Many in the media are already apoplectic about the infamous launch of the All-American Basketball Alliance (AABA). For those untainted by the news, the AABA would be a league exclusively for native-born whites. According to its press release, "only players that are natural-born United States citizens with both parents of Caucasian race are eligible to play in the league." Citing the predominance of "street ball" within players of color, their lack of fundamentals and the overall incivility of the NBA, Don "Moose" Lewis, the commissioner of the AABA, denied that the motivation of the league had anything to do with race or racism. "There’s nothing hatred about what we’re doing. I don’t hate anyone of color. But people of white, American-born citizens are in the minority now. Here’s a league for white players to play fundamental basketball, which they like," he argued. "Would you want to go to the game and worry about a player flipping you off or attacking you in the stands or grabbing their crotch? That’s the culture today, and in a free country we should have the right to move ourselves in a better direction."
The proposed all-white league has pushed all the expected buttons, exponentially adding attention to its slimy venture. Vowing to "Stop All-White Basketball Team," the Atlanta Branch of the NAACP described the AABA as an attempt "to set back what we’ve been trying to do for 100 years." Charles Barkley expressed similar outrage: "It’s just blatantly racist if you look at the code words used. I don’t take it seriously, but it just lets you know there’s definitely blatant racism out there…. It lets you know, as a black man, there are people out there who don’t like you." Others were aghast at the mainstreaming of this kind of ugly bigotry. As Scott Michaux, a columnist at the Augusta Chronicle, said, "sixty-two years after the Dixiecrats dissolved, forty-nine years after the last Caucasian-only clause was stricken from American sports, forty-two years after King was assassinated and just more than a year after we elected our first black president, I hoped this kind of ignorance might be on the wane."
Despite the moral posturing against this utterly idiotic proposal, it has to be noted that the central obsessions and buzz words that define the mission of the AABA–the lack of fundamentals of African-American basketball players compared with the fundamentals of white players; the incivility and violence associated with today’s NBA; and the absence of desired role models–have long been part of the very mainstream, and often very racist, discussions of the NBA. For example, the supposed criminality and dysfunction of today’s players has long been a common theme for mainstream columnists. Players are "thugs," their friends are their "posses" and, as Jason Whitlock wrote, "Too many young, black professional athletes have too closely aligned themselves with the hip-hop culture, which in reality is nothing more than prison culture." In addition, David Stern has postured as Commissioner Kipling, with his "burden" to police the way players dress, what they tweet and, in the wake of the Gilbert Arenas scandal, whether or not they play cards on team planes. The image projected is that players are barely tamed animals. But reality doesn’t back this up in the least. NBA players are far less likely to get into fights than are hockey players, but the question of color also colors the analysis of the real Beautiful Game.
This is seen in the trope, endlessly repeated as fact, that the greatest players in the world somehow lack fundamentals. Decrying the presence of high school to pro players, Barry Temkin, in the Chicago Tribune, called the NBA "the National Potential Association." Skip Myslenski, also of the Tribune, referred to the NBA as "a developmental league," while J.A. Adande writing in the Washington Post, huffed that the NBA has become "a place to refine skills, not develop them." Then there is John Canzano of The Oregonian, who in the aftermath of the 2004 Pacers-Pistons brawl cited the NBA’s culture of "whining, unsportsmanlike, hyper-entitled attitude," its promotion of "post-dunk celebrations," which "are usually taunts," and its cultivation of a culture that "thinks that embarrassing other players, showing them up with a stare, a chest pump, a double biceps pose…is entertainment."
Yes, the AABA is lunatic and racist–and doesn’t deserve an ounce of our attention. But it must be acknowledged that without the incessant and utterly unnecessary backlash against NBA players, led by the media and the league’s own commissioner, the league never would have seen the light of day.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].]
[David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University.]