Baseball, Basketball and Public Discourse
A big reason why I created this blog is so I can talk about the interaction of sports with the creation of American culture. My friends are, unfortunately, not the biggest sports fans in the world and the complicated relationship between culture, sport and race is something that I largely keep to myself and an occasional facebook status.
Baseball and the Act of Hagiography
This post was born as a critique of a column by Jason Morgan entitled “Baseball and the Soul” on March 31st, 2011, a national holiday for many middle to upper class white guys in the Northeast. In it, Morgan espouses the virtues of baseball in ways that seem a bit too much:
Bring your defeated soul to baseball, and baseball will, by the unchangeable truth of its geometry and the eternal vectors of its freedoms, speak to you, call you by name, and—not teach—but allow you to remember who you have always been.
Baseball doesn’t care what color you are, or what shape or size, or how old or crippled or infirm. The essence of the game is written in our hearts—there is a deep etiological significance to this, if we would only stop to think about it for a little while.
I think the rest of the article is certainly worth the read, if only as a classical example of baseball hagiography. To describe the statements as mere hyperbole, however, undersells their potency. Morgan does not attempt to engage in a thorough construction of the facts of baseball and afterwards create narrative. Rather, the column makes normative claims that are believed to have power outside of the reality of the sport itself. It is what baseball is because that is what it wishes to be.
Baseball fans and media engage in a constant struggle to build certain cultural narratives about the sport itself. An understated version of this is the vast publicity of the Little League World Series (through ESPN) and the ways in which sports media really attempts to connect the perceived purity of youth to professional athletics. Those that have the power to speak about baseball build a framework in which we see the actions of players and the existence of the professional sport itself through the hidden values that are constantly narrated: love of the game, fair competition and equality under the travails of the sport itself.
Basketball and Negativity
There is a constant and never-ending parade of sports media characters describing in great and exacting detail the many personal negatives of basketball players. A short list of characteristics include selfishness, a thug attitude, flashy, lazy, rude, etc. The sport’s biggest stars are some of the most lampooned: Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, etc. There is something amusing about the fact that a very common attribute to great players, Greatest of All Time, spells out as G.O.A.T.
Furthermore, if youth playing the sport of baseball is seen as a magical, near mythical experience through events such as the Little League World Series, nothing of the sort exists for basketball. Worse, the entity most often blamed for the negative qualities of basketball players is actually AAU basketball, the amateur circuits that allow young players to participate in the sport outside the context of a school team. This is without considering the way in which ‘streetball’ as a category is perceived or described. The game of basketball, more than any of the major sports, is played most differently outside of the context of the rules and regulations that govern the sport. If a player is described as either having ‘streetball’ origins or playing as such, it is likely that the negative personal characteristics are only magnified.
The NBA is also the only professional league which mandates how players should dress: in 2004, after the Melee at Auburn Hills, the NBA came down hard for a mandatory dress code, which stroked controversy over the ways in which the sport was trying to deal with the very negative image the public had of its players.
Explanations and Conclusions
Why is the contrast so stunning? Given the way in which the sports and players are described, the NBA seems far more likely to have just gone through a giant, player-led conspiracy to hide systematic performance substance abuse from testers, regulators and fans. Baseball seems to have largely escaped the Steroid Era without much damage to the way the game is described, even amidst the severe way in which the sport was compromised by hundreds of players. In contrast, the damage done by the player’s strike of 1994 was rather severe. I’m convinced this is due to the perception of the players as fundamentally selfish for their actions, an attribute which strikes at the very core of the sport.
The race and ethnicity of the players seems to be the most obvious difference between the sports. Baseball is defined by the scrappiness of its white players, with mute Hispanics on the side, while basketball is featured as the sport of super-human black athletes. A couple of weeks ago, I was a bit more confident that this largely explained the difference. However, a conversation with Dara Lind, where she focused on the viewing audience, rather than the players, is shifting my thinking about this. Baseball is the sport of middle and upper-class white men, who are also the most powerful cultural architects in the United States.
Another theory focuses on the power of the individual player in basketball: a great player in the NBA is able to dramatically transform any game and is able to define the parameters of how both themes must play. Given this power, the personal attributes of the players are magnified as a way to cope with their outsized power on the court. I’m somewhat sympathetic to this, particularly because it ties in with the concept of the “white quarterback” in the NFL, where there is a systematic attempt to ensure that the player with the most agency on the field, the quarterback, is white as a way to ensure visibility for a team.
In the end, I’m not too sure what the causal relationship is. The gap, however, has deep significance and importance. Basketball is intimately tied to the broader black experience in urban United States. The NBA is a league where the most prominent players, commentators, and fans are all African American. J.A. Adande coined the idea of the NBA All Star Game as the “Black Super Bowl”. When the sports and its fans are constantly denigrated and demeaned, portrayed solely through negative personal characteristics, it is a broadside against the value of the sport itself, dismissing the ways in which youth throughout the United States struggle to find meaning through the sport.
Baseball is a great sport and beloved by many. However, the language that is used to described it is simply hyperbole. This isn’t to say that baseball fans should not enjoy the game or the language; however, too many of those fans spend much of their time decrying the experience of other sports, particularly basketball. They need to stop and examine.