The NBA’s Hip-Hop Image Problem

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - December 27, 2006
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When a member of the NBA’s most dysfunctional organization complains about how they are being poorly portrayed, it’s hard to take seriously. Especially when those comments follow a fight that was started by a member of that same team and who may have been acting under orders from his head coach.

That said, when the reactions to these events follow a similar path that is narrow in focus, it’s time to take a close look at the issue. Steve Francis may be right in his assessment that the extended coverage and commentary about the fight between his New York Knicks and the Denver Nuggets may have been race-based.

“In other sports, there are incidents that are way worse than basketball,” Francis was quoted as saying. “So many worse things happen every game, or four or five times a year. But because there are more black players in the NBA, it’s under the microscope more than baseball or hockey.”

Francis has a point. Poorly thrown punches fly about once a month in baseball. As for the NHL, well, there is a reason Rodney Dangerfield joked, “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.”

So why is the NBA singled out for bad behavior when its on- and off-court troubles are a fraction of those that occur in other prime time sports? The reason has to be bigger than the league-wide breakdown of fundamentals, or the two-tiered officiating rules that reward stars and punish role players.

The NBA has an image problem. The reasons why are hard to pinpoint, but if there is one complaint that is directed at the NBA it’s in regard to the so-called “hip-hop lifestyle” that permeates the league.

It’s as if identifying antisocial behavior is as simple as checking out the contents of one’s iPod. Remember the outrage when Ron Artest suggested it may be better if he took some time off during the regular season so he could concentrate on his music and then to come back refreshed and healthy for the playoffs? Of course, this was asinine, but so was every report that made sure to mention the style of music he was producing. As if trading hiphop for remixing the Cole Porter catalog would have made the request any less bizarre.

Todd Boyd, author of Young, Black, Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, The Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture, said much of the league’s image problems stem from people without proper knowledge of hip-hop, and therefore their reactions tend to group very different individuals into a single body. Usually a thuggish, crime-ridden body:

“A lot of times, it’s stereotyping; stereotyping young black men - which is the majority of people in the NBA.”

Los Angeles Clippers forward Elton Brand agrees. “Hip-hop is not just gangsta rap and party music,” he said during an interview on “I’m sure they look at someone living a hip-hop lifestyle as someone with braids, tattoos, they smoke weed. They don’t see the other guys as hip-hop.”

Although you don’t want to give Rush Limbaugh too much credit, one does wonder how many people he spoke for when, after the 2004 brawl in Detroit, he said, “This is the hip-hop culture on parade. This is gang behavior on parade minus the guns. That’s the culture that the NBA has become.”

Rush is correct in one thing: Hip-hop culture is the culture of the NBA. Not that this should surprise anyone, because hiphop’s influence can be found in movies, fashion, art and, yes, music. Hip-hop culture is American culture and it is the biggest thing in the world. Run DMC was Elvis, Dr. Dre the Beatles and Ice T Led Zeppelin.

The NBA has embraced this portion of popular culture in its marketing campaigns by signing licensing agreements with hip-hop inspired clothing like Fubu, UNK and D’Funked and creating their own sneaker line with Reebok, which has teamed up with Jay Z and 50 Cent, among other sports and entertainment celebrities.

If the contempt shown toward the NBA were simply a black and white issue, the NFL would be fighting the same problem. But football has escaped that level of criticism - even with a reported 44 arrests this year that includes eight members of the Cincinnati Bengals and Bears defensive lineman Tank Johnson who has talleyed three himself in the last 18 months. The most recent coming days after his friend and body guard was shot to death outside of a night club.

Let’s be clear. The Knicks and Nuggets screwed up and deserve to be punished, especially Carmello Anthony, who showed himself as nothing more than a coward by sucker punching Mardy Collins, then running away to safety. Commissioner David Stern was well within his right to hand out any punishments he felt necessary. He’s said - and shown - that fighting will not be tolerated and for the last two years the game has been basically melee-free.

Francis may be right. Race still does play a factor in this country. But let’s not mistake ignorance for hatred. However, ignorance is the seed from which it grows.

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