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This Week in 'Nation' History: The Politics of Basketball | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in 'Nation' History: The Politics of Basketball


James Naismith. (Wikimedia Commons)

This season’s NBA playoffs have produced some timely commentary by Nation sports correspondent Dave Zirin, whose recent basketball-related dispatches discussed the emergence of Jason Collins as the first openly gay major-sports player and defended the pundit Bill Simmons’s controversial comments about fans of the Memphis Grizzlies still being affected by the trauma of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination forty-five years ago. Zirin’s thoughtful reporting from the intersection of politics, sports and culture is unique in today’s highly stratified media environment.

And yet the coverage of basketball in the pages of The Nation has a long history. As early as 1935, a writer using the pseudonym Left Wing documented and decried “the growth of that extraordinary sport which for want of a better name is called basketball.” Wing noted that basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a physical education instructor at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, sarcastically adding:

Only a retainer of the Y could possibly have invented such a fiendish pastime, a game which in forty short years has been responsible for as many brawls, lost tempers, broken relations, fights, arguments, and discussions as any branch of athletics. Most of us are ashamed of our mistakes and try to hide them, but the inventor…actually boasts of the fact that basketball is played in countries as remote as Latvia, Turkey, Arabia, Madagascar, Uruguay, Bulgaria, and Korea.

Wing went on to dismiss the game as “a sort of winter rival to football,” inferior to the older, more popular game because unlike football, “basketball is played in overheated gymnasiums or field houses, in a dusty, smoke-laden atmosphere conducive to anything except sport.”

The next major Nation article on basketball came in 1960, when the novelist Willard Manus wrote about the gambling scandals that had plagued the game throughout “the Fixed Fifties…this flabby decade.” As Manus wrote, bookies and athletes routinely conspired to fix the score of college basketball games in order to reap major gambling profits. “College basketball is, as it was ten years ago, a maggoty mess of moral hypocrisy, out-and-out dishonesty, side-of-the-mouth connivery,” Manus wrote. “The current scandal stands as an almost too-pat symbol of the moral journey to nowhere that college basketball is making.” Manus also paused to criticize professional basketball, whose rising popularity in the 1950s, he claimed, was directly due to fallout from the early ’50s college basketball fixing scandals and the contemporaneous rise of television. The same sports promoters who had profited illegally from the college scandals had colluded to professionalize their schemes, Manus explained:

They did it by pandering to the lowest tastes of the new fans of the TV age—armchair addicts who crave high scores, sensational shooting matches, speeded-up action. Out the window went all the old subtleties and niceties of the game: intricate zone defenses, possession paly, clever passing and strategy. The pro game became all offense and no defense. To these eyes, watching it is about as exciting as watching pinball game for two hours.

Even if subsequent changes in the rules and culture of the game have rendered obsolete many of Manus’s complaints, one thing remains obvious: basketball, at both the college and professional levels, is undoubtedly “big business.”

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In recent decades Nation writers have more directly addressed the politics and socioeconomics of basketball. In a special sports issue in July, 1998, Peter Rothberg—now our associate publisher—wrote about the issues surrounding the NBA lockout that significantly truncated the 1998–99 season. “The marketing and packaging of the NBA and, yes, the crazy salaries have led to a glittery product long on flash but short on fundamentals and passion,” Rothberg wrote.

Longtime fans have become increasingly alienated by the transformation of their sport into glam entertainment. No one at the top cares, though, as long as the corporate boxes keep selling and ticket prices keep rising…So what if lifelong fans are leaving their seats in droves. There’s still a waiting list for tickets, and the kids priced out of the games can still buy Bulls jackets.

A 2003 Comment piece by sportswriter Murray Polner, “Dissent and Basketball,” told the story of Toni Smith, captain of a Division III basketball team outside New York City, who had stoked national outrage for refusing to salute the American flag before games, citing an abhorrence for economic inequality and the impending war with Iraq. “We have to wonder whether an obscure 21-year-old would have caused the media storm she did if this country weren’t so divided, anxious and fearful about the threat of war—and if dissent among big-time athletes hadn’t become so exceedingly rare,” Polner said. An article the following year by Kelly Candaele and Peter Dreier made the same point. In “Where are the Jocks for Justice?” they attributed the relative dearth of politically involved athletes to an improvement in their collective economic situation, in part thanks to a strong labor movement. “Morality is much bigger than athletics,” the writers concluded. Dave Zirin, a jock for justice if ever there were one, would certainly agree.

For our second special issue on sports in August 2011, Ari Paul updated readers on the NBA’s labor disputes—the league was then in the midst of yet another lockout. Paul argued that although “many fans dismiss sports labor conflicts as squabbles between billionaires and millionaires,” there were real labor and class issues at stake. The majority of NBA players, Paul made clear, were not earning gargantuan salaries like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James: “You don’t see most players in commercials, and while they might earn more than the blue-collar worker watching the Finals in a bar, they don’t accumulate ruling-class wealth.”

Moreover, he noted that players weren’t the only employees who the owners were locking out—that group also included parking lot attendants, bartenders and merchandise retailers—Paul claimed “the struggle is really not about billionaires versus millionaires but billionaires versus everyone else—including consumers.” Ultimately, the owners’ assault on NBA players was not that different from the attacks on labor that were seen around the country in 2011 and since:

The reality here is that owners are using a recessionary market to justify economic restructuring that would put more money in their pockets, taking it from the highly skilled laborers who make the product so singularly mesmerizing. There is an impulse in the United States to say to skilled workers that they can afford to take some cuts. But that impulse typically stops at CEOs and owners. Maybe this high-profile labor struggle is an opportunity to confront that logical inconsistency.

The NBA labor dispute was eventually settled, but that logical inconsistency, in sports and in society at large, lives large.

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