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.

Is this the avatar of white basketball players?
Is this the avatar of white basketball players?

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.

Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports Doug McDermott's "goofiness" gets as much ink as his game.
Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports
Doug McDermott’s “goofiness” gets as much ink as his game.

“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.

Debates about appropriation, and twerking, continue to rage.
Debates about appropriation, and twerking, continue to rage.

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.

Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports "Dork" Kevin Love is a top-15 player.
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports
“Dorky” Kevin Love is a top-15 player.

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.

Howard Smith/USA TODAY Sports Crapping on players like Cody Zeller isn't advancing the conversation.
Howard Smith/USA TODAY Sports
Crapping on players like Cody Zeller isn’t advancing the conversation.

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.

Around the Internet

  • Tim

    these terms are used far too much… but in some cases… well, a lot of cases, they are true. It’s not just “white writers talking down on white players” when they say a guy like Jimmer Fredette isn’t athletic. He really is below average athletically. Or calling a guy like Matt Bonner a dork… he’s the only player who wears New Balances… Frank Kaminsky is a damn good player, but he is a kind of goofy looking dude.

    I also don’t think saying a white player is smart means a black player is… “you know”. I don’t think i’ve ever heard anyone base that attribute off race. People say Lebron has one of the highest basketball IQ’s in the game. Russell Westbrook’s high turnover rate and at times poor shot selection leads people to believe he has a low basketball IQ. it’s on an individual basis. the only reason white players are stereotypically “smart” is because most of them have to be. while there are some freakishly athletic white players, in general, white players are less athletic than black players… it’s a result of slavery, slaves were bred to be the strongest.

    what I’m trying to get at is… The stereotypes aren’t good, and they’re used far too often on a lot of players that they don’t really apply to… but the stereotypes don’t come from “white guilt” on behalf of the writers, they come from a large amount of players who have fit the stereotypes. personally I think it’s kind of stupid that we need to have these stereotypes, when a guy like anthony davis looks just as goofy with his unibrow as matt bonner does with his new balances… but it is what it is.

    • G14

      Uhhhh did you just seriously say “Blacks were bred to be the strongest because of Slavery”. Are you retarded???

      • Tim

        …during slavery, slave owners did in fact breed their slaves, in hopes to make them stronger and “more productive. That was a thing, it happened. it was fucked up, but true.

        have you studied history before?

        • G14

          Bruh, no they didn’t. I don’t know where you got that from, but it’s not true. You sound moronic in relation to this article anyway. Do you understand the meaning of the word “slave”??? You can’t bred someone to be more productive. Slaves, all slaves were feed the worst food and lived in the worst conditions. When your breeding something like a dog or a horse for the absolute best offspring you pamper it, at least keep it healthy. You don’t near starve it. Since nothing in basketball relates to anything slaves had to do it doesn’t even apply. Why would they be breed brothers to jump high and run fast, or have superior motor skills and hand eye coordination. What you said is disgusting bruh, as a black man you should be ashamed of yourself

          • xxx

            that’s not what im saying at all. you’re clearly having some trouble reading.

            first of all, you can’t deny history. look it up. slaves were bred. the slaves who were the biggest and strongest sold for the most money. money was the motive for slave traders. that’s common sense.

            second of all, basketball is a strength sport. that’s why shaquille o’neal would tear up shawn bradley. you’re right that you can’t breed skills, but basketball isn’t a simple game of skill. checkers is. basketball is a game of athleticism combined with skill.

          • G14

            But at the same time a player like Hakeem The Dream, who was 8 inches shorter and lighter than Shawn Bradley made Shaq look like a jackass guarding him. Shawn Bradley couldn’t guard Shaq, cause he fucking sucked, not cause Shaq was that much stronger. That’s why Rodman could guard Shaq as well as anybody. That’s why Bill Lambeer and McHale were great defenders. Because they had skills, not because they were big and strong. That’s why if Clay Matthews tried to gaurd Stephen Curry on a ball court, Curry would make him look like a newborn deer. Why, because they have supreme skills. So your analogy is dumb. And you’re clearly retarded. Slaves were not bred. That’s not common sense, that’s white brainwashing, and self hate. Cite your source then. Since slave traders had no understanding of human genetics. Only thing a trader would do is pick
            who he thought was the biggest and strongest after that slave was born
            and sell him. And since slavery ended over a 100 years ago, it plays no part into that today. You have to be actively breeding something for that breeding to stay in effect from generation to generation. Bruh, you are tripping over yourself running in here to defend the white man, in a article about white writers dismissing white players. You are a certified white dog, who obviously is wrapped up in self hate. Basketball is a game of skill 1st, period. That’s why anyone who has never dribbled a basketball and tries to, looks like a retard. Just like someone who has never swung a golf club will look like a retard the 1st time he does it. smh, you sad bruh.

          • Ethan

            Ok, calling someone “retarded” only makes you look like an ignorant idiot. Black people were indeed bred by slave owners. It takes 2 minutes of internet research to find this out. Owners would breed the strongest and most durable slaves in hopes that their offspring would bring them more revenue. I don’t understand how you find this difficult to comprehend. No one is saying that this is the sole reason, but it sure as hell helps. It’s not racism by stating facts of what society would do back then.

          • G14

            No they did not. Plain and simple. Read a few slave owners and slave traders books and notes and you won’t find it in there anywhere. You won’t find this information from any reputable source anywhere. It’s racist propaganda. That you WANT to believe because you are a racist looking to diminish and poison any thing the black man is successful at. Black men are better at ball because it’s a cheap sport to play, period, and more black people play it. Other sports like hockey, baseball, football and lacrosse cost much more money to play. It’s because of socio economic history, not because black people are genetically bred to be stronger. Since strength holds very little bearing in basketball without skill. You are uttering the same racist garbage that ended Jimmy The Greeks career. If this is widely accepted fact, why would the fire a commentator for saying it???? If you google it, you will get nothing that says what your saying. You’re just a ignorant racist.

  • Andrew Jones

    I was nodding in agreement til the high school journalism contorted twist of invoking an ecigarette analogy at the end. Breathlessly juvenile (in that “uhh, why did you bring that up were you saving it? way), misinformed, and gloriously unnecessary to forward his narrative. Like what he writes about, kinda, playing on your own ignorance and projecting it to make a point. Otherwise would and will read again

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  • Jared