Today’s big basketball-related internet controversy surrounds comments Bill Simmons made on The B.S. Report, his weeklyish podcast. Specifically, about nine minutes in, Simmons said the following about the city of Memphis:
I didn’t realize the effect [the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King] had on that city…I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of set the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind, and the whole crowd got tense. It was like, ‘Oh no, something bad’s gonna happen.’ And I think it starts from that shooting.
Oh boy. Where to start? Insofar as it is possible to collectively characterize an entire body of over one million people in a tidy, unified theory—and I’m not sure that it is—it has to be done carefully, cleverly, and with nuance. Simmons’ argument is none of those things. A basketball crowd being skittish when their team is down 2–0 in a playoff series and losing Game 3? That could describe any basketball crowd ever. Of course they’re skittish, they’re about to get knocked out of the playoffs, and it has nothing to do with Martin Luther King Jr.!
Simmons is predictably—and rightfully—being mocked and ridiculed for his statement. But mocking and ridiculing Simmons sort of misses the point: your favorite basketball writer is probably a little bit racist.
Simmons’ theory is not even the most ridiculous thing that has been said about Memphis and basketball lately. That dubious honor belongs to T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times, with a column that received nary a mention by the same people ripping Simmons:
When the Grizzlies faithful arrived they were given “growl towels,” which read “Believe Memphis.” You know, as in believe there just have to be better days ahead, Memphis.
Or, as the local columnist who wrote about the towels, and that’s what they write about here, put it: “In Memphis the towels have become a symbol of something larger, of belief in the broader community.”
I thought it was just a basketball game and a towel just a towel. But I guess it’s Memphis’ hope the towels will somehow make this a better place to live, although I might suggest handing out bulletproof vests for the next game.
If you want to feel a strong desire to go vomit, go read more #HotCultureTakes from an old white man attending a basketball game in a majority black city. I could take Simers’ piece down line by racist line, but it isn’t worth my time. The column is a big piece of shit, multiple levels worse than the usual hackery he delivers to Times readers.
Racism in basketball writing, whether subtle or concrete, isn’t limited to two Los Angeles guys attempting to understand the entirety of Memphis in two days. Here’s Bill Dwyre on the firing of Vinny del Negro:
Somewhere along the line, somebody up high in the NBA needs to take stock. Every time a player gets a coach fired, player values are disproportionately pumped up. So does the assumption of entitlement. Which is the employee and which is the employer? That becomes unanswerable. The star salesman is as important as the CEO, even though the star salesman has invested no money, taken little risk and made zero strategic decisions.
Which is the slave and which is the slavemaster? That becomes unanswerable. The star slave is as important as the slavemaster, even though the star slave has invested no money, taken little risk and made zero strategic decisions.
Bill Dwyre makes a modern day argument for slavery to castigate Chris Paul and others for having the temerity to want a better coach than Vinny “couldn’t take the Clippers past a second round sweep” del Negro, while simultaneously holding Clippers owner Donald Sterling up as “refreshingly lacking in the usual public relations spin and drivel”. Donald Sterling is the one that refused to rent his apartments to black people, yet Chris Paul is the bad guy for not sticking up for a coach in over his head. Got it.
Not all racism is so blatant. I suspect many writers don’t even realize they’re propagating negative racial stereotypes, and would be appalled to find out they are. As the saying goes though, ignorance is no defense.
Take the recent news of two men alleging that they were beaten up by a group of Blazers’ point guard Damian Lillard’s friends. At the blog Blazer’s Edge Ben Golliver attempted to include all relevant angles on the case in one post. I’ll save my qualms with Golliver’s liberal use of block quotes without adding analysis for another time, and focus on the issue at hand.
Golliver begins by excerpting news stories on the incident, but quickly goes off the rails when he mentions every single community award Lillard has ever won. I think his juxtaposition of the incident with testimonies to Lillard’s character is an attempt at irony, but it’s a flat one. It’s the very definition of building somebody up to tear them down. HEY LOOK AT THIS SUPPOSEDLY GOOD GUY, HE’S A FRAUD BECAUSE PEOPLE HE IS FRIENDS WITH ARE ALLEGED TO HAVE BEATEN TWO PEOPLE UP IN AN INCIDENT ABOUT WHICH WE HAVE ZERO FACTS, BUT LET’S ACCUSE PEOPLE ANYWAYS! That’s not even the worst part though.
The worst part is when Golliver includes a partial transcript of an interview where Lillard discusses growing up in a poor area of Oakland, a biographical fact that has absolutely no bearing on whether a couple of Lillard’s friends beat somebody up or not. I’m from Oakland, and I see it done all the time. Oakland is consistently used as a synonym for black, violent, dangerous, poor and unredeemable by people that have no clue what they are talking about. It doesn’t help Golliver’s case that the line immediately following notes Lillard’s favorite hip hop artists.
I doubt Golliver is intending to be racist, and his racism isn’t nearly as blatant as the above examples, but that doesn’t make it any better. He’s part of a long tradition of writers using words like “entourage” and “posse” to describe who black players hang out with, while simultaneously using “friends and family” when talking about a white player. Basketball writing often includes hidden racial invective, and Golliver is no exception. Language matters.
In a widely praised piece at Grantland, Andrew Sharp wrote about Kawhi Leonard and the difficulties in rooting for a generally incompetent franchise. He repeats an argument that has been made many times before: the situation a rookie is drafted into partially determines whether he succeeds or not. It seems like a sound argument, something that is probably true, but something that is also unproveable. If Jan Vesely and Kawhi Leonard swapped positions, would Vesely still suck and would Leonard still be great? I have no idea, but neither does Sharp.
I do know that he bulldozes through his own attempts to couch his argument—”we’re dealing in hypotheticals here, but…”—in asserting an argument that makes me a bit uncomfortable. To some degree, the argument asserts that basketball players don’t control their own destiny, that it is shaped for them by older, wiser, whiter, men. It takes something away from Leonard’s humanity when you assert his success isn’t a product of his own hard work but Gregg Popovich, RC Buford and Peter Holt’s.
If you wanted to get real socioeconomic with all this, you could compare it to the way society works: Plenty of people have the skills to be massively successful, but certain rich kids have built-in advantages to protect them along the way, while people from lower-income backgrounds have a much smaller margin for error. So the ruling class stays entrenched save for a few strokes of luck where someone like 50 Cent becomes irrationally wealthy and powerful.
Emblematic of Sharp’s hasty treatment of complex racial issues, social issues, nature vs nurture and paternalism is his paragraph on “how society works” and his description of how children of wealth have built in advantages. This is actually Sharp attempting to confront class privilege and profess a progressive worldview, but I’m not sure he even understands his own metaphor.
In his metaphor, the San Antonio Spurs are a rich white family, and the Washington Wizards a poor black family. Or something. To continue with this stupid metaphor, it means that Kawhi Leonard is the rich white kid who gets into Harvard because of his dad’s connections, and Jan Vesely is the poor black kid who dropped out of high school at 16 despite academic promise. Or something.
The point isn’t that Simmons, Dwyre, Simers, Golliver and Sharp are racist. I have never met any of them, and I know next to nothing about their respective backgrounds or beliefs. Besides, I’m not even sure that writing a single dubious piece makes one racist.
What I do know is that their pieces are a symptom of a larger problem: the basketball writing community is made up of an incredibly homogeneous group of writers. When your community is made up of white males writing about black males, reading other white males write about black males, and discussing the exploits of black males with white males, you need to be constantly vigilant against reinforcing a warped and incomplete worldview.
There are obvious gradations here. Sharp’s problematic and underdeveloped metaphor of classism isn’t nearly as bad as Simers’ outright racism. The obvious wellspring of Simmons’ comment isn’t any inherent racism but his pathological need to summarize incredibly complex events with a nice, tidy, unifying theory. But some pieces being really racist don’t let those that are only moderately racist off the hook.
Simmons is getting all of the heat today, and he deserves it, but let’s not miss the forest for the trees here. He’s not the first and he’s certainly won’t be the last. After all, your favorite basketball writer is probably a little bit racist.