Talent, race, and ugly stereotypes in the NBA
by Barnabas Piper
Posted on Friday, November 1, 2013, at 3:06 pm
Every year, NBA.com surveys the general managers of National Basketball Association teams about the upcoming season. They are polled about which player is the most versatile, who would be the best player to start a team with, and which team they think will end up winning the championship. They are quizzed about who is the fastest, the best shooter, and the most creative. And way down near the bottom of the list is “The Player Who Makes the Most of Limited Natural Ability.” This year’s winner? All-Star forward Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Love is white, and five of the last six selected for this honor have been white or Latino. When Love found out he had been picked, he tweeted, “It’s the white guy award!” This all seems innocent, even humorous. But it is indicative of some insidious thinking. In a league that is made up of supreme athletes and is about 80 percent African-American, athleticism has become equated with blackness. The even uglier flip side of this thinking is that effort and intelligence are often associated with whiteness. There is an overarching sense that basketball ability is innate in one race and must be worked for and learned in another. As Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN’s HoopSpeak.com put it, it’s as if people are saying, “Hey white player, your talent is actually wisdom. Hey black player, your wisdom is actually talent.”
When it comes to basketball, and the same is true in other sports, ability is a blend of skills and traits: speed, height, coordination, explosiveness, strength, vision, reflexes, instincts, competitiveness, dexterity, and more. But two things can be said for certain: No great basketball player has ever ridden innate talent to the top without hard work, and nobody lacking innate talent has ever ridden hard work to the top. To insinuate that one group has certain innate abilities that another group lacks is stereotyping bordering on racism. It is subtle and it may be accidental, but it is stereotyping nonetheless, and it is devaluing to the players (in this case, both white and black).
This may seem like nothing more than a minor misperception about athletes, but it is symptomatic of a racial divide. Society values hard work and mental acumen, whereas innate athletic ability is of less consequence. But it has been decided that only those with light skin get full credit for their hard work and smarts, whereas those with dark skin are appreciated merely for what they “naturally” bring to the table. It’s wrong, and now that we see it we have a responsibility to change our way of thinking.
Christians should never devalue anyone. Sure, this is “just” sports, but we carry our attitudes toward race into it and sometimes learn those attitudes from it. We cannot accept the status quo at its face value. Instead, we should listen to the cultural attitude behind the words and then be different in our own approach: conscientious, fair, and respectful of all men for their efforts and abilities alike.
Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.