1.23.2007

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.

32 Comments:

At 1/23/2007 3:05 PM, Anonymous dsm said...

Interesing thoughts...I would have to agree with you that the initial no tolerance standard the league adopted for the first week of the season did seem a direct stance against the behavior of a certain type of "black" identity (that it was called in the press "the Rasheed Wallace rule" certainly supports this premise). But it seems to me that the purpose of this rule was not simply behavior modification on the part of players, but it was also to instill a measure of accountability for officials, who, now free from the overt demonstrations of a dissenting athlete, would be more objective arbiters of the game. The end of last season marked a new low in officiating, as it is generally acknowledged that suspect game-calling was one of the top three factors contributing to the eventual champion (and this goes beyond the usual griping of common fans who feel their team has been cheated).

Whether NBA officials are also being held to higher standards remains to be seen. As of yet, there is not really the proper climate for controversy, given we are at the halfway point of the season. It would be interesting to know to what sort of scrutiny - if any - the officials at the infamous MSG Brawl were subject, as seemingly they are responsible for preventing such melees - a tall order, indeed.

Stern's real interest, like any corporate big whig, is the sale of the game. In that regard I'm not sure what responsibility he has to address the social and cultural milieu of his employees. Stern has been successful, in my opinion, in bringing about a more integrated power structure to the NBA, and I think that continuing along this line is perhaps the best that can be done in developing an institution capable of representing and being responsive to black Americans.

 
At 1/23/2007 4:13 PM, Blogger Gladhands said...

I'm finding it rather difficult to accept lashing out as "black culture". Without that as a given, there's nothing to indicate that race can be mentioned in relation to this particular rule change...unless of course we're using the "the players are black; the commissioner is white, and therefore all decisions from on high must be racially charged" model.

 
At 1/23/2007 4:52 PM, Anonymous danny said...

I'm finding it rather difficult to accept lashing out as "black culture".

The article isn't asking you to. It's asking you to accept that black expressiveness has a long history of being read by white culture as aggressively threatening - well established fact that you can get from American Studies 101. Accepting that fact, and the overwhelming racial weighting between the enforcers and the subjects of the new "rules", the burden of proof rests with those like yourself saying that race has no role in this discussion.

Great article FB!

 
At 1/23/2007 6:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure when I lie on the technical foul issue. I think the dress code and the recent approved list of nightclubs are example of more blatant attempts are at race driven behavior modification.

 
At 1/23/2007 6:37 PM, Anonymous paper tiger said...

i'm wondering, does stern ever talk race, society, etc regarding the league? i know he's a well documented "liberal" on his own, but as a rep of the league i've not noticed it. FB, your thoughts on the age limit last time were on point, but weren't the reasons that stern, the union, et al were behind it. as a man, i bet stern appreciates the effects you saw; as commish, i'm not sure it plays a role. so i guess i'm curious about the times (like with the tech crackdowns) where he is well aware of how things will be perceived in societal context, but for league reasons does them anyway. and then, when he goes against his grain, does that make him somehow compromised, even tragic, or just a dick?

 
At 1/23/2007 6:39 PM, Anonymous paper tiger said...

dress code and approved nightclubs being more examples of possible internal stern drama...

 
At 1/23/2007 6:56 PM, Blogger Gladhands said...

The article isn't asking you to. It's asking you to accept that black expressiveness has a long history of being read by white culture as aggressively threatening - well established fact that you can get from American Studies 101.

White America's history of misinterpreting black expression has precious little to do with the league's attempt to stifle player outbursts. Please do not confuse adults behaving like petulant children with black expression. It's more than a tad condescending.

 
At 1/23/2007 7:35 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

gh--at the time, several players claimed this was a question of cultural difference.

 
At 1/23/2007 10:05 PM, Anonymous paper tiger said...

yikes. mutumbo exhibit A in state of the union show and tell. is it wrong that i immediately checked to see if houston had a game tonight?

 
At 1/23/2007 10:10 PM, Anonymous danny said...

GH - describing such behaviour as "lashing out", "outbursts" and "petulant children" might be seen as condescending. Depends on where you sit. And that's a racialized dynamic, no doubt.

 
At 1/23/2007 11:41 PM, Anonymous Abacus said...

Gladhands -

i have no idea whether the author of this article is black, or whether you yourself are black , but your statement that NBA players behave like "petulant children" is exactly the type of criticism that leads many blacks (and whites as well) to believe their is a strong racial undercurrent to stern's efforts to "clean up" the league and to the heavy criticism of the NBA by the largely white sports media.

at the end of the day, you are not inaccurate - it's fair to say that NBA players behave like petulant children...

...but so do revered NFL coaches like bill belicheck and bill parcells. but the general perception of them as geniuses, old school coaches, "true characters." so do baseball players like roger clemens and randy johnson. baseball pitchers also love to bean hitters (again, old school) and baseball brawls are more frequent than in basketball. again, no image problem for MLB...

at the end of the day i would guess that most athletes are basically highly competitive, macho, emotionally immature, egotstical and spoiled. it's part of what makes them great competitors. the fact that this "petulance" is such a pervasive theme in discussions of the NBA, and such a potential detriment to league revenues that stern has taken these actions, is quite conspicuous to say the least.

i'm not going to bother to argue this too much because it's a bit like preaching to the choir on this board...

and the notion that blacks in america have evolved to be overly expressive in reaction to being stifled by society has been written about quite a bit in academia. many believe this theory explains things like hip hop, timberlands in the summer, baggy jeans, ice/bling, etc. etc. same goes for gays and their supposed flamboyance. it's all over-compensation for unique cultural circumastance and thus does have a "cultural" component...

 
At 1/23/2007 11:52 PM, Anonymous cw said...

There is obviously something to what your saying, but to want the commish to stand up and proclaim that certain types of behavior by black players, and furthermore, by the black community in general, are counter-productive for the race so lets dialog, is totally crazy. They pay him to make money for the leauge, not start race-riots. And while I agree that involking a full on prison yard rage at the slightest sign that someone may be "disrespecting" you might be counter-productive for the race, how does a dress code help the race? And how does forcing a kid to go to college for one year inspire non-athelets to go to college (for one year?). And how did the new ball help the race, for that matter?

I don't mean to sound too negative about your post. I think this is something really worth talking about. I just have a few critiques.

 
At 1/24/2007 12:01 AM, Anonymous Abacus said...

with the exception of collective bargaining over salary caps, etc., generally speaking the economic interests of the league are the same as those of the players. while they must argue about how the pie is divided, the players generally make more money when the league makes more money.

stern is basically asking the players to assimilate into the corporate mainstream. by doing so the players could set an example for others who idolize and imitate them their behavior, but lack the exceptional talent that allows one to succeed with such behavior.

perhaps it's a question of terminology - maybe this is not "socially" good and will hurt the culture. but it could certainly help economically.

 
At 1/24/2007 1:44 AM, Blogger DrewRicketts said...

I almost jumped out of my sofa groove upon reading this piece. You've got a co-conspirator, FB.

Check out any of my musing on smokingsection.net or blog.myspace.com/biggestthingsince

 
At 1/24/2007 2:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the NBA is almost 2 leagues and Stern has seen that. Not to rehash the red state/blue state idea which is admitedly pretty stale, but there is a reason why the knicks feel comfortable starting an all black starting 5 and playing guys like Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury, Nate Robinson, Renaldo Balkman.
Teams like the Pacers have problems with "thugs" like Tinsley, Harrington, and Jackson. The Utah Jazz have one of the whitest teams in recent memory.
Stern knows that in certain states the fact that the league is mostly black bothers a lot of people. So far Stern has done an OK job of making the league viable in some of the more difficult markets while allowing players to play.
When race and business clash the bottom line will always win and so far Stern is in the lead, but if he takes away the emotion that makes guys like Sheed fan favorites he's not going to improve the game anywhere.

 
At 1/24/2007 9:59 AM, Anonymous D-Wil said...

anonymous (most recent)-

I concur with your assessment of "how the League Looks" in certain cities. Taking it a step farther, I believe that the influx of Euro-players greatly aids in making the game more palatable to the NBA's largely white ticket-payers. And the black players from other countries are the "exotic others" with their accents and non-U.S. feel, which makes them equally palatable.

The age-limit rule is so incredibly transparent I'm surprised anyone can agree with it. It was implemented to allow NBA owners an added year to evaluate talent and thereby aid them in having to take a flyer on a player's talent level based on the player competing against high schoolers - period.

Finally, I'm glad to see people finally bringing up the proposed "off-limits establishments" Sternian edict. My question is, how quickly will a player find that one of those "establishments" is in the neighborhood in which he lived as a young boy and man and is a place he frequents now to chop it with the fellas when he returns home?

 
At 1/24/2007 10:21 AM, Blogger Wade Word said...

This site is so pedantic and lame.

 
At 1/24/2007 10:31 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

i like that in a week, wade word has gone from earnestly trying understand why he can't understand freedarko, to telling us we're pedantic and suck.

 
At 1/24/2007 11:08 AM, Blogger Gladhands said...

Since it is somewhat pertinent to this discussion; I am, in fact, black. I have two black, American (not african-american) parents and grew up in the inner-city. Pampered stars in sports/entertainment tend to behave like children, regardless of race. It's just more prominent in basketball as opposed to other sports because basketball players a) don't wear helmets, b) have dozens of personal interactions over the course of a game and c) don't have the benefit of instant replay. If you're looking for an example of a league attempting to curb "black expression", look no further than the NFL's anti-taunting/celebration policy. The technical foul policy simply attempts to curb on-court whining and overtly aggressive behavior towards officials.

Black people are not a bunch of primitives who should not be expected to control their emotional outbursts.

 
At 1/24/2007 11:19 AM, Anonymous jr said...

I'm with Gladhands on this one (I'm white for the record). I understand the reasoning behind the theory that black culture has evolved to be "overly expressive" in reaction to being stifled by (white) society, but I really think it's an oversimplification in this case. I also understand that white athletes are frequently upheld as paragons of virtue while black athletes are often maligned for thuggishness, both prevalent exaggerations wrapped around kernels of truth that all sports have "thugs" and saints of all colors. However, this is a rule concerning complaining about officiating. Yes, it affects more black players, because the league has more black players, but it is not specifically related to stifling black culture. Andres Nocioni, for example, is one of the worst complainers in the NBA. Rasheed Wallace gets the most technicals not because he's black, but because he's crazy and he whines about everything (he doesn't whine because he's black, if that's what you think I'm suggesting). It seems patronizing to suggest that black players are more affected by this rule because complaining about officiating and being emotional are ingrained in them moreso than white players. In fact, it sounds like well-meaning liberal racism (I know that's not what FB is suggesting, but still) to suggest that somehow the black players are more prone to outbursts than their white counterparts.

 
At 1/24/2007 11:20 AM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

A problem develops any time we try to interpret certain behaviors in athletic competition as modes of behavior acceptable outside of athletic competition.

The players respond angrily to the refs in highly insulting ways. Nobody should think that would be a good way to respond to a teacher, a cop, a boss, a parent. Coaches treat members of the media as less than people, like children except worse. Nobody should think that treating people you don't respect like trash is a good way to be successful, either.

In a highly competitive game that depends so much on the physical use of the body, is there a way to truly curtain rash emotional responses? I don't know. There might be something about the emotions and psychology of preparing and participating in professional athletic competition that preclude removing the anger.

There is a different charge to things though, and it is partly racial. When NFL coaches run up and down the field yelling, screaming, whining, etc., they look comical. They're usually old white men that look like spoiled children when things aren't going there way; it's hard to believe responsible adults act that way, but it's just silly. When a very muscular, strong athlete that is usually a foot taller than the man he is yelling at gets going, it can look scary, like bullying with a charge of violence. How many people see that activity as charged with violence because it is a large black man yelling at a smaller white man? I don't know.

And that's where discussion is relevant: these parts of sports remind us of parts of society. We all accept the crusty old man getting angry at everything--it's practically a cliched character. Do we have the same acceptance for a large black man yelling at a small white man? Not so much.

 
At 1/24/2007 11:35 AM, Blogger Gladhands said...

Doesn't The NBA's zero-tolerance policy also apply to coaches?

 
At 1/24/2007 11:36 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

gh--

while i was raised a middle-class jewish faculty brat in a college town, i'll still at least attempt to argue here.

i think someone like sheed or artest has no right to make this culture-based claim. however, what about garnett, who called the guidelines "communism?" kg is an insanely emotional presence on the court, but it's all passion, never petulence. in fact, garnett gets the same kind of reverential treatment from the media as white men who vigorously want to win. so when he starts questioning whether these guidelines are repressive, i have to take it somewhat seriously.

 
At 1/24/2007 11:42 AM, Blogger ForEvers Burns said...

Just to clarify (and break my rule on commenting on my own post):

I’m not using Rasheed as a poster child for black communication styles. That would be insane. Remember, the rules weren’t made to quiet Rasheed; he was always getting techs, even before the new guidelines.

This conversation shouldn’t be about the technical foul guidelines as they are now, which are maybe only a little more strict than they were last year. The conversation should be centered on the guidelines as they were originally, when players were getting technical fouls sometimes simply for looking quizzically at officials. Almost any form of expression of disagreement was met with a tech, an approach that obviously has and needed to soften considerably.

The “petulant children” of the league have always gotten technical fouls and I would hate to think anyone would imagine me to be so foolish as to equate Rasheed Wallace as personifying black communication styles. He’s not even mentioned in the post. In fact, it was KG, a player both extremely emotional and respectful (his punch directed at McDyess notwithstanding), who was among the most vocal in his disdain for the new guidelines.

Finally, I stand firmly with the idea that there are cultural differences between white and black communication styles (though I freely admit that it is also related to economic disparities). These differences are also often greatly exaggerated. However, Stern’s actions weren’t in response to reality, but to its perception and it’s a discussion of that perception that, in my opinion, needs to take place.

 
At 1/24/2007 11:45 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

of course, it's not clear whether garnett thinks the guidelines repress something distinctly black, or just clamp down on a predominantly african-american sport.

but guess who did have an opinion about this. . .

"It's not anything new like a dress code, when you can make a couple calls and get some suits," Miami's Dwyane Wade said. "It's something that really goes with the way that you play."

 
At 1/24/2007 11:50 AM, Blogger Gladhands said...

Shoals-

I'm willing to concede that the policy may be repressive, but I don't see the racial component...and this is coming from a man who had his race card laminated.

 
At 1/24/2007 12:02 PM, Anonymous D-Wil said...

If there's not a racial component to Stern's policy, then what white player has complained about it? Or, maybe they haven't complained because they're "better behaved."

 
At 1/24/2007 3:46 PM, Anonymous pyrex chapman said...

i believe that the blizzard of bitchiness that swirled on the nba hardcourt before the zero-tolerance rule was cultural. but it wasn't racial. players were operating under what had become accepted guidelines for on-court behavior. it wasn't black culture, it wasn't even basketball culture -- it was nba culture. stern's new rules are an attempt to reverse what had become the imbedded power dynamics of the relationship between players and officials; the change was obviously going to cause friction and dismay.

if you watch high school or college games, players aren't barking at the officials. we didn't bark at officials during cyo games, nor do we in my adult rec league. there's nothing intrinsic about a specific race or the sport of basketball that lends itself to emotional outburts towards officials.

furthermore, i can't be the only one who felt the incessant on-court complaining really detracted from the pleasure watching televised nba games. i want to see lebron imposing his god-like will upon fragile opponents, not tearing up and making baby faces towards an official. shit was unseemly.

 
At 1/24/2007 4:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obama/Mutombo 2008

it needed to be said

 
At 1/24/2007 9:49 PM, Anonymous eauhellzgnaw said...

People need to be careful about using the word "racist" so freely, lest it be trivialized. This goes for white people bitching about "reverse racism" because they don't get to say the word "nigga" like Chappelle (why would they want to?) and black folks arguing, for instance, that criticism of rap music is racist (that would mean that the vast majority of black people older than 45 are racists).

Racism is not being able to get a loan or a house where you want to because of discrimination; racism was my father not getting to go to the colleges he wanted to because of segregation; racism is getting swiss cheesed by the cops for no reason other than your skin color; racism refers to structures that perpetuate systematic inequality and 2nd class citizenship.

The NBA dress code, the age limit, and this tech law are obviously not inherently racist (there's nothing that says that black people HAVE to wear baggy clothes, skip college, or yell at officials). However, what matters is that there is a perception in "middle America" that the "hip hop" dress and styles of young black players are inherently negative, and the NBA is caving to such racialized (though not necessarily racist) pressure.

What irks Jermaine O'Neal and others is that, for all that tatted, cornrowed, baggy shorts wearing black players have done to promote the NBA, Stern is basically giving a middle finger to them and their subculture. He's saying "I don't care about your self epxression or your subculture, but I do care about the racialized notions of white Americans."

 
At 1/25/2007 12:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The idea that all white americans are part of a mythical "White America", with each member possessing the same mentality and goal of holding down every other 'ethnic group' (which scientifically don't exist - based on genetics we are all related) is insulting, and needs to stop. I'm white and from middle America (Hello Wisconsin) and I never got invited to any of these meetings. Perhaps it's due to the fact that this is an economic issue. Maybe it's not middle America, but Middle Class America. I was born poor. I witnessed myself and my family treated the same way as poor black folks. Along the way, I noticed that Middle Class America contained folks of all different colors and creeds. The unifying theme being, their ability to speak, act, and dress in a professional and traditional manner while also being dependable and responsible - economically and otherwise. I'm currently engaged to a born Middle Class black girl, and she is the one educating me on this. I've never dressed so well in my life. In terms of all these rule changes, Stern is merely trying to return professionalizm to the NBA, for the benefit of the Middle Class America and ultimatly, the players themselves.

 
At 1/26/2007 12:33 AM, Anonymous Pain Rooney said...

At first I was digging the explanations for the tech rule on the the racialized socio-cultural perceptions of expression that may have influenced David Stern's judgement when he implemented the rule.

Then I started looking for context, and frankly, now I look at is as a bit of junk.

Baseball has a similar approach to arguing with officials. Expressing a difference of opinion is fine, but anything that might possibly usurp their authority as an arbiter (or the perception thereof) is grounds for penalty. Seems like the NBA rule is similar to MLB in that respect.

Still, big up FB. And your lil brother Shekels too.

 

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