Bruce Levenson

Why the NBA is ruining their best product, part 2

Last article, I talked a bit about the NBA, and why it is not doing as well as I think it should. This article I will discuss what I see as the number one problem with the growth of basketball, and it lies with mainstream white American culture.

Contrary to many’s beliefs, America is not post-racial, demonstrated by numerous events from Ferguson, MO to Baltimore, MD, and many places in between. These instances only represent a lived experience for many in this country: that racism is still alive and well in many places around the nation. The racial bias and uneasiness definitely transfers into the world of sport, particularly basketball, as Bruce Levenson proved. Lost in the racism of the Levenson story is a key point – that much of white America is fearful of the NBA due to race. My personal belief is that the NBA having most of the power and value in the players is not a comfortable thing for white America, and this is a shame. Potential fans are missing out on one of the best eras of a beautiful sport in its growth period.

Since the 60s, the NBA has been a majority African-American sport. It is the most African-American sport in North America, and in 2011, became the least Caucasian American sport in the history of professional sports in North America. This gradual trend is making the perception of basketball that it is not a ‘white’ sport, causing many white fans to feel uncomfortable.

In an American culture where western European descendants have majority control over the look, feel and culture, basketball can be looked at as a place where that is most certainly not true. And this, demonstrated in ticket sales and television ratings, is turning white fans off. Some folks also point out that the NFL is majority black, as well, but the NFL is not a player driven league. Basketball is almost entirely a player driven league. America’s “post-racial” racism is represented by the NBA: white former fans may use coded language, or have excuses, but the NBA is not as culturally relevant for white folks.

The most disturbing thing for me is that the NBA just finalized the Levanson issue, selling the Hawks to the highest bidder. Unlike the Donald Sterling issue, which came under intense media spotlight and coincided with a long history of bigotry and racism, the Levanson issue was said from a business owner’s perspective, and mostly named what many owners of NBA teams feel: they want what’s best for their business. The NBA lost out on an opportunity to talk about the biggest issues in America, and use their platform for honest conversation. Why are the Atlanta Hawks drawing a different demographic than their metro area would suggest? Why are there not very many white fans in the NBA? Why are all majority owners, nearly all general managers and coaches and much of the executive staff of teams white, in a league with mostly black players? Why are players like Ellis scoffed for their attention to professionalism with game streaks, while hockey players get lauded for their toughness?

So, shame on the NBA for not taking some of what Levenson wrote and creating a dialogue surrounding it. The fact that white America is not feeling cultural attachment to basketball can be a great opportunity for empathy for white folks who feel that marginalized groups need to “get over it” and “work harder”. The more attention shown to some of the questions above can convince many of the facts, that race is a powerful piece of American culture, and cannot be swept under the rug. Although this issue stems larger than basketball, a dialogue could help the sport, too. With white America still not ready for a sport that is culturally dominated by African American men, it is causing a multitude of fans to be missing out on what could be the highest quality playoffs out there.