March Madness Race Wars and Jimmer Fredette of BYU
Buzz Bissinger received a torrent of abuse for saying the NBA's popularity is declining without white superstars. Now comes Jimmer Fredette, who's dominating March Madness chatter not because he's the best—but because he's white.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column about the specter of race in the National Basketball Association. I said the league's popularity was being affected because some white fans were turned off to a game in which there was not a single white American superstar.
It was not pretty. Most of the cuts have healed except for the one on my elbow.
I fervently believe what I wrote. There was supporting evidence I should have put in but did not because a column is an opinion and space isn't unlimited at The Daily Beast. I have since discovered more compelling evidence. Before the end of the today's column, I will rectify that. Then you all can gleefully mutilate me again.
Before I do, let's go to the NCAA basketball tournament. For those who castigated me, brutalized me, said I was a hack and racist and all the rest, perhaps you can explain something:
The phenomenon of the Jimmer.
Jimmer Fredette is the most popular player in the tournament and perhaps the country. Why is that?
Because he is perceived as the next white hope of the NBA, even though the odds of that are mixed at best. He has a great shot. He handles the ball well. He is exciting to watch. He led the nation in scoring with 28.5 points for Brigham Young University and had 13 games of more than 30 points. He guided BYU to a first-round 74-66 victory over Wofford (I don't know where it is either) with 32 points. On Saturday he scored 34 points in a 89-67 win over Gonzaga as BYU made it to the Sweet Sixteen, but watching him take it to the hoop was painful, not to mention his ridiculous bombs from 30 feet. That still did not stop CBS announcer Bill Raftery, when he isn't talking basketball jibberish white man rap, from extolling the Jimmer during those rare moments in which you could actually understand him.
Speculation is soaring about how he will do in the NBA next year. ESPN radio yakker John Ireland said the Jimmer will be able to start immediately for an NBA team. But the more sobering reality is that the Jimmer is only 6-foot-2, doesn't have the lightning quickness required for that height, won't be able to penetrate, and doesn't play particularly good defense.
So why the signs in arenas that say "Fredette about it"? Why all the attention? Is it only because he is an exciting college basketball player?
Remove the blinders now.
It's about race. It always is in America.
The Jimmer has been ordained as pro basketball's next white comet. As a student at Brigham Young, where there are rules against drinking coffee and doing the funky monkey, the Jimmer is nothing less than a thick-necked Tea Party poster boy.
African Americans, on the other hand, with good reason question the attention given to this kid, who is getting the same swooning swirl as fellow whites Christian Laettner, J.J. Reddick, and Adam Morrison all received, none of whom should worry about the content of their Hall of Fame speech.
Next year, when the Jimmer is starting and filling arenas because of some team desperate to put fans in the seats, don't be surprised.
"Enter Jimmer Fredette," wrote Dexter Rogers, an African-American sports columnist for Examiner.com. Fredette "potentially represents what the white fan base is missing. That's a white American who can really play with the stars, such as Larry Bird and Chris Mullin."
ESPN.com predicts the Jimmer as a No. 18 pick, hardly the stuff of the kind of hysteria he has created. ESPN cites the stereotypical white attributes—toughness, fearlessness. But questionable defense and lack of explosiveness and lateral quickness may cause Fredette to "fredette about it."
But it doesn't matter. Google the Jimmer's name; the names of the top five players in ESPN's mock draft and the search term "basketball," only Harrison Barnes of the University of North Carolina has more results. The next player with the most hits, Perry Jones of Baylor, has 1.05 million, about 700,000 less than Fredette.
Racial perceptions have nothing to do with this?
I have a can't-miss tip in the seventh at Aqueduct plus a bridge to sell you.
As for the earlier column I wrote on race in the NBA, and those rightfully wanting supporting evidence, here are citations ( Racial Discrimination in Professional Basketball: Evidence from Nielsen Ratings, Mark T. Kanazawa and Jonas P. Funk, 2001; Was the NBA Too Black for NBC?, John Dempsey of Variety, 2001; National Basketball Association Nielsen Ratings Championship Series, Wikipedia; Racial Discrimination among NBA Referees, Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers). At least this way those who were particularly vicious and visceral can do some real work. Those who want more, send your emails to The Huffington Post.
Attendance is down from its peak. It is a fact. And that is paid attendance. Anyone who has been to a game of a mediocre team, or for that matter an exciting one like the Philadelphia 76ers, knows that true attendance is far lower in many markets in the absence of superstar conglomerates. Readers cited the economy, but a number of teams dropped ticket prices to compensate or put on silly promotions such as $1 hot dog night.
Others cited the television ratings for the NBA championship last year. It was perhaps the most epic rivalry in the NBA, the Boston Celtics versus the Los Angeles Lakers. It went seven games. The ratings were the best since 2004, but in the statistical magic trick that anyone can play, they were also the 12th worst of any NBA final in the past 30 years.
Many also pointed to this year's much-ballyhooed television ratings. Yes, they are booming. No question. I knew that. But the numbers were not very high to begin with—an average of roughly 1.4 percent of households watch an NBA game—so the recitation of huge percentage increases is deceptive. There is also the Miami Heat Effect. Fans are watching the Heat nationally in huge numbers because they want James and Wade and Bosh and company to lose. It is a fad that will wear off after this year. Take away the Heat and ratings are no longer exponentially up. The New York Knicks will draw more viewers with the addition of Carmelo Anthony, no doubt. But there are still dog games on cable attracting less than a million viewers.
The ratings for the NBA All-Star Game were significantly up, the best argument anyone has for saying popularity of the NBA is high. But the popularity of the league is absolutely irrelevant anyway in terms of race: It still hovers like an anvil.
Sports do mirror society: A recent study by Brown University demographer John Logan of 5,000 Census tracts concluded that "black-white segregation is a phenomenon that is dragging on and on." He said there were maybe 20 to 30 communities in which significant numbers of whites were willing to move into predominantly minority areas. The hip-hop culture, white and black, that loves the NBA, rightfully so, does not come close to defining the majority of the country's sports fans.
It is a depressing study, and a tragic reminder of how little we have progressed. And next year, when the Jimmer is starting and filling arenas because of some team desperate to put fans in the seats, don't be surprised.
He is the next great white hope, until the not-so-dirty secret is revealed that he is too short, can't play defense, and is not quick enough. Then he will ride the bench and the arenas won't be filled anymore.
Until somebody else is ordained, because somebody always will be.
It's about race. It always is in America.
Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August . He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.