Low Post-Blackness: Race and the Status of the NBA

by B.Gram

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is a big game hunter.

His next target? The NFL.

As Silver’s first full season as commissioner comes to an end he is undoubtedly still floating on cloud nine from the NBA’s new TV deal that will yield the league more than $2 billion annually, as well as the league’s new belief that sports gambling should be monitored and regulated which will undoubtedly yield tangible benefits for the league. Both stories ingratiated the new commissioner with progressive NBA fans.

When Commissioner Silver took over the NBA, one of his explicit goals was to overtake the NFL in popularity and profitability in the US market. Specifically, Silver stated that, “I think this game should be a rival to football. In the United States, it’s the No. 1 participatory sport. We’ve all played it. I want to focus on the game. The business is going well, but this is a beautiful game.”

With the most diverse fan base in American sports and growing global popularity, it stands to reason why the commissioner expresses such ambition. The NBA has an international draw that the NFL cannot match no matter how many horrendous regular season games the NFL hosts in London.

Silver should be confident. The NBA has thus far had an amazing season– progressing almost entirely free of off-the-court distractions – and the league seems to acquire “face of the franchise” players almost annually. What’s to stop them?

But there’s a fly in the ointment here. As constituted, the NBA is not and will not be remotely close to the NFL in the hearts and minds of the common American. Prejudices that have shaped the way that many Americans view minorities limit how much the average sports fan is willing to buy in to behavior that flies in the face of racial stereotypes. These beliefs help to uncover why the NFL, a league that is coming off of one of the most controversial and revealing seasons it has ever experienced, shows no signs of vulnerability in the market.

Why? The answer is simple: the NFL resonates with the American public in a way that the NBA does not.

This is not an indictment on the expertise of players in the NBA or on the entertainment value its fans perceive; instead it is an indictment on America and the stereotypes that impact the popularity of sports and entertainment in the US.

Popular American forms of entertainment illustrate an almost standard formula: prominent and “intriguing” white characters as main protagonists with tangentially related minority characters as role players; pawns on the chessboard that only contribute to the main characters’ storylines.

The utter shock of major networks following the recent success of shows like Scandal and Empire illustrates current expectations for minority-led programming. The top shows and movies from the past decade following the aforementioned formula almost exactly, award-winning shows such as Modern Family, Big Bang Theory, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and 24 all echo this fact.

If we only look at comedies, shows like Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory have exploded in popularity while using the “dash of diversity” recipe. These shows have received a small amount of negative publicity from minority groups expressing their displeasure with the characters; despite this, and to the delight of their networks and syndication partners, Modern Family has seen steady  growth in viewership and awards since its beginning, while the Big Bang Theory has ballooned into the most watched show on television.

In the NFL, the protagonists are usually the same: Quarterback. Head Coach. General Manager. Owner.

Like any film or television show, NFL organizations have leading roles. Those leading roles are pivotal because collectively they receive most of the credit for the successes and blame for the failures of NFL teams. The NFL has done an excellent job of drawing in the casual fan’s attention and money with a recipe that includes that dash of diversity, violence, speed, regional rivalries, and cultural biases. Whether they’re quarterbacks or leading stars, head coaches or executive producers, general managers or television executives, perceptions around what effective leadership looks like appears to be the same.

Although the total percentage of black players in the NFL and NBA are close — 76% in the NBA and 68% in the NFL — the NBA has more than twice the number of black visible leaders than the NFL. The total number of Black owners, GMs, head coaches, or starting QBs equals roughly 14% of all the available positions in those roles. While it could be argued that this number is proportionate with the percentage of Black Americans in the US, clearly other minority groups, such as Latinos,  are rarely represented in the total population of visible leadership roles in NFL. This percentage is also less than half of the equivalent number for the NBA, which has twice as many blacks in the team’s best player, head coach, general manager, or owner roles (30%).

But how do these numbers inform why someone subscribes or buys-in to the NFL more than the NBA?

Leadership Categorization Theory (LCT) is a theory that essentially states that, “the more leaders match their subordinates’ cognitive image (prototype) of an ideal leader the easier it is for subordinates to ‘categorize’ them as leaders and consequently follow their leadership.”

A study of perceptions of leadership released by the University of Amsterdam states the following:

As perceivers evaluate a target’s leadership potential and/or effectiveness, they assess the extent to which the target’s attributes and/or behavior are in line with their pre-existing prototypes. Thus, a pro-White leadership bias may involve the (mis)categorization of prototypical leadership attributes as typical for White-majority group members… High status groups (e.g., White-majority), for instance, are seen as more competent, a construct highly related to leadership. tweet


The NFL, much like Hollywood, puts these theories into practice and reflects images supporting them into millions of living rooms every week. This is illustrated through the league’s consistent hiring of retread white coaches as opposed to promising minority candidates.

Racial biases are not exclusive to personnel hirings; it also leads to biased and coded language in talent evaluation of players. The good folks at Deadspin pulled language from scouting reports written by NFL scout Nolan Nawrocki for players eligible for the 2014 NFL draft.


A quick search of code words such as “smart”  or “leader” all show up many more times in profiles of white athletes, while terms like “natural” or “gifted” are used almost exclusively for black athletes. The use of these terms to describe young athletes at the beginning of their professional career shouldn’t surprise anyone who has paid attention to the NFL and how the league’s partners use stereotypes and coded language to lazily provide analysis; however, this further demonstrates the carryover from societal stereotypes into expected race-based descriptors of competency. This, according to the Center for American Progress, is incredibly similar to what is seen in public education.  The NFL ultimately plays to the same “dash of diversity” recipe as most popular forms of entertainment in America, except in the league the dash exists in leadership roles. If NFL leadership looks like the leaders in your office,  at your factory, or at your school, then there is undoubtedly  another subtle psychological element to the league that simply makes it more palatable for you as a [white] sports viewer.

So how does this impact the NBA?

The NBA, which is fighting for the same casual fan viewer demographic that the NFL has been able to capture, has taken steps to appeal to a “wider” audience over time, including implementing a dress code in the early 2000s and removing  much of the physicality that dominated the game in the 80s and early 90s. As a businessman, Silver wants that “fan in the middle” that is undecided on whether or not to go to a game on Tuesday night.

High status groups (e.g., White-majority), for instance, are seen as more competent, a construct highly related to leadership. tweet


If you ask soon-to-be ex-owner of the Atlanta Hawks, Bruce Levenson, that choice is an easy one for fans in Atlanta. Levenson famously referred to Hawks’ home games as ‘too black’ and as shocking as that is for some people to hear, that in itself is one of the major reasons why the NBA will never surpass the NFL. Sunday Night Football on NBC is the NFL highest rated game by far and it is not accidental that the theme song has been performed by Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood. Usher, Pharrell, Jamie Foxx, and Nicki Minaj are a few of the musicians that the NBA has allowed to perform. This does not include the countless hip-hop songs that lead into commercial breaks on major networks, or the Atlanta Hawks’ own maestro on the organ playing timeless hip hop hits.

No other owners confirmed Levenson’s statements, nor did anyone surrounding the league  stand by his side after his comments were made public. However, there is clearly a belief that the NBA is a black experience. How often are white NBA players referred to with the same cookie cutter language that white player’s in the NFL are? These stereotypical statements create perceptions that white players in the league don’t really belong and that they somehow figured out a way to get in, despite a few pieces of data illustrating the negligible differences in athletic performance between black and white power forwards and centers compiled by Hardwood Paroxysm last year (see graph). These white players will undoubtedly be the hardest working, most aware, and professional players on the team because it won’t be their “athleticism” or “natural talent” that allows them to succeed. An analysis conducted by Hardwood Paroxysm, measured the scouting reports and on-court drill performance for NBA draftees from 2005 to 2011.  As a part of this study, the author found miniscule differences in the athleticism of the 211 black players and the 45 white players at the power forward and center positions.



Source: Hardwood Paroxysm

Source: Hardwood Paroxysm

The intelligence, professionalism, and leadership exhibited by black players in the NBA is completely lost behind the idea of their immense athletic ability. Stereotypes of African-American men lead to a devalued perception of NBA athletes beyond their court performances.

One cannot decouple society’s race issues from the sports many of us enjoy. This is unfortunate for the NBA, because America clearly has an affinity for the type of star that the NFL or MLB has. Despite players in the league having possibly the rarest physical gifts of any professional athlete,  performing one of the most difficult athletic skills that exist and demonstrating remarkable intellect, there is very little players can do to make sports fans see them in a different light without compromising themselves. Off of the court, there are just as many NBA athletes positively contributing to their communities as there are in the NFL or MLB; however this does not factor into some of the blatantly ignorant opinions about NBA players that still exist, such as Minnesota state representative Pat Garofalo’s belief that if the NBA folded the only noticeable difference would be an increase in the amount of street crime.

Commissioner Silver has thus far been ambitious in his tenure as leader of the NBA. One can tell that he is eager – and quite possibly delusional – in his efforts, given that overtaking the NFL is his publicly stated goal. Since rationality isn’t on the table, he may as well ask fans of other leagues to look in the mirror and confront their own racial biases, rather than tinkering with the game itself. This way, the commissioner only need improve national perceptions about black men in America while simultaneously convincing his corporate partners to actually analyze talent of all races sans “color commentary”.

Unfortunately for the NBA, silver or even bronze might be the league best case scenario in America. The league just doesn’t have the ‘right’ kind of stars. tweet

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  1. MrAveryBrown

    Heavy truth in this article. Until the NBA acknowledges the fact that African American players are important, authentic change will never come. Mr. Garofalo’s comments are ignorant and wrong too. Automatically assuming something bad will happen when a bunch of black men get on the street is absurd. Hopefully, their mind and perception will change, soon.

  2. chaz

    Fascinating and enlightening article. To your point about the subtle language and hip hop songs played in the NBA, I totally agree that they have made the NBA about the “black experience.” Additionally, I have notice that they do use different languages to describe NBA players. For instance, memphis Grizzles’ big man Marc Gasol known as a “hard worker” and explains that these are the traits that lead him to rise in stardom opposed to that of Clippers big man, Deandre Jordan (known for his jumping ability) or his teammate Zack Randolph (who is not even athletic but is not referred as just a really skilled player). Also, I belive there is something to be said about the type of music that is played at the games, it does create a certain atmosphere. Comparing the music used in the 80’s and 90’s brought about a certain energy and fans from all walks of life came together under one roof. All in all, I believe it would take a lot to change the game back to when it was not deemed a “black experience” or “too black” but a game that many americans loved. As I look into the stands of most NBA games today it look like less people attend or watch the games and are not as excited about the games like they were back in the 80’s and 90’s. I guess as tupac once said in the song “changes,” “that’s just the way it is, things will never be the same.” great article!

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