||12-27-2006 11:55 PM
Hate To Rehash, But... Re: Fight & Race
Is race a factor in the outcry about NBA brawls?
Posted: Wednesday December 27, 2006 3:08PM; Updated: Wednesday December 27, 2006 6:17PM
About, oh, once a month or so, a baseball batter gets hit by the pitch and goes after the pitcher. The players from both teams swarm onto the infield and grope around. Everybody goes tut-tut, then life goes on. Football players regularly scuffle. And hockey --- hockey players are supposed to fight, for goodness sake.
But when basketball players brawl, as they recently did in Madison Square Garden, it's a cause celebre.
Why do we look at basketball any differently than the other sports?
Well, let us count the ways.
First of all, basketball is the most intimate game. The fans are only a few feet from the action. Even if a fight doesn't spill into the seats, the potential is there. We watch a baseball melee, diverted, from afar. Football fights seem but an extension of the blocking and tackling. Hockey is played in the same arenas as basketball, but the ice is like unto a frozen moat -- below us, surrounded by walls. In all these sports, spectators are safe voyeurs of the happy mayhem.
Basketball is also the most graceful of games --- balletic at its best. Sure, the giants who play it are fierce and rugged; they clash and collide. But fury is not a by-product of the action, so when rage boils over, it is out of joint and calls more attention to itself.
However, notwithstanding these genetics of the entertainment, it would be na´ve to pretend that race is not a major factor in the issue. Had it been ten white guys who got into it at The Garden, you can be sure that the fight would not have occasioned nearly so much fuss.
The NBA rosters are dominated by African-Americans, with foreigners a second large component. To many white fans, this establishes a tacit distance, even as the players perform in actual proximity. Moreover, while many of the black players do fit into the stylish gentleman's mold that Michael Jordan exemplified, others appear to some whites as threatening ghetto types. Is this fair? No? Is it a widespread image? Yes, it is.
I know this might sound silly, but I would submit that nothing feeds that perception so starkly as the long, baggy shorts that basketball players have worn for many years. The rapper-style look is off-putting to many of the sports fans -- and sponsors -- that the NBA is trying to reach.
Of course, it drives the NBA to distraction that it suffers out of proportion for its players' sins. The Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL have had eight players arrested this season. However, this criminal epidemic hasn't been taken as a serious indictment of the team, let alone the league. And while the NFL is also predominantly African-American, white fans don't seem to notice that so much. Football players, you see, are distant numbers; padded, helmeted gladiators.
Basketball players are very visibly: people . . . most often, large black people. And when they misbehave, they are, simply, in your face.
It's generally been forgotten, but a basketball court used to be enclosed in netting or wire mesh. Basketball players were known not as "hoopsters," but as "cagers." We're not going to go back to that, but many people do feel that they need to be separated from the players, and the NBA has to figure out how to dispel that gnawing, uncomfortable effigy.