It Feels Like Home
Another Finals game, another night of abuse. For what's it worth, all of us in the FD email cabal enjoyed that one, and not just because the Lakers won. But like anyone cares about THE GREATEST FINALS EVER when Donaghy's making noise again. Sayeth I, there's a good reason why the theme of conspiracy just won't let the NBA alone. And why, in truth, it just might be a good thing.
As I said on The Sporting Blog, this kind of thing is all or nothing. We can all agree that stars get the benefit of the doubt. After that, though, there's no way of knowing where to draw the line, especially with no evidence but the word of a thief. Hell, either corroboration or plausible deniability would but add fuel to the fire. You should still click on that link before, but it's much the same with historical sticking points like JFK and Roswell—the real hell of paranoia is not knowing what's left of the shore you've departed from. For all of you who wear grad school like a badge, consider yourself knighted if you pick the just-right theorist for that sentiment.
So in that sense, Donaghy will yet again prove harmless, a crank who inspires only the most dogged and detached of ax-grinders. And yet, the whiff of it, the casual interest in conspiracy, tells us a lot about the NBA's standing in American society. It's a fun, and loaded, aside, that's more about the significance of the game than whether or not it was compromised on such and such day. In the midst of this debate—or by inserting itself into wider debate—the league ends up being, well, relevant, even as the sports media pronounces this a moment of doom.
To begin this inquest, let's turn to some other scandals. Namely, PEDs, Clemens, horses on cocaine, offensive tackles on 'roids, and other shit that really is a hall-of-mirrors style meltdown. Fine, crooked refereeing is about the integrity of the game, but not in the same way that altered athletes is. This seems more a fragment left over from the eighties, when the entire white collar community was fueled by cocaine, and Wall Street performance, while part of the general business drift of the nation, became a competitive sport unto itself. On the flip side of that (FEEL MY SLANG), there's the entire NFL in jail, which should really only be of marginal interest to football fans. It's boring, and just tells you that, duh, sports aggravates anti-social tendencies as often as they reverse them through structures and solvency. Oh, and racism is bad.
But the conspiracy is uniquely expansive and American. For one, it's a motif that unites the league's disparate constituencies. Scratch that—in the abstract, it does so for the whole damn political spectrum. At the risk of offending someone, there's a long tradition of conspiracy theories in the Black community. Yes, it's most evident on mixtapes, in Nation of Islam leaflets, and Jeremiah Wright, but it's not to be ignored. Nor is it that tough to account for. Of course, these suspicions are all about the system winning, and the NBA supposedly favors the system. Still, isn't adding this to the texture of the league—even if only in passing—play right into the hands of this particular core audience? Fuck a nested model of ref bias; if Iverson ever suggested that the league was out to get him, then you'd have a real rallying cry.
On the other hand, conspiracy theories are popular among the same kind of people who supposedly hate the NBA. You know, slightly wacko right-wingers who, if amplified across a generation or two, will have seed who start libertarian militias. Never mind the repulsion the league may cause in them. The added intrigue of corruption, the sense that special interests and wealthy celebrities might be pulling the strings, turns this tiny little sport into political theater. It's not just an imperfect form of competition, it's a metaphor for a world falling apart before their eyes. A team that suffers at the hands of Stern, especially a hard-working one who wrote the book on meritocracy, damn well better trump marketing concerns. If you think that said fan, who longs for the better days on and off the court, who hates affirmative action but isn't really racist, this stuff provides the perfect fuel in this particular basketball/cultural war.
And then, there's the time we live in. Say what you will about the NFL capturing the values moment, or NASCAR representing the rising up of the silent majority, or baseball once embodying the American Dream. I'm not sure if you've checked the news lately—I keep it on 24/7, even when there is a Law and Order on—but in the dying days of this administration, we are wading through a living, breathing backlog of scandal and secrets.
At this point, nothing will shock us. All is so believable, and there's so little we could do—or so little we want to tell ourselves about what we could've done—that the net effect is nil. But still, conspiracy is the fabric of U.S. government. Even if we want Obama, the First Basketball President, to sweep it all away, he's going to have to spend a hell of a lot of time clearing out all the brush that this administration has left behind—most of which smacks of collusion and secrecy.
So welcome to this country. Tim Donaghy's not a shock, he's confirmation that basketball's like everything else. And if we've learned to cope with that, or at least suppress it and try and make modest gains (or keep Bush in office as an easy target, yet another level of cynicism), then we should be able to sit the fuck back and enjoy these Finals. You're right, innocence is lost. It might never have been there. But what's the alternative? Throwing yourself off into the rapids and hoping no one points out you're in the de facto deep end?