clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Racism and the NBA

New, comment

The controversy surrounding the Atlanta Hawks only inelegantly states what the NBA has tried to do for decades -- disregard loyal black fans in the hopes of appealing to white people.

Mike Stobe

As an avid fan of the NBA, I have taken an interest in the percolating news surrounding the league's issues with race. The latest developments centers on Hawks' General Manager Danny Ferry's racist comments about newly acquired Heat forward Luol Deng. The Atlanta Hawks stood among several teams, along with the Heat, targeting Deng this past summer.

Perhaps the naive utilitarian in me should be happy that the Heat ended up acquiring Deng thanks in part to Hawks officials comments that Deng is "has a little African in him" and is "like a guy who would have a nice store out front but sell you counterfeit stuff out the back." ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported that the Hawks were reluctant to give Deng a multi-year deal in July. If Hawks officials hadn't thought of Deng and other players of African descent as liars and cheats, Atlanta may have offered Deng more than the two-year contract Miami was willing to offer. Miami would've been left reeling, with the market for small forwards rapidly drying up after LeBron James' departure. Deng himself said that he is thankful to now be a part of an organization that "appreciates me for who I am."

But only a fool would think that. This episode reveals the depth of the problems the U.S. professional league with the most black representation (at least in terms of its players) has with racism.

The controversy started when Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson "self-reported" a 2012 e-mail he wrote in which he lamented the fact that there were too few white people at his home games. Some have defended Levenson for stating that -- because of racial disparities in wealth and income -- "there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base." Levenson even criticizes white people's "racist garbage" for avoiding places in which they feel like the minority. But his comments simply state explicitly what crucial assumption the NBA has operated under -- that its white fans are more important than its black fans.

Although they make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, about 45 percent of people who watched NBA games during the 2012-13 regular season were black. Yet the NBA has treated these fans as largely expendable in their quest to sanitize the black-dominated league. After the NBA's Golden era during Michael Jordan's peak led to decreased viewership and allegations of the NBA as a "thuggish" league, David Stern met with Republican strategist Matthew Dowd to give the NBA "red state appeal." He later instituted a dress code and successfully fought to raise the league's age limit to 19 (As an aside, the best argument against an age limit rests on the grounds that college players -- at least for now -- cannot get paid. College athletes most likely to suffer due to the age limit rule are most likely to be poor people of color. And for the record, the NBA doesn't have many of those people.)

Levenson's e-mail mentioned that his team was unlike other NBA teams with its high concentration of black people in the audience and on the dance squad. When the Dallas Mavericks host a home game on national television, are there many black people in the crowd? On the cheerleading squad? What about at a Houston Rockets game? Did the NBA think about the make-up of its season-ticket holders when it moved the Nets from Newark, New Jersey to a fully gentrified Brooklyn? The Atlanta Hawks' situation stands as the exception that proves the rule.

Some may argue that the NBA simply needs to operate this way to attract people who can afford to become season-ticket holders, and these people simply happen to be disproportionately white. But this attitude consigns the NBA to complacency with the status quo instead of using its status as a diverse league to lead.

No one in the NBA's offices made a peep when Donald Sterling settled a housing discrimination suit in 2009 for $2.73 million, the largest ever obtained by the government in a discrimination case that featured apartment rentals. Then, the former LA Clippers owner said that, "Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building" and that "black tenants smell and attract vermin." Stern turned a blind eye to this blatant pattern, and Adam Silver only responded when an audio recording of a racist rant surfaced and public sentiment turned completely against Sterling. Silver reacted to the interpersonal racism Sterling exhibited instead of the structural racism he perpetuated.

Today, black families making $100,000 typically live in neighborhoods that white families making $30,000 live in. The Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo in 2010, and affidavits found loan officers referring to black customers as "mud people" and to their subprime mortgage loans as "ghetto loans." This structural racism is linked to the belief that the NBA needs white fans for its profit margins. Sterling should have been fired much earlier if Silver actually thought that Sterling's racist sentiments "are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural, multiethnic league."

Levenson inelegantly stated the kind of thinking that has appeared in countless NBA corporate league offices. That shouldn't absolve Levenson of wrongdoing. It should highlight the hypocrisy of a league that brags about a diverse player makeup (never mind the fact that out all of the NBA's owners, only one is black) but caters its policies to the white, upper-class people it is trying to attain instead of the black audiences that have proven to be its most loyal supporters.