I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the racism scandal involving Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angelos Clippers (for now). I don’t usually pay so much attention to basketball. I know just enough about the game to suspect that the Harlem Globetrotters haven’t been making the kinds of draft picks that will get them to the playoffs. But I do remember that while I was growing up, Detroit’s basketball teams, like most of the NBA, lacked a certain, shall we say, diversity.
Oh, there were anomalies, like Bill Lambeer in the ’80s, and Darko Milicic in ’00s (have we come up with a name for that decade yet? The aughties?! Or have we decided to just try and refer back to it as little as possible…). But for the most part, pro basketball was like that old video short — I thought it played on Saturday Night Live, but I can’t find it — where viewers were tasked with finding African-Americans inside a stadium during an NBA game. Whenever the camera panned across a Black face, a bell would sound, and a little counter at the corner of the screen would go up by one. The camera started with the stands, and you’d get the occasional bell ring, primarily when a vendor walked by. And then the camera panned down to the court, and the bell started going off like there was a five alarm fire. Pro basketball was a game played by Black people, for the enjoyment of White people, and the enrichment of Even Whiter people.
Has the NBA changed? Yes, and no. The fan base is much broader, thanks in part to a recession which broke the runaway price hikes that kept tickets inaccessible. Michael Jordan now owns a basketball franchise, and more than half the teams are coached by somebody Black. But the game is still played mostly by a bunch of Black guys. And the profits are going to a bunch of White men.
In a country where African-Americans account for only 13 percent of the population, over three-fourths of the team rosters are Black. Why are basketball players so overwhelmingly Black? I’m going to let you in on a secret: It’s because Black people are better at basketball.
Here’s the part where I would normally tell you I was kidding. But I’m not. However, they’re not better for the reason you’re secretly thinking in your head, dear reader. All the stereotypes about Black people having superior genetics are not true. And I do mean ALL … or so I’ve heard, anyway. The reason that more African-Americans have a higher skill level in basketball is simply because of motivation and availability.
Even the most naturally gifted basketball players face a long road before they can play on a professional level. Without being extremely dedicated, kids who start playing hoops quickly figure out that they aren’t headed for the Pistons, or even for the Lakers, and move on to other avenues of success. But what if you don’t see any other avenues? If your only role models boil down to whomever is gracing this week’s Wheaties box? It gives you more of an incentive to keep practicing your jump shot.
And what sports can a poor Black kid play? Hockey, golf, curling — all of these sports require expensive specialized equipment and a dedicated field. Learning to play basketball takes a couple of hoops and a ball. And time. Lots of time. So, using the 10,000 hours theory of mastery, the average Black college basketball player has played much more than the typical White college player, and therefore has the skills that get him in the starting lineup, gaining the additional time needed to become a pro. It doesn’t work for everyone, obviously, but it explains the discrepancy.
Why has this specific incident incited such a firestorm? Is the racism displayed by Donald Sterling worse because he owns a basketball team, essentially making a buck off of the players he seems to hold in such disdain? No. He would still be a racist jerk if he owned a polo club. And does it make a difference that he’s worth millions? No. The things he said would be just as hateful if he was spewing them while chatting to his girlfriend while begging for change on the subway. And the hateful nature of his words wouldn’t be diluted if he was a rapper telling his girlfriend to quit hanging out with Rush Limbaugh. The strong reaction he’s facing isn’t even because of his long history of discrimination against employees.
Basically, we like to watch when someone gets caught saying or doing something they shouldn’t. It’s just like yet another sex tape (but thank G-d it isn’t a sex tape… now I need to wash my eyes out with lye for even thinking that possibility into existence). But maybe we should thank the latest rich racist for reminding us that it is sometimes necessary to search deep inside and think about whether you’ve said, or even thought, something uncharitable about a person just because they look or act differently than you. Like they say, every cloud has a Sterling silver lining.