Does the NBA Have a Race Problem?

07 Mar

I’ve been sitting on this issue for a few weeks now, but I figured now is a good time to shed some light on it.  As we sit on pins and needles awaiting the NFL’s fate, I look ahead to the NBA’s, which seems a lot more gloomy than the NFL’s.  Personally, I think the NFL will figure out how to split its $9 billion pie without losing any games.  I don’t feel nearly as confident in regards to the NBA’s pending labor dispute, though.  Don’t look now, but it’s coming.  However, I think the NBA has another problem that one of my favorite authors, Buzz Bissinger, brought to the public’s attention a few weeks ago.  For those who don’t know, Bissinger is the author of Friday Night Lights, one of the best sports books ever written in my opinion.  Recently, he wrote an article called “White Men Can’t Root” that shoots a heat-seeking missile squarely at the NBA’s heart.

-The game is in trouble. Attendance was down last year and down again this year.
-The league is between 72%-75% black.  White player percentages are dwindling.
-There are no white, American-born superstars.
-NFL is also dominated by black players, but the hallowed quarterback position is still dominated by white players

“Are whites losing interest in a game in which the number of white American players not only continues to dwindle, but no longer features a superstar?”

I think Bissinger is on to something.  Bob Cousy, Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Jerry West (literally the image of the NBA), Pete Maravich, Chris Mullin, and John Stockton are the names that come to mind when I think of the NBA’s white superstar athletes. Other than those players all being white, you know what else they have in common? They’re all retired.  Before you yell out Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, realize that neither was born in the U.S.  Bissinger’s argument centers around the fact that there are no white American superstars playing, which he contends is fueling the NBA’s race problem.  Other than Kevin Love, who I wouldn’t call a superstar, I honestly can’t think of any white American players that one could seriously build a team around (Blake Griffin is bi-racial). Have blacks taken over the league?  Is this too much of a good thing?  Is the league losing its footing with whites?  I wouldn’t go that far, but this notion does seem to lend itself to the NBA being the most progressive league out of the big 4 (MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA). You don’t see the need for a Rooney Rule, there is a measurable amount of black ownership, and the league is very much in tune with globalization. That sounds good, right?  That seems to be the kind of equality and progression many of us are striving for.  As Bissinger says, many white fans can no longer relate. With superstars changing teams seemingly every year, loyalty being a thing of the past, and a lack of white-American superstars, the average white fan would be perfectly within his rights to merely be a casual fan, if that.

I’m not saying Bissinger is right or wrong, but it is certainly a good observation, which Mark Cuban took exception to.  What should the NBA do?  Can it do anything?  With an impending lockout on the horizon, can it afford to do anything?  Personally, I think the NBA has a lot it needs to fix.  It has had an “image problem” for years now, which I will say has died down quite a bit the past few years; there are too many teams; there are too many teams that don’t have a chance of winning a title; there’s not much parody (8 teams have won a title over the past 30 years; 2 of those teams only won one); and there’s this “race thing” that seems to keep coming up one way or another.  I really don’t know what the NBA can do.  It’s not like David Stern can magically grow an American “great white hype” from his Madison Square Garden.  Perhaps, the NBA is perfectly okay with its changing demographic and setting its sights on Europe and China.  After all, the influx of foreign-born players is a good thing, right?  Yao Ming only has to play in 5 games to get voted into the All-Star Game.  The Nets and Raptors just played regular season games in London.  Maybe the league’s race problem is bigger than we’ve cared to notice.  Maybe David Stern is brilliant and knows the future of the NBA no longer resides in middle-American suburbia.

As always, I’m open for comments, thoughts, banter, and the like.


1 Comment

Posted by on March 7, 2011 in Sports


One response to “Does the NBA Have a Race Problem?

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