RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The image of the NBA has been tarnished lately by brawling, not doping. Commentator Frank Deford says there are a number of reasons why pro basketball gets singled out for criticism.
FRANK DEFORD: About, oh, once a month or so, a baseball batter gets hit by the pitch and goes after the pitcher. The players from both teams swarm onto the infield and grope around. Everybody goes tut, tut, and life goes on. Football players regularly scuffle. And hockey! Hockey players are supposed to fight.
But when basketball players brawl, as they did a few days ago in Madison Square Garden, it's a cause celeb. Why? Why do we look at basketball any differently than the other sports? Well, let us count the ways.
First of all, basketball is the most intimate game. The fans are only a few feet from the action. Even if a fight doesn't spill into the seats, the potential is there.
Basketball is also the most graceful of games - balletic at its best. Sure, the giants who play are fierce and rugged. They clash and collide. But fury is not a bi-product of the action, so when rage boils over it is out of joint and calls more attention to itself.
However, not withstanding these genetics of the entertainment, it would be naïve to pretend that race is not a major factor in the issue. Had it been ten white guys who got into it at the Garden, you can be sure that the fight would not have occasioned nearly so much fuss.
The NBA rosters are dominated by African-Americans with foreigners a second large component. To many white fans, this establishes a tacit distance, even as the players perform in actual proximity.
Moreover, while many of the black players do fit into the stylish gentleman's mold that Michael Jordan exemplified, others appear to some whites as threatening ghetto types. Is this fair? No.
I know this might sound silly, but I would submit that nothing feeds that perception so starkly as the long, baggy shorts that basketball players have worn now for many years. This rapper-style look is off-putting to many of the sports fans and the sponsors that the NBA is trying to reach.
Of course, it drives the NBA to distraction that it suffers out of proportion for its players' sins. The Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL have had eight of its players arrested this season. However, this criminal epidemic hasn't been taken as a serious indictment of the team, let alone the league. And while the NFL is also predominantly African-American, white fans don't seem to notice that so much. Football players, you see, are distant numbered, padded, helmeted gladiators.
It's generally been forgotten, but a basketball court used to be enclosed in netting or wire mesh. Basketball players were known not as hoopsters, but as cagers. We're not going to go back to that, but many people do feel that they need to be separated from the players and the NBA has to figure out how to dispel the gnawing, uncomfortable effigy.
MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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