The Sports sections of newspapers often double as crime sheets, itemizing the rapes, domestic beatings, strip-club melees, cocaine busts and so forth implicating professional athletes. After last Friday night's riot in Auburn Hills, Michigan, NBA executives are engaging in yet another phony round of navel-gazing. Why, they wonder, are our athletes acting like criminals? Because many of your athletes are criminals.
Forty percent of NBA players have criminal records, according to Jeff Benedict, author of Out of Bounds: Inside the NBA's Culture of Rape, Violence & Crime. Yet NBA executives constantly make excuses for them, often relying on political correctness in one form or another to rationalize the rise of the criminal-athlete. Next to these "respectable" sports executives, Jerry Tarkanian looks honest. The former UNLV coach would straightforwardly recruit ex-felons but at least had the decency not to fake up a pious liberal reason for doing it or present his motives as progressive.
The league has joined forces with tenured frauds like USC professor Todd Boyd, author of Young, Black, Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture, to promote a culture of rebelliousness that has made them very rich while allowing them to pose as progressive. For reasons of raw business, they were willing to bring a culture of lawless behavior into the NBA, licensing NBA gear to hip-hop companies, presenting the vulgarity-spewing, showboating stunts of their stars to impressionable children not as bad behavior but as an authentic and "real" culture even as black parents, such as Bill Cosby, were trying to discourage their children from embracing this emptiness.
Only now as the effects of that hip-hop culture become more vivid and startling to the public does the NBA take dramatic action. In professional sports, the punishment isn't proportioned to the misdeed, but to the public's reaction to the misdeed. A horrified reaction? Well, then we'll have to act very outraged, the executives conclude. We'll have to feign shock and hand down severe punishments. A few of them described the brawl in Detroit as surreal. Come on. How is that any more surreal than letting your stars play while standing trial for rape. Given the number of their players with criminal records, the only thing that should surprise them is that these brawls don't break out more often.
Jeff Benedict checked the backgrounds of 177 players from the 2001-2002 season and found 40% of them had been arrested for crimes ranging from rape to armed robbery to domestic violence. While Kobe Bryant was on trial, writes Benedict, "25 law enforcement agencies in 13 cities in the United States and Canada were simultaneously proceeding with arrest warrants, indictments, plea-agreement proceedings or trials involving more than a dozen other players." He found 33 criminal charges of domestic violence against NBA-ers. "For many players, encounters with law-enforcement officials represent the rare instance of someone telling them no," writes Benedict.
The NBA increasingly looks like a glorified men's league for ex-cons. But as long as the bucks keep flowing its cynical organizers are happy to indulge these spoiled and dangerous stars. From time to time they will go through the rigmarole of sending them off to "anger management" or to sports psychiatrists, but basically they don't care about their misbehavior as long as it doesn't eat it into their pocketbooks or cause them too much public relations backlash. Sports executives are like indulgent parents who let their child get away with all manner of nonsense until the child embarrasses them at a dinner party before their friends and then they call a "timeout."
Tim Hardaway had the system all figured out when he got nabbed in 1997 for driving his Ferrari 110 miles per hour in a 40-mph zone. First, according to Benedict, he accused the cops of racism. Then he told them, "I have friends in high places who can make it very unpleasant for you."
David Stern is now busy trying to salvage the "NBA's brand," according to the Washington Post. Even before last Friday's brawl, reports the Post, "NBA Commissioner David Stern had already been stressing to owners the need to improve the league's image." If Stern wants the NBA's players to stop acting like criminals, he will have to tell the owners to stop hiring criminals and paying them millions no matter how badly they act.