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Wednesday, January 14, 2004
 



WHAT'S THE REAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A "GOOD" AND A "BAD" BLACK ATHLETE?


So Rasheed Wallace might not be the most eloquent spokesman when it comes to the matter of race and the NBA. Is he being ripped for what he said, or for how he said it?

Could be we've already marginalized Wallace into one of the "bad" black men in sports. But does that mean he shouldn't be heard? Alan Grant of the Writers' Bloc wants to know why it's so difficult for black athletes to make a difference on social issues.

Sports talk about real life | From Alan Grant

Author's note: For the purpose of this discussion, the generic term "white," the even more generic term "non-white," and the term "black" are all social constructs.

About a year ago, our colleague, Marc Stein, quoted David Robinson holding forth his views on true patriotism. Seems that fellow NBA players Nick Van Exel and Steve Nash felt we had no business messing around in Iraq. One even said he was "embarrassed" by the war initiative.

The Admiral's retort: "If it's an embarrassment to them, maybe they should be in a different country, because this is America and we're supposed to be proud of the guys we elected and put in office."

A few weeks ago, Rasheed Wallace offered his interpretation of the NBA's mission statement, telling us that the NBA actively recruits "dumb n-----s," because (and I'm speculating here) they have no worldly opinions and their view of the league is that of fantasy camp.

Now, 'Sheed may have been trying to say something here. He may have been trying to say something like, "Hey, I just noticed I'm a grown man playing with kids." Or perhaps 'Sheed is just restless and bored with the game, the way any grown man who makes his living at a child's game eventually gets bored and starts to notice things outside himself. But it's too bad his words, specifically his use of the "n" word, effectively wiped away whatever it was he was trying to say. For the record, I think he should have either kept it to himself, had a private sit-down with David Stern or written a book about it.

But he didn't, so we're talking about it. The response to Wallace's comments, which, for a second, eclipsed even the saga of Kobe, leads me to believe that, by virtue of being so audacious as to use the "n" word in such a forum, Wallace sits decidedly in the corner of the room reserved for the "bad" black men of sports, or "controversial Negroes," if you will.

These are men who are willing to offer opinions - though, at times, awkwardly - about the relationship between race and sport. If they do so poorly, like Wallace, then they are labeled "bad," or "troubled," and quickly banished to their rooms. (Witness a "troubled" 'Sheed enter the room, sit down, offer his hand and give Warren Sapp a pound.)

Joining the reactionary fray was Bill Walton, who, in one impassioned piece, called 'Sheed "an underachiever," and pretty much seemed of the opinion that Wallace wasn't worthy to live in the city of Portland. Though Wallace is an underachiever, this reactionary response confuses me, because I'm pretty sure Bill Walton is a card-carrying "liberal." And I've been led to believe that sport is the best forum for liberal thought. It's supposed to be the most fair and open-minded portion of our society, isn't it?

For that reason, I thought sport was open to discourse on a variety of topics, particularly those topics in which non-white men discuss racial issues with white men.

But in light of the response to Wallace's comments, perhaps such questioning is allowed only in a specifically non-athletic context. In other words, black athletes should question real life, not sports. I suppose sport is different because, unlike real life, it operates under the tenets of bona fide meritocracy. The preponderance of black coaches, general managers and front-office decision makers testifies to this, of course.

Interesting that Walton had no words for Robinson, at least none that I heard. Maybe you guys did.

Of course, now that I think about it, maybe most black athletes (the "bad" ones) would not be allowed to question important real-life issues, either. For example, I know Saddam Hussein is an evil presence, and it's good he's been brought to justice. But what would you say if Rasheed Wallace had told you he had "no quarrel with the Iraqis because no Iraqi ever called me a n----r?" Would you still hate him?

Is Muhammad Ali still hated?

Not only did Ali refuse to go to war; when he did, he held prominent membership in the Nation of Islam -- the most radical group of the radical '60s. Time, legend and a debilitating disease has made him less threatening and probably has eroded most of the revulsion that was directed his way. Now, based on the reverence afforded him, it's safe to say he's of the "good" black man variety. In other words, he's non-threatening.

But I think, back in the day, specifically that day when Ali told us that "no Viet Cong ever called me a n----r," he was very, very threatening.

But that's a tricky situation. And I think I know why. When Ali made that statement, he had already begun to carve his place among the greatest-ever athletes. But what if the Greatest wasn't great at all? What if he had been just an average boxer? Would he have been granted forgiveness for his stance against the war?

How about this: What if Rasheed Wallace wasn't a player who, for the last eight years, averaged six rebounds and 16 points a game? What if he were someone else? What if he was the man Portland should have drafted back in '84? A cat named Michael Jordan.

Perhaps if he were the greatest player in the history of the game, then he could say pretty much anything. Perhaps he could say exactly what he did and, instead of eliciting confused and angry responses, people might say, "Hey, I wonder what MJ meant by that."

Then people would ask him about it and conversations would follow and we would discuss things rarely discussed on a sports page.

I think that would be a good thing.

What do you think?