Arenas Furor Perfect Example of the NBA's Image Problem
By the letter, this incident really doesn't deserve its heft -- Abbott's point is absolutely correct. But it's easy to see why it has sent the legions of American sports fans and pundits stark raving mad. It fits perfectly into the image problem NBA commissioner David Stern has been trying to fix for decades.
The sauciest details of the alleged Arenas-Crittenton spat -- that the Wizards locker room resembled an Old West saloon on December 21 -- broke late Thursday, and I wrote about it here on FanHouse early Friday morning. Guess what I spent half of New Year's Day doing? Deleting ignorant comments made on that post by non-NBA fans. For so long the general population of sports fans has answered that the NBA faces the darkest problems, despite the fact that Major League Baseball continues to grapple with a PED problem and has no smaller count of criminals in its ranks (let me introduce you to the Giles brothers), and that the NFL has a recent history of scandal far more explosive (see: Pacman Jones) and jaw-dropping (Michael Vick) than anything the NBA's seen since the pre-Stern days.
Why? Well, as we've re-learned on a near daily basis since June 2008, racism is alive in America. Among the top three American sports leagues, the NBA has the highest percentage of players who are black, 76 percent according to the Racial and Gender Report Card. Sixty-six percent of NFL players are black, and just 8 percent of MLB players are black.
We can take it two steps further: the NBA's highest paid players are almost universally black, while the NFL's richest players are often white quarterbacks (or in some cases white defensive ends, such as Jared Allen, 2008's second highest paid NFL player ... behind white Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger). Finally, it's inarguable that NBA players are the most exposed of all big-time American athletes (Michael Phelps excepted). Just about every tattoo is laid bare, something that can't be said about the padded and masked NFL. (No less a toastmaster than Warren Sapp has previously argued that the NFL hides it players behind those facemask bars, preventing many of the best non-QBs from becoming stars as the lack of real face time keeps them anonymous. To think this doesn't also play out in societal attitudes about the league -- where Tony Romo is the face of the Cowboys instead of Flozell Adams -- is naive.)
That's why Arenas storing guns in his locker brings out the most rabid denouncers. Like Abbott, I have no interest in defending Arenas for breaking team, league and most likely District of Columbia rules by keeping firearms in his locker, nor do I understand why the guard would ever bring those weapons out among teammates, in a serious disagreement or amid horseplay. "Bad judgment" is one hell of an understatement.
But there's no question as to why this has sent the American sports scene into apoplexy. As the Tiger Woods saga has illustrated, rich athletes are among the nation's favorite skeet. While most athletes don't have a network of sex partners all over the globe, and while most athletes don't store guns in their locker, these incidents provide endless fuel for the haters, who thrive off any realization of their deep-seeded ignorance. The racist horde begs for stories like the cartoonish initial telling of Arenas vs. Crittenton. It allows them to keep on believing that anyone different is to be feared, and that an organization filled with the Other (in this case, rich black Americans) must be a cesspool. I deleted hundreds of comment to that effect Friday, and without question other web editors dealt with the same all weekend.
Of course, basic coverage of this incident isn't implicitly racist -- we have covered the hell out of the story here on NBA FanHouse, primarily because it matters in the grand scheme of basketball. This is a team in crisis, two players in criminal crosshairs, with jobs, contracts, careers, wins, losses and -- if the most sensational tales are to be believed -- lives at stake. But this is a basketball blog. Why is it a top story on CNN, on local news programs far flung from D.C.? Because it has become, essentially, an inaccurate NBA "dog bites man" story. The NBA's image problem hasn't been contained among racists. It's a national P.R. epidemic. I mean, how else do you explain a Forbes editor positing that "the league is full of thugs." The problem with that unbelievable statement isn't relegated to the statement itself: it's that the majority of readers who roll by the line won't even flinch. For no reason beyond the ones stated above, it's become socially acceptable to refer to the NBA as "full of thugs." It's almost American canon at this point, despite reality's disagreement.
The explanation as to why Gilbert Arenas has become a talking head talking point extends beyond Gil himself. It's a societal issue. Almost two years ago, here at FanHouse I argued that the election of Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, would help the NBA crash through the misconceptions much of the country holds. But if anything, Obama's election emboldened the racist minority, opening up a new hot war in that area and allowing subtle racism -- like the Forbes item noted above -- to skate by freely. It's a sad commentary on America, frankly, and a troubling indicator for the league I love.