Wednesday's column about Jermaine O'Neal saying there was a racial element to the NBA's desire to set a minimum age of 20 brought a lot of mail. A lot. And what a lot of readers had to say was that they agreed with me that money, not race, was at the bottom of the NBA's argument, but they believed I'd missed a crucial way in which race did play a role.
They're right. I did miss it. I'll let several of them explain.
Catherine Bracy: I agree with you that, for the NBA executives, an age limit is about money, not race. But what I think is more compelling (and maybe more what Jermaine O'Neal was getting at) is why the general public seems to be supportive of an age limit in the NBA. That to me has something to do with race and nothing to do with money.
I think it's probably true that the average white middle-aged male sports fan harbors some resentment toward the young, brash, black teenagers coming out of high school and going to the NBA. They've got attitude problems, they're greedy, they don't value education, etc. No one ever says this about 18-year-olds who go straight from high school to the NHL or MLB. I would find it very hard to believe that none of those sentiments have anything to do with race.
I also don't think anyone wants to have that particular conversation (which is why this all got turned around to the NBA executives' motives and not the fans' attitudes), because white middle-aged men don't feel comfortable admitting that, malicious or not, they harbor some prejudicial feelings toward some black men. It's a conversation they don't want to have but it's definitely a conversation we should be having.
C.R.: [The age minimum may be nothing more than a bargaining chip], but our society accepts the maturity argument in a way that it probably would not in other circumstances. Americans think young black men are dangerous, and this is doubly so for those with enough money to be independent. What's racist is the way the system manipulates stereotypes in order to keep young black men from working in their chosen profession.
Lester K. Spence: Your column makes an important point ... but also misses one. The bottom line for the NBA is green. But the revenue stream either comes from fans, or from assessments of fan preferences. The NBA is a black league, and David Stern has done an excellent job of selling that league to a largely white fan base. But this job is not easy, given largely white stereotypes of black talent and black behavior.
This is why race plays a role in the entire teenage debate. Inasmuch as whites on average believe that young black men are undeserving of economic success, and that they don't know the value of a (white) Protestant work ethic, they would much rather see "adults" in the NBA than "kids." This perception is not Stern's fault, any more than it is even someone like Allen Iverson's. But Stern and the NBA owners have to deal with these perceptions in order to continue to be viable.
Remember, green doesn't just appear out of nowhere, it comes from people's pockets, and from their personal evaluations of what has value.
Stephen Loomis: [You wrote] "We've been talking about race in America for the last day or so, and even if the talk hasn't really led anywhere, that's never a bad thing."
I've been lingering on this closing line. I do not agree. The bad thing is that O'Neal is crying wolf. There are an awful lot of members of the white commentariat who seem to think that issues of race are something that we solved in the '60s with the Civil Rights Act, and there's no need to talk or think about that stuff anymore. Outlandish theories like O'Neal's only serve to hand them ammunition.
If ever somebody wanted to make the case that "race" is a thoughtless knee-jerk response, here's Exhibit A, a meandering train wreck of a quote that doesn't even begin to make a case, and shows critics that O'Neal doesn't have the foggiest idea of what's in the Constitution.
Imagine for a moment that you're Rush Limbaugh. Now imagine your glee when you see this line: "As a black guy, you kind of think [race is] the reason why it's coming up." Then imagine taking a long lunch, secure in the knowledge that your reactionary screed has been written for you, by a helpful guy named Jermaine O'Neal.
Charisse Waugh: While the issue of an age limit is largely about money, I believe there is an element of race that can't be dismissed. In my opinion, if this were a white sport, the idea would not be floated so confidently, so loosely as it is with the NBA.
Owners are relying on the chauvinism and racism the public has to these "young black (fill in the blank)" who "make too much money," are "bad role models," etc., to sell the point. For example, after the Indiana-Detroit fight earlier in the season, ESPN (or was is CNN/SI?) ran a poll asking readers to vote for which sport/league was the most violent. By a wide margin, readers chose the NBA over football and (are you sitting down?) the NHL. The NHL?!
I wonder why readers chose the NBA? Hmmm.
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The NBA as the NCAA's savior [PERMALINK]
A letter on another aspect of this issue:
Jason Owens: I think David Stern views the age limit as a means to rejuvenate the NCAA by forcing premier youngsters to enter, and stay within, the college ranks. This would help the NBA immeasurably.
For Stern, the NCAA's main value is not the skills training or even maturity it provides teenage players. The college game's value lies almost solely in its marketing potential. The death of the college game has hurt the NBA badly. Stern wants to return to the days of Larry Bird at Indiana State and Magic Johnson at Michigan State. In other words, the days when the NCAA created pre-packaged superstars who entered the league as established, nationally known celebrities.
The college game has disintegrated from a talent perspective. More important (for Stern), it has produced fewer and fewer star players. Stern knows the only reason Carmelo Anthony sold thousands of jerseys his rookie season was because he led Syracuse to a national title the previous year. If Stern gets his age limit, he'll have five Carmelos entering the league every year.
More important: If players are staying at their respective schools through their junior seasons due to the age limit, we're talking about 10-15 Carmelo-level players within the college ranks at any given time. Such players would be nationally known superstars, independent of the NBA. Carmelo only had one year to build his legacy at Syracuse -- in an age-limit era, players would have three.
King replies: You may be right that Stern is thinking an improved college game would be a side benefit of the age limit. He definitely has said that.
I just don't see it happening. The days of Bird and Magic are long gone. International basketball has grown by leaps and bounds, and European leagues are no longer the place where journeymen American players go to make a modest living playing ball for a few years after they fail to make the NBA. They're now leagues that produce multiple first-round draft picks, and often those guys aren't even good enough yet to play over there.
Sure, some elite kids would value the college experience, would want to be close to home or play for a certain coach, but I think the main result of an NBA age limit would be a flood of American teenage basketball players going to Europe.
Would you like to spend your winter in, say, Syracuse, N.Y., playing against other teenagers, not getting paid and not allowed to make money in other ways, living in a dorm room, forced to go to classes you may or may not be interested in? Or would you rather spend it in, oh, let's see, Milan, playing against men, making a few million, living in a villa and meeting supermodels?
Nothing against Syracuse, and certainly nothing against higher education, of which I'm a product and a supporter, but where did I put my passport and when does my flight leave?
And if Carmelo Anthony only sold all those jerseys because he won a championship at Syracuse, how do you explain the fact that he was outsold by LeBron James?
I don't know if you've noticed, but high school basketball is getting more and more attention in James' wake. I've seen more high school players on television and on mainstream magazine covers in the last 18 months than I'd seen in the previous three decades, by a lot. The NBA is going to get the free publicity wherever its future stars are coming from. As more come from high school, more and more attention will be paid to high school basketball.
Previous column: Jermaine O'Neal, race and the NBA
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