Some late-morning reading all about a very bad week in professional sports.
Bruce Levenson Isn’t a Racist, He’s a Businessman
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has become something of a renaissance man when it comes to analysis of popular culture. This is unsurprising, given that he has experience as a professional athlete, coach, executive, movie star, and countless other positions in civil society. As such, he is qualified to comment on the rapidly developing situation in Atlanta, which he does in a piece for Time. Abdul-Jabbar’s analysis is rooted in parsing out whether or not the email itself was racist, and whether Levenson, by extension, should be exonerated from anything he wrote in regards to “diversifying” his customer base. For Abdul-Jabbar, the answer is an emphatic “no.” “He wasn’t valuing white fans over blacks,” writes Abdul-Jabbar, offering that instead “he was trying to figure out a way to change what he thought was the white perception in Atlanta so he could sell more tickets. That’s his job.” On a base level, this is correct: Levenson should be attempting to make his business more profitable, and for the former NBA great, that involves asking “cringe-worthy” questions. However, Abdul-Jabbar’s conclusion is where the argument becomes shaky, at least for this reader. He asks an interesting question: “If his arena was filled mostly with whites and he wanted to attract blacks, wouldn’t he be asking how they could de-emphasize white culture and bias toward white contestants and cheerleaders? Don’t you think every corporation in America that is trying to attract a more diverse customer base is discussing how to feature more blacks or Asians or Latinos in their TV ads?” That seems to be the larger question, especially as news about Danny Ferry continues to unfold: are these the fundamental questions those who want to accrue wealth should ask, or are they asked in order to maintain already existing structures? Either way, Kareem is worth reading, especially on this issue.
The Moral Arc of Pro Sports Bends Towards Profit
In a variation of some of the same themes tackled in Abdul-Jabbar’s piece, Jack Dickey (also writing for Time) takes a different look at what sports fans are seeing in the headlines this week: the multiple forms of violence produced by capitalism the pursuit of profit, and what they all mean in a larger picture. To do so, he skillfully weaves both moralistic elements of the Ray Rice story and the Atlanta Hawks story to illustrate how sports, as he terms it, “arcs towards profit.” Dickey points out that the NFL — specifically commissioner Roger Goodell — are benefiting from the diligent work of image consultants to portray themselves as “strong leaders” when it comes to social issues, yet a dramatic disconnect remains, not just in terms of individual behavior, but also profit margins. Dickey wins major points by extending this analysis to the NBA, which is participating in the same problematic practices with none of the fiery critiques. “The NBA is winning praise (and facing no criticism) for fighting a tacit racism it funded and nurtured less than a decade ago,” writes Dickey, referencing recent events with Donald Sterling and the NBA. “Writers are looking to an empty NFL suit to help solve a real crisis.” This state of affairs illustrates an ugly tension in modern, decadent American culture: that writers and fans demand change of all sorts, but are looking in completely the wrong places to find them.
Bruce Levenson, Donald Sterling, and our Figurehead Problem
In this take on the Hawks situation — and the “pursuit of profit” theme that seems to be front-and-center in this first-wave of analysis — Evans Clinchy takes an original approach, and looks at the role our glorification of “figureheads” in this mess. Like others, Clinchy looks closely at the email Levenson sent, and chooses to privilege “intent” over discourse. In his analysis, he asks important questions about Levenson’s postulations, and asks whether we might look beyond the individual, and focus on the larger structural issues that compel Levenson to make problematic observations. “Is that racism, or is that just good business sense?” writes Clinchy, before concluding somewhat open-ended-ly that “there’s a fine line, and the immorality of treading such a line falls to the wayside in the pursuit of profit.” While I agree that there should be room for nuance in every analysis — and Clinchy certainly is nuanced as he lays out a compelling and well-constructed argument to focus on aspects besides the racist himself — we should beware apologizing for racism in the name of perpetuating the worst parts of capitalism.
The Sterling Shuffle: Unpacking White Jewish Racism
(Editor’s Note: This annotation originally appeared in the May 5, 2014 edition of the ASBR). When Donald Sterling’s comments were released to the public, many shrugged their shoulders, mostly because both the racist, and his racism, have been around since time immemorial. The goal of the analyst, then, was to illustrate an aspect of his comments that might be surprising to even the most jaded readers. Sikivu Hutchinson shows the reader how Sterling’s comments are informed by a tradition of racism developed by Jews who, like blacks, have fought to be viewed as “Americans” in the United States of America. Hutchinson explains that most Jews did this by emphasizing their whiteness, usually through de facto racist practices against other non-whites. As such, an ugly history of segregation, and an ugly language of racism, have emerged over the years. Moreover, Hutchinson points out this historical tradition has evolved into an anti-black/African bent in Israeli nationalist politics and discourse. This is an excellent contextualization of Sterling; one that was far different than the others.