Monday, March 05, 2007

Apparently, what happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas. The aftermath of the NBA All Star Weekend will not go away. Unfortunately, the conversation has become focused on race. Scoop Jackson points out that there were fewer arrests over All Star Weekend than there were over New Year's. Of course that leaves aside the question of the severity of the arrests, but that's a small matter.

When one discusses the incidents involving the NBA and its players, apparently it is now required by law that the commentator bring the NHL in as foil. Scoop Jackson mentioned that there were no media reports about arrests coming out of the NHL All Star game. Bill Simmons made the point that there was a massive brawl in a recent game between the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators which received less coverage than the Vegas All Star weekend. These things are true, but is it because of some sort of racist media conspiracy?

I am inclined to believe that this isn't a conspiracy against hip-hop culture and the NBA. First, hockey is very much a fringe sport. Either you like hockey and you get it, or you ignore it. The NBA has many more casual fans, so it gets more media attention. Yes, the NBA has more black players than white players and the NHL is overwhelmingly white. But that doesn't mean that media coverage of the two leagues is racially motivated. The NHL receives less media attention because so very few people care about it.

Another thing to consider is the fact that basketball players get suspended for infractions that aren't even penalties in the NHL. There are two schools of thought on this issue. First, the NHL and its culture of violence is tolerated because the thugs are white. The other school of thought is that hockey is a contact sport, basketball isn't (or at least it's not supposed to be). In case you don't get it by now, I am in the second camp.

There is a strong element of violence in professional hockey. But the NHL, its players and its properties have had the good sense and good manners to keep the violence confined to that boarded and glassed-in surface that some people call a rink. It's been a long time since any hockey players stormed the crowd. The NBA is still reeling from the incident in Detroit when the Pacers went into the crowd like the Hansen Brothers from Slap Shot.

It's hard to impute negative media perception to racism when there is a substantial body of evidence to show that the NBA has a serious problem. The reason that the NBA is cracking down on flagrant fouls could be a mainstream reaction against the hip-hop element, or it could be the NBA realizing that it just might have irreparably damaged the on-court product by turning a blind eye to the Bad Boys/Jordan rules Pistons and the Knicks/Heat of the 1990s. The McHale clothesline of Rambis was a great play and a message foul because contact like that was comparatively rare at the time. Now that's par for the course on an average drive on a given night.

It is true that the other major professional sports leagues have problems. Perhaps these leagues are ignored and the NBA is picked on because it embraced hip-hop culture to a greater extent than the other leagues. It is an interesting case, on the surface, but it falls apart in my eyes when you look at the disparity in the behavior of the athletes in professional basketball as opposed to the NFL, MLB or NHL.

Tank Johnson may have had a few unregistered firearms, but it's not like he took any or all of them out to confront the opposing team's bus as it pulled out of the stadium. The Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators may have committed dozens of offenses that the courts would consider assault had they not happened on the ice during a hockey game. However, no player on either team entered the crowd and hit a fan. One can argue that Artest was provoked, but in what community is a savage beating considered a proportionate response to getting hit with a cup?

The NBA has a lot to work on before it can point fingers at the other leagues. Until the league and its players can behave like grown ups, and by this I don't mean the dress code or any other convenient quick fixes, the league's apologists can't simply call critics racists and slough them off. In the end, it doesn't matter if the players wear suits, suits of armor, warmup pants or nothing at all. Maybe if they stop using firearms in inappropriate situations and try not to assault fans whenever possible then people will ease up in their criticism of the NBA.

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