Former Celtic great and current Indiana Pacers President Larry Bird set off a firestorm with his remarks last week that the NBA needs more white stars in order to attract more white fans. While talk has focused on whether Bird’s comments were racist (clearly not), many sportswriters and broadcasters readily accepted Bird’s conclusion without checking the facts. If they had, they might have not been so quick to agree with the former star.
Since the African-American presence on NBA rosters grew dramatically in the 1970’s, concern has been raised that the league was alienating white fans. The rise of the Magic-Bird rivalry through the 1980’s put those sentiments on the back burner, and little was heard about the alleged reluctance of whites to watch black NBA stars while Michael Jordan was bringing the league record television ratings in the 1990’s.
Bird’s argument has re-emerged now for two reasons. First, the ratings for the NBA finals reached historic lows in each of the past two years. Second, Bird owns a team in the most Republican state north of Dixie, and it may well be the case that the white folks in Indiana are less likely than whites elsewhere to support black athletes.
But here is the problem with Bird’s analysis. The reason for low viewership in the two years the New Jersey Nets lost in the finals is that they were a team with no national following and were not seen as having a legitimate chance to win. It would not have mattered if the Nets fielded an all-white starting lineup-America was not interested.
The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Nets in the finals last year. Spurs star Tim Duncan is the perfect antonym for charisma-a future Hall of Famer whose lack of on court emotion and less than in your face game fails to inspire interest beyond the hard-core fan base. Spurs-Nets was a recipe for ratings meltdown.
The current NBA finals pits two teams without a single white star. Bird’s theory would have white fans ignoring the matchup, but Lakers-Pistons is a ratings blockbuster. The reason? Sports fans of all races like to watch Kobe and Shac, just as they flocked to see MJ and Magic.
The biggest box office star to enter the NBA this year was the African-American Lebron James. Meanwhile, white all-star Dirk Nowitsky of the relatively heavily-white Dallas Mavericks has yet to become a major drawing card in the league. Nor has his white teammate, the flamboyant Canadian Steve Nash.
There is no question that in some cities the lack of a white star likely does hurt interest in the NBA. Indianapolis may be one such city, and Phoenix could be another. But Seattle is one of the whitest cities in the league and Gary Payton was beloved by fans. Seattle’s attendance only declined along with the team’s performance.
Similarly, Denver is not a large African-American city, but fans have flocked to see Carmelo Anthony and the revived Nuggets. San Antonio is another city that has a small African-American population, a team whose two stars are black, and huge attendance.
Larry Bird is absolutely not a racist, and never supported attempts to portray him as the Great White Hope. But the fact that he believes something about white people’s attitudes toward black NBA stars that is contradicted by facts is troubling.
Racism has long been built on anecdote and myth rather than facts. Bird’s statement could have the unfortunate implication of bolstering racist attitudes among the predominately white team owners in the NFL, NBA, and MLB.
For example, it has long been noticed that the African-American players in major league baseball are disproportionately stars, while whites customarily serve in the utility infielder or backup catcher positions. Absent racism, there would be the same percentage of African-Americans in secondary roles as on the All-Star team.
Let us hope Bird’s comments do not further encourage front office staff to maximize the number of white players due to an erroneous belief that the economics of sports demands it.