Bissinger asserts that the reason basketball is not as popular as it once was (attendance has been way down over the last couple of years and teams are losing money hand over fist) is because of racism. His main point is that white people have an issue following a sport in which there are really no superstars that share the same pasty complexion. Buzz writes:

But a major problem with the NBA, one that is virtually never spoken about honestly, is the issue of race. I have no hard-core evidence. But based on my past experience in writing about sports, I know that whites ascribe very different characteristics to black athletes than they do white ones. I also make a habit of asking every white sports fan I know whether they watch the NBA. In virtually every instance, they say they once watched the game but no longer do. When I ask them if it has anything to do with the racial composition, they do their best to look indignant. But my guess is they felt very differently about the game when Larry Bird and John Stockton were playing.

You have to admit, it’s an interesting point. I just don’t necessarily believe it.

While we have finally started to move in the right direction, racism unfortunately still exists in this country. Especially more so in certain areas of the country (The South). However, I find it hard to believe that the reason white people aren’t following basketball as much as they used to is because of the absence of a white superstar and because of racism. Basketball’s market share is dwindling because of more than just race being an issue.

The definition of racism according to Merriam-Webster is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”. With that definition in mind, it seems as if Bissinger is saying that white people don’t watch basketball because black people are better at the sport and it makes whitey uncomfortable.

The reason I wanted to post something about this is because he is basically talking about me. I’m not a pro basketball fan, never really have been. Is that because I hate black people? Is it because there isn’t anyone in the league dropping triple doubles every night that looks like me? The very simple answer to both of those questions is a resounding NO.

So why don’t I follow professional basketball? Two reasons.

The first and main reason is because I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s football country, not basketball. We didn’t and still don’t have a pro basketball team. Basketball just wasn’t really around when I was an adolescent. There was college basketball and the Pitt Panthers, but they weren’t very good when I was young. Although I do watch college basketball now, especially during March Madness which is one of the greatest sporting events we have. I fell in love with football because of the Steelers, hockey because of the Penguins, and baseball because of the Pirates (who are now dead to me). What basketball team was I supposed to root for?

The second reason is because basketball just isn’t compelling to me. I could never get into it. It never really grew on me. Of course I could sit and watch Jordan in his prime. That was mostly because he was an athletic freak. He was just so much better and smarter than everyone else and could do things on the basketball court that were unimaginable. Much the same way as Lebron James does now. If I’m flipping channels and come across a guy like James or Blake Griffin playing, I’ll stop for a few minutes and watch for something amazing, but I won’t stay to long because eventually I get bored.

I love football because of the violence and beauty of the sport. 11 guys trying to figure out what the other 11 guys are going to do and seeing how they can beat them. In football the team concept works its magic. Of course you can have one guy who can dominate a game but if he doesn’t have the players around him working as a team, then it doesn’t matter how good that guy is. The same goes with hockey. One player cannot dominate a game. This doesn’t hold true for basketball. A perfect example is the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are two years removed from making it to the NBA finals and were a consistent playoff contender with James. Now look at them. Since Lebron “took his talents to South Beach”, the Cavs at one point had dropped 26 straight games. Other than Lebron, not much changed. Maybe he couldn’t win a title with the correct role players around him but he could certainly make the playoffs. That doesn’t work in football or hockey. That’s my main issue with the sport.

Bissinger is most famous for his book, “Friday Night Lights”, in which he documents a season of high school football in West Texas. It was a fantastic book that took the reader into another world that most of us have never been in. While spending time in area and researching the book, he basically came across the good old boys who took racism to another level. Here’s what he wrote:

But I still believe race is a key deterrent in getting more whites reengaged and increasing interest. It has to do with racial stereotyping. Those stereotypes are wrong. They are malicious. But to act is if they do not exist is disingenuous. When I wrote the book Friday Night Lights about high-school football in Texas, I saw the racial stereotypes of some whites up close—their firm belief that white athletes admirably succeeded because of hustle and hard work and brains, and black athletes succeeded solely on the basis of pure athletic skill. In other words, white athletes virtuously worked their tails off whereas black athletes simply coasted because they can.

He is right in saying that acting like those stereotypes do not exist is naive and/or disingenuous. There are people out there who definitely believe these stereotypes to be true. There are small-minded people out there who don’t like black people, Asians, Homosexuals, or Mexicans. There are plenty of ignorant people in this world and there will most likely always be ignorant people in the world. However, not everyone is like that. In fact, I think the vast majority of people don’t believe in these stereotypes.

Are there black athletes who skate by on pure athletic skill and don’t put in the extra work? Absolutely. You can find them in every sport. Vince Young immediately comes to mind.  A guy with fantastic skills and who is a pure athlete that doesn’t want to put in the work that it takes to become a great quarterback. I mention Young because Bissinger makes the point that while the majority of the talent in the NFL is black, it doesn’t have the same perception that the NBA does because “the game is predicated on brute strength that is impossible to fake, there is rarely any grumbling that African-American athletes are not trying hard enough”. He also mentions that the majority of marquee athletes are white like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers. I don’t think the reason that Peyton Manning is better than Young is because the color of his skin but because he works harder than Young. He spends countless hours in the film room preparing for the next game. He puts in the extra work that separates him from other players like Young.

For every player like Young, there are 10 more like James Harrison, Donovan McNabb, or guys like Kobe Bryant in the NBA. Guys that are incredibly gifted athletes who put in the extra time to make themselves even better. The article mentions how McNabb received a ton of criticism for never being able to win the Super Bowl. Despite going to five NFC Championships and one Super Bowl. While there are some people who think McNabb never won the Super Bowl because of intelligence, most people “loath” McNabb because he couldn’t actually win that big game. People heap criticism on him for getting so close and always coming up short. Peyton Manning gets the same treatment. In one breath they will mention how good he is and the next they will talk about how he always comes up short in the big game. No matter if you are black or white or brown or green or yellow or whatever, winning will draw love and losing will draw animosity.

I think the reason that some people follow some sports and not other is availability. Just like I mentioned earlier that the main reason I don’t follow pro basketball is because I didn’t grow up with it. I think the same parallels can be drawn with hockey. While hockey is growing in popularity, it is still a bit of a niche sport. Of the four major sports leagues (no, I’m not counting soccer of the WNBA), hockey has by far the smallest market share.

While Bissinger makes the point that white people don’t follow basketball because of the lack of star white players, you could make the same exact point as to why more black people don’t follow hockey. While I concede that there are some white people and black people don’t watch either sport because of the point, the I think it’s larger than that.

It’s my opinion that more black people don’t watch or participate in hockey for that matter is because they didn’t grow up with. Just look at the majority of players in the NHL. Most are from Canada or other similar countries where the winter is longer and colder. They were given the opportunity to put on some skates, grab a stick and go play on a pond. You can’t really do that in Brooklyn.

Also, hockey is really expensive to play which is another obstacle to overcome for many people who even think about playing the sport. A lot of professional basketball players come from inner city neighborhoods and from background where money is limited. Basketball is relatively cheap sport to play. Put on a pair of basketball shoes and grab a basketball and you are good to go.

Hockey, just like football or baseball is more of a team sport. You can’t really throw a football or baseball to yourself. You can however go out on a court and shoot hoops all day long by yourself. This just goes back to my point about availability. It’s much easier to go out and get better basketball if you have the initial skills than it is for some other sports.

My last point is that Bissinger specifically mentions Larry Bird and John Stockton. These may have been the best two white players to every play the game and they played in an era when basketball was in its prime. I don’t believe for a second that the popularity of the NBA at that time was because of these guys. The NBA was still predominately African-American at the time and I firmly believe that racism was more prevalent during these times. Wouldn’t this counter to what he is saying?

The sport was more team oriented back then than it is now a days. There were team identities. The Celtics, the Bad Boy Pistons, The Knicks, the Showtime Lakers. There were also real rivalries. Teams and players genuinely hated one another. It makes the sport so much more interesting. Now you have superstars teaming up with another to form a semi dream team. Add in the fact that ticket prices have increased significantly, and you can see why a decline in interest is happening.

Like I said earlier, I’m positive there are some  white people out there who hate basketball because there aren’t more white superstars and the game is dominated by African-Americans. They are called racists. It’s unfortunate that there are still people out there like that. However, I also thinks it’s unfortunate that when trying to explain something we throw out the race card. It’s such an easy excuse. Not everything comes down to race. Sometimes it does, but not always. Things are more complicated than that.