The Conversation: Let’s Talk About Race

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  1. I want in on this conversation. At the risk of being entirely tangential, my question is: why is violence in the NHL not only universally accepted but defended–despite the recent suicide of one of its most notorious enforcers–while the perception persists, despite the low incidence of violence, that the NBA is populated by “thugs?”


  2. Hey, Jackie.

    I had a feeling you might want to get involved. Good question. My guess is that the difference between NBA players and NHL players is perceptual; i.e. how they comport themselves on the court/ice and away from the game, as well. Violence is not the issue. Violence is a rarity in the NBA and not the point of distinction between the leagues, especially since it happens to be allowed in hockey (at least, for now – your point being well-taken about the effects of this on the player’s coming to attention).

    That’s my take.

    Talk to you soon, I’m sure.



  3. Andrew thank you for a thoughtful response. I guess what I’m asking is: is difference in perception in what constitutes thuggish behavior, racial? It’s culturally accepted–in fact encouraged–that hockey players fight. This is ingrained in them from the time they are in the pee-wees. If you as much as leave the bench if a fight breaks out in the NBA, it’s an automatic suspension. Just to play devil’s advocate, would the perception be the same if every NBA team had a Shaquille O’Neal sized guy, who’s only function was to be an enforcer?

    I’m not excusing anyone’s behavior in their personal lives. I’m simply questioning if preconceptions contribute to perception. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


    • “is difference in perception in what constitutes thuggish behavior racial”

      Define “thuggish behavior” for me first – what exactly do you mean? A dirty player during the game or excessive showboating or excessive trash talking…

      The thing is, thuggish behavior wouldn’t be use to describe any actions in a hockey game whereas it may be used to describe actions in a basketball game, why is that? Because people associate thug with black male, so your question is leading. White players in hockey can behave like jackasses but you wouldn’t describe it as thuggish behavior, so perception of what may be considered “thuggish behavior” is always going to have racial undertones.

      • I agree with this statement 100%. If your perception of thugs is innately associated with black men, then their behavior is irrelevant when it comes to perception. Preconceived notions simultaneously accuse the actions of one and excuse the exact actions of another.


  4. I think race definitely plays a role in how the violence is perceived — a fight occurring in a sport/league filled with giant black men (men already assumed to possess violent and hyper-aggressive tendencies) just seems to have more of a visceral impact than a skirmish between more “normal looking” athletes — but I also think basketball’s relatively intimate setting matters as well. There are no real barriers separating the players from the fans, so a fight in basketball just seems a little more dangerous than a hockey or football fight.

    • I do not agree at all, what’s important is how the violence plays out, that is what’s being judged and leads to it being described as thuggish or dirty or anything else.

  5. There seems to be a search here for a double standard that just doesn’t pertain to the original point nor have much merit on its own. Fighting is not condoned in the NBA because it’s not part of basketbal ; it’s accepted in hockey for the opposite reason.

    Society is more than happy to let large men, mostly of color, barely dressed, pummel each other – it’s called boxing.


    • “You [can't] allow men that big and that strong to go around throwing punches at each other.” – David Stern, NBA’s chief counsel, later commissioner. This was said after Kermit Washington threw a single punch at Rudy Tomjanovich–in self defense–in 1977.

      I think what is pertinent here is how we define “thug.” The dictionary defines thug as “a violent person.”
      When Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, he went home and dedicated himself to becoming a better player. When Derek Boogaard was cut from his hockey team, he went out and got boxing lessons.

      Hockey–predominantly white–and basketball–predominantly black–are both contests where the team that can score the most goals determines the winner, unlike boxing, where the sole purpose is to knock an opponent senseless. I agree that “thuggish behavior” is condoned in one and not the other, but we disagree as to the reasons why.


      • The dictionary defines thug as “a violent person” but society hears the word thug and envisions something more specific. It’s unfortunate but that is how the term has evolved over time and that is why people use it to describe players in basketball in certain situations, whereas in hockey the term goon would be used.

        Not sure what you’re hoping to get out of the Jordan/Boogaard comparison, apples and oranges man.

        • The dictionary also defines society as “The aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community.” As a member of society, I don’t envision “black men” as thugs, by default. Any instance where race, gender or sexual preference precedes judgements based on knowledge of the individual says far more about the individual making the judgement than the person being judged.

          The whole point of having an “ongoing, frank discussion about race” is to be willing to challenge “society’s” preconceptions. Everything else is just dogma.


      • Jackie,

        With all due respect, but did you see what Kermit Washington’s “single” punch did to Rudy T’s face (and brain, and life)? And it was not “self-defense.” It was, at best, a mistake in perception of self-defense. Or anger. Or something all together not explorable in our purview 30 years removed. But it does explain why the NBA, the home of enormous human beings of all races, does not allow fighting. It has nothing to do with black men being judged as thugs or anything else. It is about grown people acting humanely toward each other in a civilized society in a civilized sport (which hockey, in some respects, does not apply, to their discredit and eventually adaptation).

        For the record, at no point did I or anyone else judge “black men by default” as thugs. It seems you’re creating a narrative that evades the original point: the NBA has a perception problem (which is not related to violence in hockey or basketball, but a negative image that is familiar to the latter.)

        Damon argues that this perception is recognized but is changing by the rising fortune of the NBA. I’m open to being a witness and to exploring why that image exists and what it says about race in America (dogma aside).

        That’s the conversation.



        • Andrew I did see what the infamous punch did. I also watched with great sadness how–lacking real talent–Derek Boogaard was encouraged to fight. He struggled through a litany of fighting-related injuries, and an addiction to pain killers, which led to his premature death. Maybe if violence in hockey were considered “thuggish” despite the fact that its players don’t wear “tattoos, corn rows, or balloon shorts” he might still be alive.

          I absolutely agree that the NBA has a perception problem. If the question is: “What role does race play in this impression?” I’d argue that the cultural subtext can’t be ignored.


          • Hey, Jackie.

            I’m still having a hard time connecting the dots from Derek Boogaard’s tragic fate to race, but I’ll trust that there’s something relevant in the point about hockey’s idiotic tolerance of violence. As to your latter point, I think race plays a huge role in the negative impression of the NBA. Note the closing of the conversation: We’re going to the impression of young black men (who are not NBA players) next…it should be interesting, and I’ll look forward to your thoughts.

            In the meantime, give me a shout if you want to grab some coffee.



  6. I think the difference is that with hockey fights there is a code and a respect for your opposition. There is an audio clip from last years’ 24/7 fight between Dubinsky and Ovechkin and you hear Dubi says “Good job buddy” and Ovie replies “Yea, good job.” Fighting in hockey has a known end to it, the players involved sometimes will say to each other, “I’m done” and the fights over. Whereas in basketball a fight between 2 players will almost always turn into a fight with all players involved and that becomes a situation that is out of control for the referees to handle. It’s the culture of the game that makes fighting in hockey possible, in hockey it’s always one-on-one fights whereas in basketball it becomes a total melee where you see blindside punches and hitting players while they are down, these things rarely happen in hockey fights because of the culture surrounding fighting in hockey.

    It isn’t about who is involved in the fight it’s about how the fighting plays out and there is an obvious difference between how fighting plays out in hockey vs basketball

    • Julie Gillis says:

      How do you know there isn’t a code in bball? It may look like a melee, but for all I know there’s a code to that. How much of any fight like that on tv is posturing? I mean, I don’t know if there is a “code” to any sport fight, but seems to me if there was one in hockey there should be one in any other sport.

      • I’m sure there is a player code for basketball for the nuances of the game but I doubt there is any code surrounding actually fighting. Fighting isn’t a part of basketball and shouldn’t really ever happen so there wouldn’t be any code surrounding it just the code an individual lives by in any altercation. With hockey, fighting is so embedded in the game and culture that an unwritten code can be set up surrounding it, players will not punch a guy on the ice etc. Ultimately, it’s allowed in hockey and that means it can be nuanced whereas in basketball it is not and that’s why it is an all-out brawl every time.

  7. This talk about the “thuggish” appearence of b-ball players makes me wonder if black men decided to do a thug walk. Wear big or tight jeans, have tats, cornrows and fros, and sag your pants below your butt and demand they dont get profiled as being thugs like the movement of slutwalk

    • Julie Gillis says:

      I like this idea, though I’m aware as a white chick I can’t effectively speak to it? Meaning I don’t want to speak to things I don’t know much about, but I like the idea of confronting systems with things like images. I do suspect it would get a great deal of attention, much of it negative and purposely misconstrued.

    • Justin Cascio says:

      That’s an interesting idea. I think we all get a chance to do this every day, when we walk around wearing whatever we wear on any given day, and don’t act like thugs. I’ve heard people connected with the Slutwalks mention the possibility of a need for a men’s parallel movement to publicize the fact that we men are in control of ourselves and our drives, and that we can and do treat women with respect.

    • I think Damon pretty much nailed the answer to that question here:

      “And the level of animus many still hold toward the league and its players is an example of certain segments of white America’s refusing to give the NBA athlete the benefit of the doubt. Instead of being assessed on their own merit, they’re being judged by people still rocking 1999 goggles—“fans” who think “black guy” + “tattoo” + “basketball” = “uneducated and unskilled thug.””

    • It is ok, i think a movement like this would be important for basketball and maybe American football. Moreso for b-ball because i dont think Lebron James is a thug and a few of my friends dont either. I will even give James Harrison a pass too despite the fact his mens journal cover wants to prove me wrong since football is violent anyway

  8. Also, guys, nice work on this. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts for a while myself.

    I know we’re talking about the NBA, and it is hard to compare the NBA with NHL because of the different natures of defense (and offense) inherent in these games. It may be better to compare the NFL with the NHL if we’re talking about the violence levels and then examine the way the players are seen regarding race.

    Whenever I think about Americans’ relationships with violence in sport and men of color, I always think of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man … It’s been a decade since I’ve read it so I can’t really speak to specifics, but something always sits wrong within me when white people talk about the violent “nature” of Black men… It can be almost gleeful (I’m talking about a small group, not all white people of course).

    It’s important that we remember that it is the responsibility of the “judger” not to judge, not the “judgee” to conform to the judger’s standards.

  9. I’m struggling to understand why “the NBA is a good metaphor for race in the U.S.”–first of all, it implies that Andrew’s exposure to black people is very limited. Secondly, since when does race=black? The U.S. has many, many different races. This implied equation is a very dangerous “othering” of black people, a first cousin to racism.

    • I think sports is a good place to talk about because for a lot of people it is where they are exposed to race without actively visiting such neighborhoods. NBA and blacks is the side they chose probably because of the “thug” association. You are right though there are other sports convos such as why most black baseball players speak Spanish (Dominicans), or why is boxing the sport of the oppressed ethnoc minority

    • First, I have to disagree with your notion that there are many, many different races in the U.S. Truth be told race is only a social construct that contains four categories: black, white, Asian, and Hispanic. Of course, then you break it down into nationality, ethnicity, etc. But there are not many races.

      Secondly, the NBA or sports in general is a great place to start with race because in observing how athletes are treated is a great way to see how people really feel about race. It’s easy to call Kobe or Shaq a great guy when they are winning for your team, but if they are losing do they become those “n” words. Peoples true colors show real quickly when they are no longer getting what they wanted and/or expected.

  10. Great article! I really enjoyed it, and there’s some very important issues/topics on the table. Plus, this article is about two of my favorite subjects – sports and race. I think it’s a really good point Damon makes, that the NBA is such an intimate sport (equipment free, exposed faces, fans in close proximity to the players, etc…).

    Though race is a major part of the issue here (well addressed by both of you), and not to be avoided or ignored, another important factor here is how our culture (in general) has changed, and how our values as a society are vastly different than they were during the days when Jordan, Johnson, Bird, and Thomas were running the hardwood.

    I have been an avid sports participator and viewer all my life, and I have been extremely disappointed by the excess of selfish, self-congratulatory, spoiled athletes in ALL the 4 major sports in recent years. There are less and less athletes who seem to value loyalty, integrity, building a winning team from scratch. More and more athletes are all about the money, playing in the biggest markets, and getting the most attention. They want their championships, and they want them now. If their team doesn’t offer them the best chance to win (right now), they pack their bags. Hello, Lebum James (yes, I misspelled that on purpose)! If their team can’t/won’t pay them exactly what they think they’re worth, they’ll find someone who will. Albert Pujols just left St. Louis, presumably because 22 million dollars a year wasn’t enough for him (only 25 million a year was satisfactory for him). Curt Flood fought for athletes to have the freedom to choose. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t fighting for athletes to have the right to be selfish, spoiled, small-minded pricks.

    But watching sports today, it’s hard to watch a football game without being inundated by players performing premeditated celebrations for even the most insignificant of achievements. I am from Detroit, and I watched Barry Sanders run wild in the NFL for ten years, and I saw that guy spike the ball, maybe twice, ever! Today, selfish behavior can be seen in all sports, and not just the NBA. I think it speaks to the kind of culture we have become – a me, me, me world – consumed in consumerism, and materialistic to the max. This extreme “me first” mentality of our “new” culture gets highlighted when we watch the NBA (in such an intimate setting), but these basketball players are really similar to their hockey, baseball, and football counterparts. And ALL of them are just a microcosm of our society as a whole.

    I also think it is important to note that of all the four major sports in the USA, the NBA is the sport with the most (young) boys playing. More and more players enter the NBA, straight out of high school, or with only one year of college under their belt. In the NFL you have to have 2 years of college completed, before you’re eligible to enter the league. In the NHL and MLB, most players spend time in the minor league system, (and are in their early to mid-twenties) before becoming professionals. The NBA is different in this regard, so while the players in their league certainly have bodies of men, they are often just boys (at least
    early in their careers), and therefore they often act their age – demonstrating the values, interests, decisions, (and sometimes mistakes) of many children (regardless of race, background, etc…).

    Anyhow, that’s my two cents. I do not mean to ignore the race factors here (at all), I just think that the ways in which our “new”, young society and culture have changed go hand in hand with the other issues you address. I love the article, and the points you bring up. Can’t wait for more in this series.

    • Eli,

      Thanks for responding. The fact that two people can look at the exact same thing and get two completely different takes is never not fascinating to me. While you’re seeing a culture of selfishness permeating all major sports, I see athletes (finally) realizing they’re precious and valuable commodities, and acting accordingly. They’re people in a very unique position — able to earn outrageous amounts of money, but only for a 7 to 12 year window — and I don’t begrudge them for putting their personal interests first. You could also make the argument that today’s athlete is just being as “loyal” as management — who can trade, release, or cut athletes at their whim — is to them.

      With that being said, do I realize that as a fan — a person who’s dogmatically loyal to, well, location and laundry — it does occasionally suck for the loyalty you’ve shown your favorite athletes to be largely unrequited. But really, how loyal are we? Would we still buy the jerseys of our favorite player if he had 4 shitty seasons in a row or made a boneheaded play to cost “our” team the championship? Is our “care” for them directly proportional to how useful they happen to be at that particular moment?

  11. Hey Damon,

    Thanks for your reply. I definitely agree that management is no more loyal (and sometimes less so) than the athletes. Having said that, I don’t begrudge the athletes for putting their personal interests first. I begrudge society for harvesting such a culture of selfish, egomaniacs (permeating all professions and walks of life) these days. As a result, true loyalty is a gradually evaporating idea/actuality. Loyalty (to a cause, a job, a career, a team) isn’t a whim, and it isn’t (necessarily) a suckers bet. It is believing and fighting for something through good times and bad. As a Detroiter, I rooted just as hard for the Lions during their 0-16 season, as I am now, during their improved days.

    Also, my favorite players are my favorite players through down seasons. But 4 shitty seasons in a row? For a 7-12 year career window, 4 years of sucking would be 1/3 to 1/2 of their career. I admit, even my loyalty would be tested under those circumstances.

    Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, David Robinson, Akeem Olajuwon – those dudes (I’m fairly certain) aren’t broke or in financial trouble. So while their loyalty to a team/cause/project (essentially playing for only one team during heir careers) may have cost them some dollars here and there, I’ve gotta think they’re pretty good with how their careers played out. I can’t say the same for renegades like Lebum James, and as a result it makes it much more difficult for me to cheer for him (and other “new” athletes like him).

  12. Forgive me Eli Kaplan, I’m not a huge sports fan like you may be, but I know enough about the NBA to know that Magic, Bird, and Isaiah made their career decisions in really different world than LeBron James. The rules of the business changed a lot in the years between them. I don’t understand why one would even try to compare them. You admit that the team owners are not loyal to the players, yet you indicate in closing that you expect some loyalty to their teams from the players. That’s just not the world we live in today, NBA or not. Pensions and single organization careers are historical relics across industries. Freelancing and getting laid off is the new normal. Why do you expect more from the people who adapted to the new rules than from the makers of the rules?

    There is no static, core team to be loyal to even if you’re just considering the loyalty of players to their fellow team members. I followed the career of a contract star player during the transition between the Magic and LeBron eras. He was traded about seven times (this includes peak years) during his long career (by Damon’s estimate) and his teammates were traded around him every season. Where should his loyalty have been placed if he had free agency during his star years?

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