Buzz Bissinger, the NBA and False Friends
When I enrolled in Spanish class two years ago my instructor warned me about “false friends” — words that sound familiar to English speakers but actually mean something different and potentially embarrassing en Español.
Exitado was one of them. An anglo looks at that word and thinks it means “excited,” but in many parts of Mexico, she warned me, it means sexually excited. Aroused. Horny.
Best to avoid the word and confusion it causes, she said.
Use entusiasmado instead.
I thought of that lesson the other day when my man Duane Watson forwarded me this column from Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, exploring the roots of white people’s growing apathy toward the NBA.
In it he argues that white American fans simply can’t make an emotional investment in a league that’s roughly 75 percent black, and backs up his point with some vague evidence about declining attendance and anecdotes from friends who, like him, no longer follow pro basketball.
But his thesis is a flawed one based on a false friend.
Bissinger looks at the evidence — falling attendance in the face of a steady African-American presence in the league — and decides the second trend causes the first. To an American familiar with the country’s long and tortured racial history, and to someone who has studied the intersection of race and sports the evidence might appear to mean something that simple. White people have a hard time cheering for black athletes.
False friend alert.
What the numbers really suggest is that white fans are fine with following a league full of black people. Instead, white people’s problem is with other white people.
Based on various statistics, the percentage of African-American players in the NBA has remained relatively constant over the past decade, fluctuating between 72 and 75 percent. The number of foreign-born players has increased exponentially to about 18 percent. The number of white American players, meanwhile, has decreased from 24.3 percent in the 1980-81 season to roughly 10 percent now.
From there he asks whether the decline in white fans’ interest in the NBA is linked to the lack of white American players and stars to cheer for.
It’s a valid point but still leaves me wondering what it has to do with black players, who, as Bissinger points out, have been a constant presence in the NBA whether or not white fans followed the league.
The variable here is the other 25 percent of the league’s population, which is increasingly composed of players born outside the U.S., while the numbers of white American players dwindle.
Of the 18 percent of NBA players now born outside the U.S., a large proportion are from Europe, and racially are just as white as Bissinger and any of the friends he polled for this story. Superficially, the NBA is just as white now as it was a generation ago, yet interest among white fans continues to decline.
Yet somehow this is a race issue?
Seems to me white sports fans are as comfortable watching LeBron and Kobe now as they were following Magic and Michael in the 80s and 90s.
But replace Bird and Stockton with Gasol and Nowitzki and they tune out.
That type of fan apathy has nothing to do with the number of black faces on the court and everything to do with white-on-white xenophobia. European players are plenty white, but evidently not white enough to engage white American fans.
Bissinger comes close to making this point himself in the column — referring at times to white Americans to distinguish them from Europeans.
But instead of following through he falls back on the the erroneous, conclusion that this issue is simply black and white.
Misled by a false friend.
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