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.)