Monday, September 8, 2014

Media Sees Silver Lining in NBA Race Drama


What is racism?

Racism now seems to be a ratings cow for America's media machine.  Simply witness the media's infatuation with Bruce Levenson, currently owner of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, who's being forced to sell because of an e-mail he sent to fellow team officials regarding tactics for better marketing the Hawks to a white audience.

Google "Bruce Levenson" today, and most of the entries you'll find have the term "racist" in them, referring to Levenson's e-mail.  But was Levenson being racist, or merely racial?  After all, there is a big difference.

Don't believe me?  Then read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's astute op-ed on the media's precocious outrage over Levenson.  In bullet points, this is Abdul-Jabbar's take-away from Levenson's memo:
  • "His worst crime is misguided white guilt."
  • "Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats."
  • "If his arena was filled mostly with whites and he wanted to attract blacks, wouldn’t he be asking how they could de-emphasize white culture and bias?"
  • "He wasn’t valuing white fans over blacks; he was trying to figure out a way to change what he thought was the white perception in Atlanta so he could sell more tickets.  That’s his job."

Is Levenson's a perfectly-scripted e-mail completely devoid of sloppy assumptions and pristine political correctness?  No, because it's not an official policy statement; it's a marketing memo, and guess what:  these types of questions have been asked for years in all sorts of companies and industries, only the colors have been reversed, with blacks and other minorities as the customer base being wooed.

As Abdul-Jabbar points out, to be competitive these days, a for-profit enterprise has to exploit every avenue of revenue, and find hidden consumers.  And in the case of Levenson's executive team - and not just his, probably - he's recognizing that they've done a good job of marketing their product to their local black audience.  He's not complaining about that, is he?  Instead, he wants to know how they can make their NBA franchise more multi-cultural.

And the media has a problem with that?

Maybe the media is taking its cue from the NBA itself, and its relatively new commissioner, Adam Silver.  Silver was fresh into his job when the ugly transcripts from Los Angeles Clippers co-owner Donald Sterling became public.  Yet, as Abdul-Jabbar and others have already pointed out, Levenson is no Sterling.  There's a big difference between pointing out racial factors, and being a racist _____.

Unfortunately for the NBA, Commissioner Silver screwed up the Sterling fiasco as well, and introduced an ugly suppression of First Amendment rights in his vilification of Sterling.  To make matters worse, Silver dramatically forced Sterling to sell his share of an otherwise marginal NBA team, and who came up smelling like roses?  Not the NBA, or Silver, or any of the black players and fans Silver acted like he was protecting.  No, it was Sterling himself, by earning a reputed $1 billion from the Clippers sale.  A sale he likely wouldn't have been able to negotiate - and certainly not for the sale price he got - had Silver not over-reacted like he did.

The issue here isn't whether or not racism is bad, wrong, unprofessional, unprofitable, or anything else negative and antisocial.  The issue here is whether or not racism can be freed from its own abuse by the media and such public actors as Commissioner Silver.

You see, addressing the evils of racism, and overcoming them, is hard enough as it is without people who should know better exploiting the theme in a misguided display of sanctimony.

From what we Americans have learned about Sterling, he was no angel before his latest scandal broke.  He knew people didn't like him, and he didn't care.  His own wife didn't care that he was sleeping around.  And now he's $1 billion richer than he would have been if the NBA - even before Silver's commissionership - had held him accountable for what we've learned was his long-standing, pugnacious pattern of racism.

So for other racists here in America, what lesson have they learned from Sterling's example?  They've learned that if they're wealthy enough and powerful enough, it doesn't matter how sleazy they may be; young women will still sleep with them.  And, if you get caught, there are still ways to come out smelling like a rose.  Why?  Not because racism is OK.  But because the appearance of propriety and political correctness is more important to many people than dealing with the roots of racism.  Deep-seated roots people like Sterling aren't being encouraged to relinquish.

Maybe it's this nuance between getting caught and repenting of wrong that a lot of people in the media find too difficult to define.  It's something that doesn't fit into a glib headline, or a compelling tweet.  It certainly won't generate a lot of page views.  Getting caught is usually a specific point on a timeline, which makes it easy to report.  Repenting of wrong can take time, and the media runs on deadlines.  Learning to value human beings for qualities beyond the color of their skin isn't a flip-the-lightswitch process.  It's not quick.  Some people spend years - or indeed, their entire life - coming to the point where race is merely a check-box on a census form.  And when people like Sterling bubble up to the froth in our media's incessant headline stew, the incentive for the rest of us struggling with negative attitudes towards people who aren't like us gets diminished.

Meanwhile, where's the racism from Levenson?  Where's his hatred or resentment of blacks?  Is Levenson complaining that blacks outnumber whites at his home games?  No, he's merely exploring the reasons - some of which he admits are foolish ones - for why more whites don't attend, and why he can't make more money off of his NBA franchise.

You'd think Silver would be pleased to see such dialog taking place by one of his franchisees.  After all, the NBA is primarily a business these days, just like all other professional sports organizations.  If anything, Silver could have issued a word of caution about some of the wording Levenson used in reaching some of his unofficial, unscientific conclusions.  It makes one wonder, however, what kind of e-mails might be floating around the NBA's back offices regarding strategies for retaining black fans.  Or cultivating an Asian fan base.  Or Hispanics?

Besides, Silver needs to acknowledge that Levenson isn't the only person asking these types of questions.  In 2011, several media outlets, including the Daily Beast, NPR and Business Insider, acknowledged that whites fans are losing interest in the NBA.  Earlier this year, the Washington Post ran a salacious article about white players being payed less than black players in the NBA.  People are already talking.   There are real race-based issues in the NBA that the league and its owners need to address.  And of course, the media wants in on the action.

How are concrete, constructive answers going to be cultivated for these issues if people like Silver perpetuate an atmosphere of misguided knee-jerk intimidation on the topic?

Maybe Silver himself doesn't get it.  Maybe the NBA has already given up on whites, and decided that its future lies with a disproportionately black fan base.  Kinda like the National Hockey League - a sport that has only seen 72 black players, and has a fan base that is overwhelmingly white.  Is the NBA satisfied in being for blacks what hockey appears to be for whites?

That would help explain why Silver seems to be so hyper-sensitive to racial issues.  But racial issues don't have to be racist issues.  It's another distinction even the media seems to struggle with, especially since the media can generate a lot more attention with racist controversy than racial dialog.

People like Levenson become mere collateral damage.

Along with the rest of us who want to see true racial reform in our country.


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