Sunday, February 15, 2009


They play the NBA All-Star game in Phoenix today (2/15), and some of you might have noticed something about the rosters of the teams that are contesting it. Of the 24 players involved—the best of the world’s best basketball league—20 are African-Americans and four are natives of other countries, specifically China, Germany, Spain and France. No Americans of the Caucasian persuasion are represented.

If you did notice that you probably refrained from mentioning it in any open forum. Public observations on the racial makeup of our more-prominent sports teams and leagues aren’t much circulated these days; at best you can be labeled a racist jerk for making them and at worst you can lose your job, as my late pal Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder did some years back.

Still, something definitely is up, and it deserves comment. I confess that race in sports is a subject I didn’t much tackle in my Wall Street Journal columnizing days, when I had two million readers instead of fewer than 200. I did this both out of caution and for reasons I thought were principled.

I recall particularly my coverage of the 1987 NFL playoffs, when the African-American Doug Williams was leading the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl title. The strongest story line of the period was the novelty of a black quarterback in a Super Bowl-contending role. I consciously avoided the tack, reasoning that even to mention it would support the belief that such a feat should be considered remarkable at that late date. My editors on the Journal’s op-ed page disagreed and, after the game, ran a contributor’s piece celebrating Williams’ blackness. I considered that to be pandering, but maybe I was wrong.

Anyway, the main reason the subject is avoided is that it inevitably hinges on theories about the “natural” superiority of one race over another in athletics in general and quick-burst sports such as basketball and sprinting in particular. “Bar-room” science is full of these, generally holding that, by virtue of millennia of fighting or fleeing ferocious animals in Africa, and surviving the rigors of slavery on these shores, American blacks have it all over whites genetically in terms of size, speed, strength and other athletically useful traits.

Some black bar-room denizens second these views but don’t often press them publicly for fear of devaluing the dedication and hard work that their racial brethren put into high-level athletic achievement. Still, the idea of the racial “edge” has worked its way into American culture through such as the movie title “White Men Can’t Jump” and the nickname “White Chocolate” that was affixed to ex-NBAer Jason Williams because he had “moves” whites weren’t supposed to possess. Getting beat by an “Opie,” the stereotypical white kid personified by the Ron Howard character in the old TV sitcom “Mayberry RFD,” is said to be a disgrace in black athletic circles.

Trouble is, real evidence to support claims of black athletic superiority is lacking. Many of the older studies in the field were, simply, hokum, while others failed to take into account such obvious factors as diet and the quality of available health care. The few seemingly solid physiological differences that have been uncovered amount to a pinch of testosterone here or a centimeter of muscle or bone there, hardly enough to account for black domination of entire sports. Those wishing to pursue this subject might read the book “Darwin’s Athletes,” by John Hoberman. The title is meant to be ironic.

Further, one needn’t be much of a sports historian to recall white American basketballers like Jerry West, Larry Bird, John Stockton and Bob Cousy, who had both “hops” and “chops.” The growing European presence in the NBA further debunks racial myths. Maybe the “blackest” player ever in terms of on-court flair and showmanship was a white guy, Pete Maravich.

Evolution doesn’t move fast enough to erase whatever DNA produced “Pistol” Pete, but today’s American white kids don’t seem moved to explore their capacities. One only can conclude that the idea of the black “edge” has become a self-fulfilling prophesy that discourages young whites from competing seriously in some sports, to their detriment.

More injurious has been the African-American community’s response. The athletic chauvinism that exists there has encouraged several generations of boys to grow up believing that to show physical prowess is to be “black” while to succeed academically—or even to pay attention in school—is to “act white.” The unrealism of many young blacks’ “hoop dreams” is seen in the statistic that 90 people in this land are killed by lightning in the average year while only 50 or so join the NBA as rookies. One must hope that the “smart is cool” message new-President Obama exudes will resonate.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


The big news of the baseball off-season has been the New York Yankees dishing out $423 million to sign long-term contracts with three free-agent players—pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first-baseman Mark Teixeira.

Four hundred twenty three million dollars! That’s almost enough to bail out Lehman Brothers. As Andy Rooney would say, “Don’t you just hate it when they do that?”

By me, their largess doesn’t mean the Yankees are World Series shoo-ins in the coming season. While they look good on paper they still have to play 162 games like everyone else, and such things as injuries, bad bounces and below-par individual performances could derail them. The Yanks had baseball’s biggest payroll the last eight years and not only didn’t win a pennant in that span but also didn’t make the playoffs last season. And those who yearn for the low-salary “good old days” should remember that the New Yorkers dominated the game more then than they do now.

It’s interesting to note that among those who say they do hate the team’s big-spending ways are some New York politicians. The Yanks are about to open a new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, next to the old one, and while they’re paying the $900 million-plus cost of the structure itself the bonds that finance it are municipally backed, meaning that the team will pay less interest than if they issued them themselves, and that the city has that much less credit to devote to other needs. Additionally, the city popped directly for $660 million for the infrastructure costs (land acquisition, road work, sewers, etc.) the project entailed.

If that weren’t enough, the Yanks lately have said they want another $372 million in tax-free financing to upgrade their original stadium plan with things like plusher “luxury” boxes, a fancier scoreboard and a top-of-the-line steak restaurant on site. That stirred a political wasps’ nest at a time when recessionary cutbacks in essential government services are the rule in Gotham and everywhere else. A vote on the request pends, and it may not be approved. “Maybe CC Sabathia can pay for the scoreboard,” State Rep. Anthony Weiner suggested.

Alas, such displays of backbone are too little and too late. Arguments over government handouts to sports hustlers long since have been decided in favor of the hustlers. Governmental units—yours and mine—have been bending over for those guys for the last 30 years, with no end in sight. Study after study has shown that the economic case for public new-stadium spending is bogus. Just about all the jobs the facilities create are part-time and seasonal (the jocks who profit most take their money and spend it on mansions in places like Windmere, Florida, and Paradise Valley, Arizona), and the revenues they attract overwhelmingly come at the expense of restaurants, theaters and other local places of entertainment.

And gratitude? Ha! A few years back Glendale, Arizona, an on-the-make suburb of Phoenix, built the hockey Coyotes a new stadium outright. Now that the team is in the red it’s crying about how “unfavorable” its lease terms are.

The worst thing about taxpayer-financed stadiums is that the games staged therein typically are priced beyond the reach of all but a relative few of the people whose money went to build them. Exhibit A in the gougers’ repertoire is the charming institution of “personal seat licenses,” the four-figure fees that some teams have charged long-time season-ticket holders to retain their seats in the new halls, over and above steep per-game prices.

The Yankees didn’t do that but otherwise they’ve taken gouging to a new level in their new digs. The team never was shy in this regard, putting a $1,000-a-game top on its best tickets in recent seasons, but it’s jacked that up to $2,500 (gasp!) in the new place, and about tripled the number of seats so designated. Tickets that used to sell for $100 to $250 now will bring $400 or $500, and so on up and down. We’re talking thousands of seats here, not dozens, and fans must commit to several-season packages to get them.

Rest assured, however, that the team will deliver value in return. In a letter to prospective haut monde customers Lonn Trost, its chief operating officer, asserted that seats in the new stadium’s “premium areas” will be “an exclusive experience for those with discerning taste who seek the very best that life has to offer.”

He continued: “You will delight in the premium amenities, including cushioned seats with teak arms, in-seat wait service, private restrooms and a delectable selection of all-inclusive food and beverages.”

He concluded: “[Yours will be] the most-coveted ticket in sports.”

Don’t you just love it when those guys talk dirty?