Telling some people
that you cover the NBA must be like revealing that you collect equine sperm
samples for a living. They find it interesting but can't believe you do it.
There are variations on a theme--I used to watch the NBA but not anymore; all
the players are gangsters; there is more teamwork in college--but the theme is
consistent: dissatisfaction with the players, the game or both. Anyone
associated with the league gets accustomed to it and dons a kind of armor. One
veteran official, Bennett Salvatore, says that when someone recognizes him and
starts babbling away, he says, "Oh, you got the wrong guy. That's my twin
brother who's a ref."
feeling is particularly irritating in the fall, when King Football sits on the
throne, surrounded by adoring handlers. During a round of golf last week with
three men I had just met, there were the customary murmurs of discontent when
they learned about my NBA connection, followed by a question: "Hey, did you
ever interview T.O.? I know he's a little crazy, but he seems kind of
So there you are.
The NBA sucks, and Terrell Owens (page 48), one of the most judgment-challenged
people on the planet, has something to tell us.
The NFL is so
bulletproof it should be brought to you by Kevlar. Rarely does a week go by
when one of its players does not appear on a police blotter--they've run out of
ink in the Queen City, where six members of the Sin-cinnati Bungles have been
arrested in 2006 alone. It's a tough call as to who is the biggest screwup, but
let's give the nod to a talented young wide receiver, Chris Henry, who since
last December has been arrested four times for an impressive array of alleged
offenses: marijuana possession (he pleaded guilty), carrying a concealed weapon
(ditto), providing alcohol to underage women (he pleaded not guilty), drunken
driving (ditto). Still, he played in the Bengals' first three games this
season. Overall, at least 10 NFL players have been arrested on various charges
over the last 10 months. "It's up to [players] to be positive role
models," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters in Chicago on
Sunday. "But when you have 2,000 young men in your league, you're going to
have some people who are going to get themselves on the wrong side of the
Fair enough, but
what about that one-game suspension for Lions defensive line coach Joe Cullen,
who was arrested last month on an alleged DWI, which was not nearly as
embarrassing as the DWP (Driving Without Pants) he had received a week earlier
for cruising naked through a Wendy's drive-through. Cullen missed Week 1 but
has been with the team, presumably fully dressed, ever since.
In August, The
Charlotte Observer reported that four players on the 2004 NFC champion Panthers
used banned substances. (They were caught not by league drug-testing but by
testimony in another case.) What a surprise--after gazing at the size of
linemen, who could possibly suspect there was steroid use in the NFL? Yet the
story failed to generate much attention, certainly nothing like the steroid
speculation that Phillies slugger Ryan Howard faced during his late-season home
run spree even though he has been tested throughout his career and has never
takes the hit for steroids and the NBA remains the target of choice, the
default verdict from fans on the NFL is no-fault: Individuals screw up, but
that has nothing to do with the league as a whole.
Why the popularity
gap? The unassailable fact remains that the NBA is a predominantly
African-American league (73%) with a more openly hip-hop culture. While blacks
make up about 65% of NFL rosters, football has never been seen as an
"urban" sport. Moreover, because there are so many NFL players, and
their sport is so team-focused and they're covered in padding, they maintain
some anonymity. It's easier to embrace felons--of all colors--hidden under
helmets than tatted-up black men in plain view.
Some NBA players,
such as Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, have been outspoken in their view that race
is the major reason for the league's negative image. But team and league
executives rarely wade into public debate about it. Commissioner David Stern
declined to speak to the popularity gap, other than to say, "When you have
the most-recognized athletes in the world and you take the good that comes with
that, you also have to take the bad."
In the end the
popularity gap isn't just Stern's problem. It's ours, too, because it might say
more about us than the NBA or the NFL. The less disturbing reason for the NFL's
invulnerability is that America likes pro football better than pro
basketball--better than almost anything else, in fact. I've heard a hundred
discussions about the NFL in NBA locker rooms and precious few about the NBA in
NFL locker rooms. Still, we must acknowledge that the players of one sport
should not get a free pass while those of another are systematically skewered
for similar misdeeds--or for none at all.