NBA commissioner David Stern sent a message to his players Sunday.
By issuing three of the harshest penalties in league history—a 73-game suspension of Ron Artest, 30 games for Stephen Jackson and 25 games for Jermaine O’Neal—Stern let his players know that the league will aggressively try to clean up its image problem.
For their role in Friday’s ugly brawl at Detroit, the Pacers, favorites to represent the East in the NBA finals, received the death penalty. Indiana’s season is over. O’Neal, Artest, both All-Stars, and Jackson are Indiana’s three best players.
Stern had no choice. TV ratings for the league have been steadily falling since Michael Jordan’s heyday. The league’s image has been in decline since Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Jordan ruled.
Allen Iverson, Latrell Sprewell, Kobe Bryant, Dream Team failures, an embrace of all the negative aspects of the hip-hop culture and a horrid style of play have conspired to make the NBA easy to ignore. By decimating the Pacers and publicly acknowledging that there has been a lowering of expectations in terms of player (and fan) behavior, Stern made it clear he’s not in denial about the NBA’s troubles.
I am, however, concerned that the league’s players will remain in denial. Surrounded by groupies and yes-men, fortified by multimillion-dollar contracts and endorsement deals, it will be easy for NBA players to misinterpret Stern’s warning.
In this column, I am calling on my peers in the media to level with NBA players (and all professional athletes) and tell them what’s really going on.
American sports fans, particularly those who consistently shell out the hundreds of dollars it takes to attend a professional game, are fed up with black professional basketball players in particular and black professional athletes to a lesser degree.
Yeah, let’s cut through all the garbage and get to the real issue. The people paying the bills don’t like the product, don’t like the attitude, don’t like the showboating and don’t like the flamboyance. The NBA, which relies heavily on African-American players, is at the forefront of fan backlash. Stern realizes this, and that’s why, spurred on by the Detroit brawl, he is reacting decisively.
What the players must come to grips with is that just because race is an element in the backlash, that doesn’t mean the backlash is fueled by racism.
We’re witnessing a clash of cultures. A predominately white fan base is rejecting a predominately black style of play and sportsmanship.
Who is on the right side of this argument? The group that is always right in a capitalistic society. The customer. That’s why Stern, endorsed by his owners, came down hard on the players. He stated that the NBA would take steps to ensure that its fans improved their behavior. But Stern knows the real solutions are in the hands of his players. A good businessman caters to his audience. They don’t play country music at my dad’s inner-city bar for a reason.
Stern’s players must bow to the desires of their fan base.
In general, African-American athletes have always been—for lack of a better description—more expressive and flamboyant on the field of play. Go back to the Negro Leagues—showboating was part of the entertainment package. The Negro Leagues catered to a predominately black fan base.
We, black people, begged for integration. We demanded the right to play in the major leagues, the NBA, the NFL, the NHL. These leagues accommodate a white audience. As long as the customer base is white, the standard for appropriate sportsmanship, style of play and appearance should be set by white people.
This is fair, particularly when the athletes/employees earn millions of dollars and have the freedom to do whatever—and I mean whatever—they want when they’re not playing or practicing.
If African-American players are unwilling to accept this reality, NBA owners will speed up the internationalization of their team’s rosters. Many African-American players with NBA-quality skill will soon find themselves circling the country playing basketball with Hot Sauce and the And 1 Tour while Yao Nowitzki collects a $10 million NBA check.
The black players will have no one to blame but themselves.