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Playing While White

Steve Nash's MVP selection reaffirms that race has everything to do with sports at every juncture, not just when a white guy wins an award.
 
 
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It wasn't too long ago that Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard, a sportswriter covering Shaquille O'Neal's team beat, recently and infamously argued that the race was a determining factor in the NBA's selection of the undersized white point guard Steve Nash for its coveted Most Valuable Player award.

This was a scant few games before the diminutive Nash went about leading his run-n-gun steamroller to the Western Conference Finals while the hulking Shaq spent most of his time wondering whether or not he was ever going to be able to get up off the stretcher and help his team win a game. The fact that Shaq's team lost, like Nash's, in its own Conference Finals has done less to cement Le Batard's conspiracy theory than it has to convince most everyone that the NBA made the right decision; after all, it was loss of Shaq's teammate Dwayne Wade that spelled doom for the Heat, not Shaq himself. So much for the debate over who's the most valuable player in the league.

But Le Batard's cranky screed is still relevant, because there was no shortage of shrift tossed Nash's way on his path to league respectability. For example, Le Batard's called Nash's selection "unprecedented." But Boston Celtics guard Bob Cousy, a player of similar stature and stats, won the award back in 1957. Then there was the accidental slam by NBA legend and announcer Bill Walton, always a rich source for blanket generalizations, who called Steve Nash the "least athletic point guard in the NBA" during a televised game to the total on-air surprise of fellow commentators Mike Tirico and Steve Jones. And this is taking into account that Walton picked Nash for MVP on ESPN as far back as early April.

So what's the problem? Well, in a sports league that's dominated by black athletes but owned by a stifling majority of whites, race -- and intimations of racism - is always the straw that stirs the coffee, especially when it comes to provocative sportswriting. In fact, Le Batard used Malcolm Gladwell's lightweight Blink as research material for his column, putting forward the not-so-groundbreaking thesis that white people, car salesmen in this case, subconsciously discriminated against blacks without knowing it. Or, as he inelegantly frames the analogy, "car salesmen weren't doing this with a conscious part of their brain any more than the MVP voters might have been."

Score one for the rigorist.

By telling us something that we already know -- namely, that NBA players are predominantly black and it's suspicious when a white guy wins the MVP -- Le Batard doesn't actually take us anywhere we haven't been already, especially if his chaser is that it is all being done beneath the veil of conscious thought. By removing the issue to the subconscious, Le Batard skips out on the responsibility of answering the questions he asks in lieu of playing the race card with zero interest in reaching an endgame. The truth of the matter is that race has everything to do with sports at every juncture, not just when a white guy wins an award.

"I think it would be difficult to find a situation in the NBA that does not carry a racial dimension to it," argues Amy Bass, editor of the recently released collection In the Game: Race, Identity, and Sports in the Twentieth Century, "but does that mean that Nash's MVP is a particularly racialized moment? That is a different question, and in many ways the questions being asked about the Nash MVP moment reveal more than any of the answers."

"There's this notion of whites overcoming the superior athleticism of blacks when they succeed -- Bird, McHale, Stockton and Nash come to mind -- which is ridiculous on both sides," explains Adam Mansbach, author of the recently released race satire Angry Black White Boy, in which his white protagonist Macon Detornay, like Nash, enjoys a problematic spotlight in another black man's game, hip-hop. "Everybody in the gym is a superior athlete, and most are smart players, too, or they wouldn't make it that far. But there's also a corollary that comes with the so-called 'smart' black athlete, which the press tends to treat as anomalous. Ditto when a kid from the hood has discipline and his head on straight; that's treated as a human-interest story in itself. Whereas the social habits of white players seldom even get talked about, and certainly not in the same way, or with the same set of assumptions."

Yet, ultimately, some would argue that Nash's sheer talent outdistances any racially motivated argument. "When you talk about the NBA, it's hard not to talk about race," says Todd Boyd, who has written books on the subject including Am I Black Enough For You: Popular Culture From the Hood and Beyond and Young, Black, Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, The Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture. "The league is predominantly black; in fact, it is one of the most concentrated areas of black representation in mainstream culture. Whereas the owners, media and majority of execs are not. But I don't think that race played a factor here. Nash can flat-out play. Sure, Shaq's carried the league for a long time, and maybe Jason Kidd should have got the MVP years ago, but he didn't. Maybe in times past, the race angle would have worked. But it's a different time. The old black-white paradigm doesn't work with the NBA anymore."

Sure, that black-white paradigm was an altogether different thing back when Bob Cousy won the MVP, in that the players, not just the owners, were predominantly white. But even that wrinkle obscures the more confusing aspects of Nash's selection.

"Yes, Nash is white," Bass asserts. "He's also six-foot-nothing, he likes to pass as much as he likes to shoot, and he accepted his MVP award with his teammates rather than alone. But he's also Canadian and seems to have a relatively progressive social conscience. He is not the standard NBA poster child. Rather, he wears a shirt to the 2003 All-Star Game that says 'Shoot baskets, not people' in protest of the U.S. military action in Iraq. And two years later he wins the MVP award? It was only years earlier that Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf objected to the national anthem on the grounds of his Islamic beliefs and was summarily suspended from the league. Why hasn't anyone asked about that? Is Nash allowed leniency on his antiwar stance because he's white?"

"You're not supposed to mention race in basketball, even though it's clearly the lens through which America filters the sport," asserts Mansbach. "And you're especially not supposed to suggest that the so-called 'minority' receives special treatment. Just like hip hop needs Eminem to cash in on white suburban dollars in the greatest possible numbers, perhaps the NBA needs white stars to keep white fans proud. As problematic as that might be."

"Steve Nash can play on any court at any time in any country. Game recognizes game, that's the way I see it," Boyd counters. "I think that the Great White Hope mythology, which was prevalent during the time of Magic and Bird, is just about dead in 2005."

As Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford recently explained, Americans had been searching for the Great White Hope as far back as the turn of last century, when boxer Jack Johnson not only steamrolled over every white boxer in his path, but also faced down the overtly racist hatred of whites worldwide over both his athletic supremacy and his relationship with white women, one of which led to his unfair imprisonment at the hands of the hypocritical Mann Act. As Stanley Crouch argued in Ken Burns' rewarding documentary on the pioneering pugilist Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, "When Jack Johnson was fighting, he could have been killed at any of his major fights. There were people out in the audience who were probably willing to murder him. He knew it, they knew it, everybody in the world knew it."

But those days are long gone. If Jack Johnson were alive today, no one would want to kill him, for his prowess or his women. They'd rather sign him to multi-million-dollar contracts and line up an array of corporate sponsorships. Indeed, it was Larry Bird himself who put the Great White Hope myth to rest with the controversial comment that pro hoops "is a black man's game, and it will be forever. I mean, the greatest athletes in the world are African-American." And that was after he said that the league could use more white stars, and that he got annoyed when a white man played defense against him. The fact that he was sitting next to Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony, the future of the NBA, drove the point home even further.

To mangle bluesman Willie Dixon's "Back Door Man," the scribes don't know, but the players understand.

The unstated premise behind Le Batard's column is that Nash's MVP selection was racially motivated, that it was the safe choice for voters who are tiring of hip-hop culture's continuing takeover of the league. But Nash is anything but a corporate tool for white America.

"The fact that the MVP of the NBA is a staunch anti-war guy, one whom David Robinson condemned for his stance on Iraq," Bass argues, "is far more interesting than the black-white binary that someone like Dan Le Batard finds so interesting. The Dixie Chicks have been silenced, but Steve Nash has not. There are many that say that none of this matters, that these guys are athletes, not politicians. But that is naive. Sports are culture, culture is politics, and politics, like race, doesn't end when one steps on a basketball court. Culture is how politics function, how they are understood, how they are challenged, how they are maintained. Otherwise, no one would be spitting on Jane Fonda."

But regardless of how lightly the media digs into what is obviously a substantial dimension of pro sports in America, it cannot hope to put forward an earnest dialogue on race and politics without taking into account the issues' monumental cultural history. And just because your player didn't win the MVP doesn't mean that your reverse discrimination argument will work. There are other considerations to sift through before formulating a headline-grabbing but ultimately fallacious hypothesis of racial imbalance. Even if one does, in the end, exist.

"The continual perception of sports," Bass explains, "is that it represents one of the authentically leveled playing fields. It is about the person, their dedication, their willingness to win. It is rarely a discussion of how much it costs to be that person, or what kinds of access to athletic success one needs. It is almost never about why black kids want to 'Be like Mike' instead of being like their local pediatrician. The question of socioeconomic access simply isn't as sexy as the question of who jumps higher and why. We have outrage over Nash's MVP award, but no outrage about inequities in employment, the justice system, or access to higher education. And apparently Nash gets to vocally disapprove of American diplomatic policy because he is involved in a bigger scandal, being a white MVP. It's a lesson the Dixie Chicks could take to heart."

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared in Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, AOL and others.