Mark J. Terrill/AP
Pau Gasol, left, of the Los Angeles Lakers, and LeBron James, of the Miami Heat, fight for a rebound during the NBA All-Star Game Sunday. TV ratings for the game were the highest since 2003.
Pau Gasol, left, of the Los Angeles Lakers, and LeBron James, of the Miami Heat, fight for a rebound during the NBA All-Star Game Sunday. TV ratings for the game were the highest since 2003. Mark J. Terrill/AP
Is it possible for white Americans to embrace an NBA that lacks a white American superstar? Buzz Bissinger says no; Kevin Blackistone says they already have. But that's not all they said — the two sportswriters debated the issue on NPR today.
Their discussion was sparked by Bissinger's recent post on The Daily Beast, titled NBA All-Star Game: White Men Can't Root.
Talking with All Things Considered co-host Michele Norris, Bissinger and Blackistone, of AOL Fanhouse, got into the finer points of analyzing sports and fandom through the prism of race. And that, as you might guess, is a discussion that's hard to fit into a radio segment.
The percentage of white players has dropped in the past 30 years — down to around 10 percent, Bissinger says. And many of today's white players, he notes, are European, not American.
Bissinger says that from what he's experienced and what he's read, "It's very difficult at this point for some whites to identify with the game. And I think every race, in whatever sport you do, tend to identify with members of your own race."
But, Blackistone says, "When I go to games around the country, predominantly the ticket-buyers are not of color; they are predominantly white audiences."
And while he acknowledges that racism may play a role in how some fans view sports, Blackistone says that the poor economy, not race, is to blame for ratings slumps that have hit major sports in recent seasons.
As an example, he says, "We know that there are NFL teams that are suffering greatly. And that's because of economics, that's not because most of the rosters are black and most of the fans are white and they don't want to buy tickets any more to see black players."
At the Daily Beast, Bissinger wrote that when he asks white sports fans if they watch NBA games,
In virtually every instance, they say they once watched the game but no longer do. When I ask them if it has anything to do with the racial composition, they do their best to look indignant. But my guess is they felt very differently about the game when Larry Bird and John Stockton were playing.
The names "Bird" and "Stockton" evoke a bygone era, when white players routinely took over games — and took their teams to the playoffs. But to Blackistone, those names also suggest that the NBA portrayed in Bissinger's post isn't today's NBA.
And the culture of today's NBA, Blackistone says, is essentially hip-hop culture.
"You can go to a suburban mall and walk around, and you're going to see white kids walking around with baggy jeans, their underwear hanging out, listening to rap," he says.
"And so I think, to suggest that the NBA turns off white folks is maybe to suggest that it turns off maybe a certain generation of white folks – but certainly not the kids today."
"That I agree with," says Bissinger. "If I had to do the column over, I would have said that I'm talking about my generation – and I'm 56 years old. And people on Twitter, or in responding to the column, have said, you know, 'You're out of touch – young whites love the game.' And I think that well may be true. I'm from a different generation.
"However, I don't think young whites, a lot of them, could afford the games, because they're so expensive."