12.13.2007

I Won't Call My Baby "Beatles"



So yesterday, my Josh Howard letter sparked an unusually sound discussion of whether or not Howard is "hood." Then, on the other side of the media map, the comments section of The Stranger's blog wondered fatuously whether or not alt-weeklies should cover sports. These two events tell you everything you need to know about politics in the NBA.

I really like Dave Zirin, but his tendency to point to Etan Thomas as the paragon of the socially-aware athlete is a little misleading. I'm not second-guessing Thomas himself, but it's pretty clear that The Poet isn't your typical NBA player. While it's impressive--and telling--that he exists in the Association and not some other sport, he's incidental to the league's culture. The same goes for Adam Morrison, also cited by Zirin. These are also both marginal players who, like it or not, don't have that much to lose by leaning left. Nor are they ever going to get scrutinized that much, or regarded as particularly dangerous to other or their flimsy corporate selves.



Josh Howard, on the other hand, appears to be a fairly typical NBA guy. He may be smarter and a little more reflective, but he's not an outsider. This is almost as important as the fact that he's an All-Star who's only getting better. In a superficial sense, it's his stardom that makes him matter; the more attention an athlete gets, the more his statements are disseminated. But what I find more encouraging is just how unexceptional and unassuming Howard seems, even as he blows the eff up. That someone outspoken can exist within the league's cultural mainstream is, well, some kind of progress.

Athletes speaking out on issues doesn't really come down to whether or not LeBron hates sweatshops, or T-Mac opposes genocide. As public figures, stars both epitomize and transcend the meaning of today's NBA; saying that they set the template for player behavior is like saying that Shaquille O'Neal was a model for subsequent big men. What's more important is that Josh Howard can have opinions, and they pose no hindrance to his ascent.

For most fans on the left, Muhammad Ali is the gold standard for politicized athletes. However, not only is this naive--it's more than a little impractical. Ali was one of the great speakers (and talkers) of this century, a cultural force who only happened to box. As a boxer, he was, well, The Greatest. And it didn't hurt that he came along in the sixties, when the climate was always at least implicitly political. Not only is Ali singular, he was a perfect storm of ability, circumstance, and irresistibility. And even if the present-day equivalent of Ali were to come along, he wouldn't have the same sympathetic backdrop, among fans or peers.



The problem in sports, as with every other walk of American Life, is the uselessness of the individual. It's fine and good to take a stand, but what really matter are those shifts pockets of culture. Ali happened in a time when the collective hinged on Great Men's action; cause and effect is a mess there, but certainly resonance was about more than making listeners think. It's the same way that George Washington wouldn't have happened if that era hadn't been primed for one. In this day and age, there's too much alienation and complexity for public figures to pierce public consciousness like this. And that includes Barack Obama.

Josh Howard isn't going to inspire change. But he's an encouraging sign that, as America continues to fuck itself and fall into the toilet, conservatism (all senses) no longer reigns. Knowing that Howard and his teammates might privately vent about issues like Iraq is as important as any of them telling us to care.

(I've just been told that I stole this entire theory from someone named Hobsbawm. As a disclaimer, I had no idea who he was until now.)

19 Comments:

At 12/13/2007 1:09 PM, Blogger goathair said...

I can't believe the coherence of those AOL comments. They made sense!

Anyways, you're absolutely right Shoals. Howard is what people were pushing Nash to be, circa 2006. However, Nash wasn't keen to put himself out to the world as a political-minded figure. I'd imagine that Josh Howard being a second tier star (and therefore, WAY less of a marketing force) has something to do with his positioning as a politico.

 
At 12/13/2007 1:39 PM, Blogger Stumbleweed said...

BOOTS RILEY!

That is all.

 
At 12/13/2007 1:48 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

back to the barracks for Obama

 
At 12/13/2007 2:21 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Typo fixed. I'm glad that's all you found to correct me on here.

 
At 12/13/2007 2:33 PM, Blogger Doctor Dribbles said...

Good words on Howard and the other socially aware jocks, Hobsbawm...er, Shoals.

Kind of OT...but DC's alt-weekly has a nice sports column, Cheap Seats. And it's what it should be, no mas, no less: Sports stories outside the mainstream...some top-flight baseball player in a poor part of town, or a look at the Redskins radio hosts. So, folly on the Stranger for dismissing the idea--good stories to be found > good writers to cover them...although Enjoy the Enjoyment already has a nice bead on the Emerald City sports scene.

 
At 12/13/2007 2:47 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

I'm busy coaching my 6-year-old son to draw a picture of the upcoming Jazz/Hawks tilt.

P.S. "If they don't have sports in The Stranger, then the sports fans will have won?"

 
At 12/13/2007 2:52 PM, Blogger Benjy Sarlin said...

Left out in this discussion is two-time MVP Steve Nash who is a lefty who's spoken out against the Iraq War for years. In 2003, way before it was acceptable political ground, he showed up to the all-star game in a t-shirt that read ""No war — Shoot baskets not people."

No one seems to care what Steve Nash thinks in the media, though, who has been much less endorsement-friendly and prominent than many of his less-accomplished contemporaries. But it's worth pointing out that the guy has been pretty fearless in what he says and has made efforts to be politically relevant despite sitting at the apex of basketball achievement.

 
At 12/13/2007 2:56 PM, Blogger goathair said...

Well, Nash was mentioned in the first comment...

 
At 12/13/2007 3:00 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 12/13/2007 3:03 PM, Blogger Colonel D. Williams (Ret.) said...

What has Howard done/thought/said to make himself politically relevant? Is it because he's following Stackhouse's vegetarian diet, and political activism is thought soon to follow? Just curious.

 
At 12/13/2007 3:18 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

It's true, I probably should've addressed Nash specifically. I think he fits into the Thomas/Morrison category, even though he's a much better player. He's a scruffy, vaguely indie-ish Canadian; is anyone surprised he's always opposed the war?

Then again, according to the rest of my argument, it wouldn't make a difference if Allen Iverson had taken Nash's stance. Stars may catch the most heat, but it's not like stars (or any celebrities) are actually in a position to change minds. No one is.

Actually, I guess if Allen Iverson had narrated "Farenheit 9-11," that might've meant something.

 
At 12/13/2007 3:19 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

CDW, Howard spoke out against the war while in college.

And he's also very frank about drugs in the NBA, though I'm not sure how that's related.

 
At 12/13/2007 3:28 PM, Blogger J.E. said...

A 'lil onion for the stir-fry:

"I want to try to be one of the consistent All-Stars that everybody always picks," Howard said. "I want to be one of those players that people will talk about like, kind of like Earl 'The Pearl' Monroe, a guy like that who people will say was a great player, but he's just low-key, under the radar. I enjoy that."
-- Star-Telegram (via Mavs Moneyball)

 
At 12/13/2007 4:25 PM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

On the topic of alt-weeklies with sports sections... the Village Voice had one for many years (back when the Voice was good). It, too, dealt with outside the norm stories, such as "scientific studies on race and physical abilities", or "stadium money, public fleecing of". And the usual local stuff - watching a game at West 4th Street courts, or at Ruckers, that kind of stuff.

 
At 12/13/2007 6:21 PM, Blogger onehandclapping said...

i read FD for the pictures

 
At 12/13/2007 7:11 PM, Blogger New Orleans Nation said...

I don't know, I think the whole fame game makes individuals--take your US magazine cover pick--visible and worried about in outsized ways. In other words, we never hear about trends, only the stars/celebrities' fall or gaffe or adoption. If an AI decided to make a SUSTAINED statement--like a boycott or visible political move--I think he'd get way more attention than MoveOn in the media eye. And that's not really that good a thing, but individuals certainly don't move in vain in this spotlight.

 
At 12/13/2007 8:41 PM, Blogger T. said...

Both the Houston Press and the East Bay Express covered sports - but it was a lot about the financing of sports stadiums, the other side of athletes and alternative type stories. Actually I thought it was a good balance (even being in the sports business at the time) but the people in the front offices never liked it because the tone was more than likely anti management or anti team or anti building.

It's interesting we are discussing sports and politics - I always thought the NBA was fairly politicized - with Stern's medium profile support for Dem candidates, with Barkley's gubinitorial asperations, Newble's Darfur petition, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf's non-stance for the National Anthem. . . I would submit, however, that the audience of the NBA is pretty marginalized compared to the NFL - so the reach of those stories is limited as well.

 
At 12/14/2007 1:33 AM, Blogger Stephen said...

A few random thoughts:

I think it's important to note that the climate is still always implicitly political.

I also think a distinction needs to be made between the types of comments Howard made regarding the Iraq war, which is a king of storyline or emotional reading of the situation (Bush's dad, etc), and actually isn't very political in its tone, and that of politicized thought and subsequent action.

What I've always enjoyed about the current Detroit Pistons team (despite their chronic underachievement, and avoiding any discussion of "playing as a team" and "a collection of individuals," I'm not talking about assist numbers) is their communal feel. Love is political, right? I get the feeling most NBA players would prefer Ayn Rand to Hakim Bey.

 
At 12/14/2007 1:37 AM, Blogger Stephen said...

P.S. - Maybe this has already been addressed, but Blogger (Google) disabling commenter URLs is a BUMMER TRIP.

 

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