Harvest Moon Shining Down from the Sky
This post is the second of two examining the social implications of some of David Stern’s recent policy decisions. More accurately, this post looks at the startling lack of social implications for the new technical foul guidelines despite the outrage they inspired.In my last post, I tried to argue that there were two lenses through which to examine the age limit guidelines David Stern imposed on the league in 2005. Clearly, the league benefits economically from the new rule; however, I argued that the age limit also indirectly helped economically disadvantaged kids with aspirations of playing pro ball by forcing them to view college as part of the path to actualizing their goals. While the moral implications of the age limit may have been more subtle, maybe they were most important.
The new technical foul guidelines, which at their inception all but eliminated strongly demonstrative gestures and talking back to officials, can be viewed from similar perspectives. For better or worse, many black youth see NBA players as role models and both consciously and unconsciously model their own behavior after those they adulate. To see a player explode in anger without consequence after a bad call further reinforces that kind of response and codifies it as a behavioral script.
But the potential importance of technical foul guidelines, and specifically the kinds of conversations their inception should have inspired, extends far beyond the ways in which players’ behaviors are modeled by impressionable viewers. Black cultural norms and white fear of them sorely needs intelligent discussion in this country and, more importantly, the NBA provides a forum large enough for everyone to hear it.
It's no secret that different cultural groups have different strategies of communication; when these new guidelines were first announced, some players claimed that they were in effect being discriminated against. To some (white) fans, their reactions to certain calls seemed purely hostile. Yet one can argue that the sometimes aggressively expressive nature of this communication evolved out of necessity; only by asserting themselves this way can black people avoid being ignored by a white power structure that seeks to marginalize them. However, many of those same white people who control society and its resources seem to fear black people for communicating in a way that they themselves made necessary. The Sub-Saharan African environment selected for individuals with sickle-cell anemia because of the phenotype’s increased resistance to malaria. However, while the individual became less prone to die young from the disease, other complications resulted in an average lifespan of 40 years. Evolution is, after all, a pragmatic force, not a wise one. While only the truly naïve would regard this kind of expression as a vestigial characteristic, it’s worth examining if it does black Americans more harm than good.
But this conversation never happened. The guidelines themselves sparked some initial outrage, but ultimately didn’t seem to have led to any substantive change. Referees that once asserted themselves to the point of outright antagonism have withdrawn significantly. Gradually, the league silently compromised until the issue passed and with it, the chance for meaningful debate. Additionally, by simply imposing his guidelines from above, Stern eschewed a genuine chance to openly discuss with players the significance and possible implications of their behavior, instead choosing to withstand a brief fit of outrage that predictably receded once refs softened and checks cashed. Here, the tenuous union between economic and social benefit diverged. Stern’s token actions satisfied his corporate interests, all the while avoiding asking difficult questions of himself and his players. He needed only to endure a few days of angry quotes from players with short fuses and shorter memories.
Furthermore, while I unequivocally supported Stern’s age limit, it separated itself from black culture and sought more to affect the systems and institutions in which it exists. With the technical foul guidelines, Stern seems to be making and acting on a direct value judgment on black culture itself. The letter of Stern’s actions may benefit black Americans in the long run, but I can’t get behind the overtly paternalistic approach to this issue, an approach that may ultimately undermine any positive social intentions he may have had. To basically say to players, “your culture needs to change and here’s how,” openly invites defiance where dialogue is needed. Maybe this was his plan all along; I can’t really blame him for trying not to let the league as a metaphor for race relations overshadow in any way the league as a source of entertainment, but it pains me to see such a crucial opportunity wasted.