Media Circus:

The Latrell Sprewell case may signal the collapse of America's last racial utopia -- sports.

By Gary Kamiya

Published December 10, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

If President Clinton is really as interested as he says he is in
jump-starting his moribund "national dialogue on race," he might try using
the sports pages as a conversation starter. For many of the burning racial
issues of the day -- affirmative action, the conflicting claims of class
and race and above all white anxieties over an aggressive black
street cultural style -- are summed up in the parallel universe of athletics.
And, in stark contrast to the timorousness that shrouds the discussion of Big
Racial Issues, when it comes to sports, everybody's willing to speak their

The Latrell Sprewell case is the latest and most ominous development --
an early warning that the sports world's carefully constructed racial
utopia is a fagade that may soon turn very ugly. By now, everybody knows
that Golden State Warriors all-star guard Latrell Sprewell, who is black,
attacked his white coach, P.J. Carlesimo, that his team fired him and the
NBA suspended him for a year, and that San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown
played the race card. "His boss may have needed choking," declared Brown,
who called on Jesse Jackson and Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris to investigate
the incident. (Harris agreed with Brown that an investigation was needed,
saying "Race is an issue.")

Brown's comments set off a firestorm. Outraged callers and letter-writers asked how a mayor who fires his
employees on a whim could suggest that
termination was too harsh a punishment for a man who had physically
assaulted his boss? In what line of work, other than the fantasy world of
pro sports, would anyone be able to ever return to work after such
behavior? Realizing he had blown it, Brown tried to engage in some lame
damage control, but the whiff of Al Sharpton-style racial demagoguery clung
to his Armani suits like the odor of rotting fish.

It's almost incredible that leaders like Willie Brown continue to cry
"racism" on the most bogus of pretexts. Following such great moments in
race-card playing as the O.J. Simpson and Tawana Brawley cases, one would
think that black leaders would have recognized that picking the wrong
fights leads to a dismissive "boy who cried wolf" reaction from whites, one that can undercut support for real injustices. Indeed, the pious racial posturing of master
bottom-dealer Johnnie Cochran (who appeared with Sprewell at a press
conference Tuesday in which the player publicly apologized) probably turned more
whites, including liberals, against racial preferences than the combined
arguments of Dinesh D' Souza, Charles Murray and Shelby Steele.

For Brown, the fact that the league, the ownership, the coach and the
fans are white and the player was black automatically meant that racism was
involved -- the Man came down on an uppity brother. But what many white
fans believe, whether they say it or not, is that black players who
strangle their coaches aren't uppity brothers (how can you be "uppity" when
you're making $7.7 million a year? Where do you go up to?) -- they're the jock
equivalent of gangsta rappers: thugs who attack when they don't get their
own way.

Latrell Sprewell is
obviously a complicated man (there's a sweetness to him and some previous
coaches say they liked him, but he also once threatened a teammate with a
two-by-four) whose problems may or may not be related to an inner-city
ethos. The fact is, however, that America's overwhelmingly white sports
fans are just now beginning to confront a black cultural style that
is antithetical to their deepest beliefs about respect for authority,
teamwork and sportsmanship. The way this confrontation will be resolved --
in advertising images, in league rulings, in player-coach relations, in the
hearts and minds of players and fans alike -- will help shape America's
race relations well into the next century.

White America has always had mixed feelings about black style.
In-your-face black artists like Miles Davis have been both loved and
feared; outspoken athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have been regarded with
wariness. For years, a kind of truce was maintained in pro sports: Blacks
might be a little more exuberant, a little more demonstrative, but they
kept their blackness under check. Blackness was just a pleasant spice in
the stew. Recently, however, it has become the whole enchilada in some sports -- and the
clash between white and black cultural styles has become so extreme that it
is impossible to ignore.

The clash has become apparent in football, where the in-your-face style
of black players scared the NFL enough that it cracked down on on-field
celebrations and taunting. The
NFL didn't want its black gladiators to get out of control.

It's in basketball, however, that the oppositional street-black style is
most obvious. A special basketball issue of the Source, a hip-hop and black
music magazine, proclaims on its cover, "Hip-hop hits the NBA! Is the
league ready?" The editors write, "Right now, the NBA is experiencing an
influx of hip-hop heads ... seemingly every single player coming in is down
(with hip-hop) ... Instead of giving some blow job to the NBA, we take on the
matter of whether or not the league feels comfortable with so many young
African-American males dominating its presence on and off the court. Allen
Iverson or Michael Jordan -- who is defining the NBA now? Because at some
point, the league has to realize that everyone can't be like Mike."

Still more telling is a feature story titled "Generation Gap," about the
gulf between the old NBA guard and these new trash-talking hip-hoppers
(Sprewell is mentioned as one of them). Darrell Dawsey writes,
"Criticisms of young players aren't necessarily unfair. But when they are
used to veil narrow-minded contempt for urban Black culture -- when Iverson
has to be a 'knucklehead' not because of his game but because of the way he
rolls -- then the critiques become a sorry reflection of the source."

This week, by coincidence, Sports Illustrated's cover story is "What
Ever Happened to the WHITE Athlete?" -- an investigation not just of why
blacks dominate football and basketball (short answer: They're better), but
of why so few whites are going out for those sports in high school and
college. (Short answer: See above.)

The combination of the vanishing white athlete, the overwhelming
preponderance of white owners, coaches and fans and the rise of black
players who are coming out of "urban Black culture" is volatile. The
Sprewell incident, as University of California-Berkeley professor Harry Edwards noted, may be a
wake-up call -- worse episodes could follow if the underlying problems
aren't addressed, Edwards warned.

The heart of the matter is simple: When is "contempt for urban Black
culture" justified, and when is it racist? When does street-black cultural
style cross over the line of unacceptability? There's a lot of white
hypocrisy on this issue. Winning, for American sports fans, is a higher
value than decorous behavior: When Deion Sanders was a 49er, I miraculously
forgave those same jive-ass prancings that drive me up the wall now that he
plays for Dallas. Whites will tolerate the confrontational, boastful,
aggressive posturings of black stars as long as those stars help their team

To criticize some aspects of inner-city black style is to invite charges
of racism -- but so be it. Just as black street culture has wonderful and
inspiring aspects -- its exuberance, its creativity, its deadpan, soaring
linguistic virtuosity -- it also has problems. What fan, black, white or
yellow, doesn't feel that the ideal of sportsmanship represented by players
like Magic Johnson is besmirched by the antics of players who seem to be
driven not just to defeat their opponents, but to humiliate them? Who
doesn't respect a team player like Barry Sanders more than one who views
the game as a stage for his gigantic ego, like Ricky Watters?

It isn't that whites can't be bad sports or colossal egotists. The great
Larry Bird was one of the most notorious trash-talkers in the league; the
list of white whiners and malcontents is endless. But, as former NBA
forward Chet Walker has written, for players who grow up poor and black,
selfishness is almost a survival skill: "In the ghetto, you often must take
what you can before someone takes it away."

In the best of all possible sports worlds, black emotional fireworks would
enliven white dullness (who wants to watch a bunch of repressed honkies who
never celebrate?) and white restraint would temper black individualism. We
don't just need an ethnic melting pot, we need a stylistic melting
pot. White dudes throwing down trash, black dudes wearing the poker faces
of assassins -- now that would be a league. Let's hope it comes before we
can't even talk to each other anymore.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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