Kobe Bryant and Kevin Love

Note: The guys from The Basketball Jones (including Trey Kerby) are traveling today and did not have an opportunity to review this before I posted it. The opinions I express in this post are mine alone do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Basketball Jones or anyone else at theScore.

Last Friday, a colleague of mine told me I should read a Daily Beast column by Buzz Bissinger about why the NBA was declining in popularity. Bissinger is a Pulitzer Prize winner and extremely entertaining on Twitter so I expected to be amused by the piece, at the very least.

As jaded as I am, almost nothing shocks me these days — but I can’t recall ever being as appalled by a piece of sportswriting as I was here. Bissinger’s premise is that the NBA is supposedly losing popularity because too many white American sports fans can’t bring themselves to root for this generation of African-American NBA players.

I encourage you to read the entire piece yourself so that you can form an opinion on whether I’m overreacting, but I’m going to single out particular excerpts that really stand out as revealing Bissinger’s ignorance of the league, his sweeping generalizations with very little to back them up, and his blatantly racist attitudes towards black athletes.

Bissinger admits at the beginning of the column that the only reason he’s writing about the NBA is that he’s been assigned this topic by his editor. He follows that up by writing, “The problem is, I don’t really know what to say about the NBA other than I almost never watch it anymore.” Maybe he should have pointed this out to his editor so he could have avoided typing out this disaster in the first place.

After stating that LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant are the only three NBA players he would pay to watch, Bissinger writes:

“The game is in trouble and I don’t think there is much dispute about that.”

If the game is in trouble, it’s because of the potential of a lockout when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after this season. But that’s not what Bissinger is referring to.

“Attendance was down last year and is slightly down so far this season. Although basketball is supposed to be a team game, it has become more one-on-one in the NBA than a boxing match. The style has changed and it is a definite turnoff.”

There are two types of claims here — one supposedly factual and one subjective. The attendance claim seems to be mistaken because I contacted the NBA league office and they confirmed David Stern’s recent claim that attendance is actually up “just shy of 1 percent” this season. That’s not a massive increase, but it’s certainly not a decline.

Where you will see a significant increase in the NBA’s popularity if you bother to do the research — which Bissinger didn’t, and I did — is in the TV ratings for this season. Multiple sources have confirmed that ratings have been way up throughout the season, but here are the latest numbers provided by the NBA as of this past weekend:

  • Viewership for the NBA’s network partners is up double-digits across the board.
  • TNT viewership of NBA games is up 30 percent, ESPN viewership is up 20 percent, and ABC viewership is up 34 percent compared to this point last season.
  • NBA games have reached over 86.5 million unique viewers this season, nearly 20 percent ahead of last year’s regular season pace to date.

You get the picture. The NBA is not only not losing popularity, you can make the case that it’s never been more popular with American sports fans. As for his claim about the NBA’s supposedly selfish style of play, isn’t that what every generation of aging NBA fans (and former fans) says about the game? So far this season, 57.7 percent of all field goals have been assisted. Going back 10 years to the 2000-01 season, 61 percent of all field goals were assisted. In 1990-91, that figure was 59.8 percent. It appears that there is slightly more one-on-one play than there used to be. More one-on-one than a boxing match? Not hardly.

Numbers be damned, Bissinger eventually gets to his reason for believing that Americans — specifically white Americans — are losing interest in the sport:

“Are whites losing interest in a game in which the number of white American players not only continues to dwindle, but no longer features a superstar?

“Yes.”

I merely rolled my eyes when I read this, because I’ve heard this argument for years and I’ve always believed it’s not based in reality. Bissinger claims he makes “a habit of asking every white sports fan I know whether they watch the NBA” but how many 25-year-old sports fans do you think 56-year-old Bissinger talks to? I don’t personally know too many NASCAR fans but that doesn’t mean I won’t acknowledge that it’s an extremely popular sport.

A 2008 study by comScore Media Metrix and Experian Simmons of American sports fan demographics among NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL fans revealed the following about how users of NBA.com compared to users of the other three league websites:

  • NBA.com had the highest percentage of visitors under the age of 35, at 47.6 percent.
  • MLB and NFL fans are slightly more likely than NBA fans to be white.
  • NBA fans skew slightly more African-American than the average adult or the other major sports fans.

Note the use of the word “slightly” in those last two points. As indicated by this chart, over 70 percent of NBA fans in 2008 were identified as being white. Am I supposed to believe there has been a mass exodus of white fans over the past couple of years, particularly considering the overall increase in the league’s popularity this season? I’m not buying it, and neither should you.

Why exactly does Bissinger believe that white American sports fans don’t want to root for African-American NBA players? Here’s his theory, and it’s a doozy:

“I think it’s why you hear more than you should how players in the NBA don’t ever look as if they are trying and yes, one of those who has said that is me. Lack of effort is what whites still assume of black athletes in basketball—they don’t have sufficient desire, their body language during timeouts connotes boredom, they are always looking in the stands for the next concubine, they just don’t have that blue-collar work ethic that makes great white athletes great. Add in the absence of a single white American superstar (Steve Nash is Canadian), and it alienates whites even more.”

That tired stereotype that black athletes get by on natural ability while white athletes succeed based on effort is bad enough. But how about that “they are always looking in the stands for the next concubine” part? Doesn’t Bissinger know that Shawn Kemp hasn’t been in the league since 2003?

In all seriousness, that is some racist garbage. “Whites” in general don’t have that viewpoint about black athletes, but apparently Bissinger does. Once you start making claims about how one race inherently behaves a certain way compared to another one, you are making a racist statement by the very definition of the word, no matter how many black friends you may have.

“I don’t think talking about any of this makes me a racist. I believe it makes me a realist.”

OK, keep telling yourself that, Buzz. It seems as though you and some of your white friends have decided that the reason you don’t like the NBA anymore — even though it’s more popular than ever and arguably has more exciting players and future stars than it’s had at any point in history — is because the game isn’t played the right (white) way anymore. Let’s face it, guys like you liked it better when NBA games looked like this.

At the end of his piece, Bissinger undercuts his whole argument by admitting the absurdity of many of the claims he just made:

“So maybe the best thing for whites to do, including myself, is accept the fact there will be no white hope, drop the work-ethic fallacy, and revel in a game that is embedded more than ever with beauty and grace and strength and acrobatics.”

Bissinger cops to “the work-ethic fallacy”, but why did he bring it up in the first place? Just because certain people have ignorant opinions on the NBA and its African-American players in particular, that doesn’t mean you should devote a whole column to them. Over the years, I’ve talked to a number of people in various sports bars who hold racist, misinformed opinions about the NBA. I respond by doing what Buzz should have done — I ignore them and actually watch the sport to form my own opinions so I don’t make a fool of myself when I write about it.

In a 2008 appearance on the Bob Costas Live TV show, Bissinger shouted, “I think that blogs are dedicated to cruelty, they’re dedicated to journalistic dishonesty… It is the complete dumbing down of our society.” If he wants to see journalistic integrity after writing that steaming heap of a column, he certainly shouldn’t look in a mirror.