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Thursday, September 29, 2005

NBA!



Today is really, really slow. See, many of the people who come to the gym where I work the crack of dawn shift are Northrop-Grumman employees – and the last couple weeks, a lot of them have been on vacation. Probably a company thing. In any case, this means that I’ve taken to doing a lot of things I normally wouldn’t. Voodoo, for one. Reading transcripts of the steroid hearings, for another. And while the former is somewhat related to the latter, it’s the hearings that I want to briefly talk about.

A lot of the testimony pays, at least superficially, a lot of attention to the need to keep kids off steroids. Hank Aaron, for example, began his Q&A by saying, “I think that we need to be concerned about our young people because they’re the future of this country, and if we don’t protect them, we’ll have no future.” And while it’s apparently true that the crappy, street-slung version of steroids are apparently dangerous, that’s not what I think is so interesting about the whole thing. The part that I think is odd is the media coverage of the whole issue.

Turn on an episode of Sportsnight, open the Washington Post or read anything on ESPN and you’ll inevitably come across something about how the major leaguers who juice are, to put it lightly, the most evil bastards ever to set foot on grass. Yet those same media are almost unanimous in the condemnation of the NBA (or, for that matter, NFL) age limit. When the Maurice Clarett case was still active, the punditry was up in arms about the exclusionary nature of the league, and how they were depriving the Urban Youth the ability to earn a living. Usually, someone threw something in about the exploitation of the NCAA. The reasoning is usually something along the lines of: if an individual can go to war, contract in other spheres of life, and so on and so forth, then that individual ought to be able to play a sport for millions of dollars.

But here’s the thing: every time they point to Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Kevin Garnett or one of the other madly successful prep-to-pro players, they miss the point. I could argue that Palmiero successfully used steroids, and that no physical harm came to him. Same for Giambi or Bonds. Yet on a systemic level, people who use steroids are meaningfully more likely to injure themselves, have hormone imbalances that lead to other internal problems, or develop cancer. That is to say: despite the fact that certain people have not suffered negative health consequences as a result of the performance enhancer, it’s still a reasonable ban since widespread use would deteriorate the overall health of the base of players upon whom baseball or football draws. It’s socially irresponsible of the various leagues to condone the use of performance enhancing drugs, even if it weren’t also illegal.

Yet at the same time, consider the problem with not having an age limit. Put aside for a moment the financially well-off – someone whose family is at least marginally affluent, and has access to decent schools and college funding. Many lower-class, mostly black, middle- and high-school students see athletics as a way out of poverty. Be it as a vector to attend college, or to make millions of dollars in professional sports – it’s an “out.” This is typically used as an argument against the age limit, though it is certainly not, and here’s why: for every LeBron, there are ten-thousand who can’t make nine-figures in their rookie year. For every Carmelo, to whom the age limit will be a hindrance, there is a kid who will spend a year in college and get a less-than-optimistic appraisal of his ability to actually go pro. And that kid is going to be better off for it.

People are naturally optimistic. You tell a kid from Harlem or Odessa that, if they can just get that rebounding average up to double digits, or that if their yards per carry tops six, that they can get ten million dollars – and you’re not going to have many kids who turn that down. Even if it means forsaking their academic life, even if it means blowing off other avenues of achievement, that’s the sort of thing that it may even be rationally the best option, even given the risk. And when draft night comes and goes, and they don’t get enough hype, then what? They can try to get an invitation to sign as an undrafted free agent. But that’s just more time where, instead of working on something that is reasonable, they try to reach a dream that they’re just not capable of. Sure, the same ignore-school mentality might come about in the chase for a collegiate scholarship, but paltry though they might be, the NCAA still has academic requirements – enough, at least, to force the aspiring athlete to maintain a minimum standard.

The NCAA environment also provides a better approximation of the NBA, and as such, a better evaluatory program. You simply cannot tell how good someone is based on how well they do in high school. Everyone can be the star quarterback against a D4 high school team – but it doesn’t translate. This is bad for both the athlete in question, as well as the professional league. How many super-preps have been complete bombs? Drafted in the seventh round, your signing bonus won’t buy a pack of gum, and after you’re cut during training camp when they find out that, yes, you can put up 40 points a night against the Western Pawtucket Conference, but no, you can’t do much when you’re playing against Amare Stoudamire – well, hope you enjoy your job back by the projects.

And the NBA especially has an obligation to make sure they aren’t screwing over the African-American communities since they do so much goddamn marketing to them. Basketball is a huge part of the urban landscape. Half the rap out there equates being a “balla” with, when it comes down to it, your manhood. And if you can’t hang with the other kids on the court, what do you resort to? When your Airmax 2000’s aren’t enough to give you a decent J, and you end more drives on your ass than scoring, you turn to what the pros use: performance enhancing chemicals. The whole system is connected, and the hypocrisy in the double standard of the media (and, it should be noted, players union) is ridiculous.

As for the whole “steroids is cheating” thing: I am sympathetic to this, in principle. I think that everyone should be given an equal playing field (no pun whatever), and that steroids fundamentally make the game more about who has the better chemical engineers than who has the better athletes – but it’s hardly the same, especially at the college level. The athletic training facilities at Ohio State and the trainers they employ are as massive imbalance when they play, say, Marshall. This is somewhat ameliorated in the pros, but not totally. See: The Colts and their Dome. See also: The Dolphins and their heat. Or ballparks with lots of hitters who move their walls in, or even Iowa making it’s visitor locker room pink. The imbalances exist anyway, so saying that steroids is really the tipping point is sort of ludicrous. People overstate what steroids are capable of, anyway.

It’s nice to see a league like the NBA, who is so often accused of exploiting black athletes, take some responsibility. It’s just too bad there are basically no members of the so-called liberal media who are willing to support it.

cranked out at 6:47 AM | |

 
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