Dorky. Goofy. Geeky. Now add the word basketball player. You just thought of a white guy, let’s not pretend. You envisioned a guy with disheveled hair, clumsy footwork and meek behavior. He looks weird, like he doesn’t belong. You just thought of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character from Along Came Polly.
The mythology of the inept white basketball player is a repository of assumptions and coded language. Strangely enough, it’s reinforced by hordes of white sportswriters.
Most journalists have gotten over using the archaic terms of past generations. Every once in a while that coded language will flare up again (as it did during Jeremy Lin’s emergence a couple of years ago, and when Richard Sherman went off a couple of months ago) but for the most part we know better. We don’t connect ability to chromosomal sequences anymore.
Well, except for white basketball players. We’ve gone nowhere with them. We’re entrenched in our conditioning. There is no 2014 update here, we just treat them like a Blackberry and think that’s okay.
When they’re mentioned in articles, you half expect to hear a sitcom laugh track. The same group marginalizes them with a laughable ease, over and over again.
“I’ve always felt that there’s a certain amount of hostility between white players and white writers, basically because the writers think they’re the smartest guys in the room and a lot of them try to figure out why am I a journalist and why is this 6’10 goofball playing,” explains Matt Caputo whose work has appeared in media outlets like SLAM Magazine and the NY Daily News. “They see the white players as oddballs.”
For generations it’s been accepted that basketball is the black man’s domain. He’s Tywin Lannister and well, you’re not. This blackness isn’t just in a literal sense, but in an emotional construct. It’s the embodiment of a romanticized black culture, used to define an entire demographic. Many white writers understand this and respond accordingly, often blowing past word counts in an effort to answer all complexities. However, when the player is a different color, a discomfort arises.
This anxiety never goes away entirely, but some years, it’s stronger than others. In years when a white player grabs the spotlight and journalists have to do the requisite storytelling, the embarrassment returns.
Creighton University forward Doug McDermott was widely viewed as this season’s best college basketball player. He won pretty much every award you can think of and he, too, is held prisoner by a lack of journalistic progression. Here’s a recent piece in which he’s referred to as a “goofy sweet dreamer” (he’s also described by University athletic director Bruce Rasmussen as “not a genetic freak” even though McDermott is 6’8.)
The piece, like most pieces about white players, is filled with a bunch of Pixar moments which depict McDermott “doing things the right way.” I have zero beef with McDermott. I think he’s a player and will contribute to a NBA roster next fall. Writers hardly seem to care about that.
It’s fear, I suppose. Recently debates regarding appropriation have raged with a particular type of fire. Is Miley’s twerking a mockery of black culture or does it represent how pervasive hip-hop dances have become? Is Yeezus a new wave album by a black artist or a rap album experimenting with white music? The more black culture defies compartmentalization, the more questions of copycatting appear. That’s just how it works.
For sportswriters, it’s an especially tenuous time. Already sensitive to accusations that their plurality is evidence that the profession’s been gerrymandered, white writers seem caught in the middle. They’re overwhelmingly employed as the documenters of what’s perceived as a “black” sport. Thus, simplifying the lives of white players probably seems like a safe bet. It’s become very much a, “yeah, we’re sorry, we know those guys aren’t supposed to be on the court” kind of thing.
And that’s how “dorky” becomes the de facto description of any white dude regardless of ability. Here’s a piece from the Minnesota Star-Tribune in which Kevin Love gets this label. “He’s overachieved, shutting up all the Minnesotans who couldn’t believe Kevin McHale would trade O.J. Mayo for the dorky kid from UCLA.” Kevin Love is one of the top 15 players in the NBA, there’s nothing about him or his game that should encourage that word.
Or Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky, who made headlines helping lead the Badgers to the Final Four, being called “white and weird” by a writer at CBS Sports. Not to mention the ease in which you can scour the web and find similar items such as this classy headlined piece on Yardbarker titled “White NBA Players We Love To Laugh At.” It should probably be noted that Complex has been guilty of it too, as evidenced by the “White Devils” post about the 10 most hated players in Duke basketball history.
“A lot of writers are formulaic, I think a lot of people find it easier to dismiss their athleticism,” says Jake Appleman author of the recently released Brooklyn Bounce: The Highs and Lows of Nets Basketball’s Historic First Season in the Borough.
“They are all great athletes, but it (dorkiness) fits the narrative. Even if they are dorky, they actually have no idea whether they are or aren’t.”
When writers use these terms, it’s not because they’ve done any sort of probing of the player’s personality. What makes them dorky? Are they on the roster of the next TED Conference? Do they belong to a stamp of the month club? There is no context being used that might help explain it. Sportswriters mean it the same way NY Magazine meant it, in a piece last year called “How Robin Thicke Became The Dork King Of R&B.” Its sole basis is how the player looks and implied perceptions.
Surface-wise it means we don’t have to respect white players. It’s a way to make them seem less important and more like a novelty. That coded language also seems purposed at speaking to black players and black NBA fans, delivered as it is with an, “I know I’m white, but not like him” eyewink. The message is that to show an appreciation for the dominant culture of this sport, white writers have to disparage white players.
I can’t speak for all black people (no really, I can’t) but I haven’t seen a widespread dislike for white players. I rarely hear black writers or black fans use the term dork. It’s not an issue. The issue is that for all the disavowals of the vestiges of privilege, there’s an unwillingness to fight the good fight. The result is the ongoing crapping on the Cody Zellers of the world. That’s the extent of so-called solidarity with black players and readers, not substantial action, like say, advocating for the hire of black journalists.
By reiterating these stereotypes, they actually do a disservice to players and readers. A white guy is only a dork when he’s the minority, a contrast to “cool” black players who make up the majority of NBA rosters. That’s why you rarely hear in it applied to baseball players. The idea goes, dorks are smart and basketball players generally are not. It’s written as a qualifier, to explain why a white male would be playing this particular sport. If we allow that to be true, then you allow for the opposite. Then blacks are, well, you know….
It also draws attention to diversity questions at media companies. While there are myriad reasons as to why staffs look how they do, there are also issues with perception. Having “down” white writers isn’t the same as having a diverse staff. When these kinds of labels are used, it’s very telling about the culture of the company and what they value.
“We make a point to not really use those terms in our office, but there are a lot of others (companies) who do,” says Deadspin staff writer Greg Howard. “I think the thing that everyone grapples with is, what is the narrative and what is actually real.”
These words function like e-cigarettes –– just because the poison is less immediate, doesn’t mean the impact won’t be as disastrous. We’ve played around with these stereotypes for too long and now made them resistant to all antibiotics of common sense. That we still struggle is a testament to our laziness as much as anything. So the first step is admitting we have a problem. Wonder who’s going to go first.