Episode 49 - The Problematic Privilege of White NBA Fans

Transcript, Web links and Credits below.

Transcript: Something truly disgusting happened in the NBA yesterday. As NBA superstar Kevin Durant went down with a catastrophic injury, fans for the opposing team laughed, cheered, and waved goodbye with glee. I don’t think it’s an isolated incident. I think it’s a trend. I think it’s a trend this season in the NBA, and I think it’s a sign of the times we’re living in – where civility is down – and casual bigotry is on the rise. And the NBA is perhaps the strangest place to see it. Let’s dig in. This is Shaun King and you are listening to (The Breakdown)! ---- I don’t get to talk about it a lot, but I’m a huge sports fan. My dream as a child was to one day be a general manager of a sports team. Since I was a little boy, I’ve followed and watched as many games in as many sports as I could. As a 5 or 6-year-old boy, I’d study box scores, and stats lines, and win-loss records. When I was [around] 10 or 11 years old, I started winning the company-wide NCAA bracket tournaments at the local factory where my mother worked. One year I won nearly $500 and you couldn’t tell me I hadn’t just hit the lottery.

And even though my life has changed so much since then, I still follow and track sports every second I get. When I wake up in the morning I’m not checking for police brutality stories. I’m checking sports scores and news. I said all of that to say that everything I’m about to say, I am saying as a highly informed lifelong sports fan. I’ve seen two things happen during the NBA Finals over the past week that truly disgust me. I think each of them have a real component of racism and white privilege – and I just want to unpack them for a few minutes.

For any NBA fan, last night was an amazing, stressful competitive game 5 of the NBA Finals. It was in Toronto – the Raptors, who’ve never made it to the NBA Finals before, came into the game up 3-1 in the series. If they won just one more game, they’d win the championship. It was also the first game back for Kevin Durant – who is arguably the best player in the NBA right now. It was his first game back in over 30 days after injuring his calf earlier in the playoffs.

And last night, when the game started, Kevin Durant was spectacular. Right away, as soon as the game began, it was clear he was going to give the Raptors trouble. He started draining 3 pointer after 3 pointer – and helped the Warriors go up big early. And he changed the entire game for the Warriors – he made everybody better and seemed to give the whole team life.

Then, without even being touched, it was clear Durant injured himself. Reports this morning are that it is highly likely that he tore his Achilles – which is a catastrophic injury for any athlete, but particularly for a basketball player. It can take 12-18 months to fully recover from the injury and surgery and rehab. It’s brutal. And as he collapsed onto the ground, clearly and unmistakably injured, fans all over the stadium started cheering his injury – started waving goodbye; started smiling and laughing; and being the investigator that I am (I’ve looked at videos from every angle) it wasn’t a few people. At the very least, it was hundreds of fans who in an instant saw that his injury likely meant that their favorite team had a better chance at winning the game. And they just started laughing uncontrollably and waving goodbye. Let me play you the audio from that moment.

(Kevin Durant Injury Audio) And for me, it was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen in my life as a sports fan. It was so bad, and so noticeable, that right away, several Warriors players were irate. Then several Raptors players literally had to motion to the fans to stop cheering while this man’s career and physical health hung in the balance. And what it brought to my mind is that for so many of these fans-- most of them increasingly rich and white-- these players aren’t fully human - they are objects. This injury is brutal. The surgery is brutal. The recovery is brutal. At the point in which we ever cheer on the injury of an athlete we’ve lost touch.

But we also saw this same ugliness in Oakland at another game between Golden State and Toronto last week – when Kyle Lowery, the point guard for the Raptors, went running out of bounds after a ball full speed and fell into the front row seats. He didn’t hurt anyone. The woman that was sitting in the seat he ran into actually got out of the way before he even got there. But a Warriors fan, again, a super rich white man – a tech billionaire named Mark Stephens literally shoved Kyle Lowery. And Lowery had to restrain himself because if he dared touch the man he’d likely be suspended for the rest of the playoffs. And I want to play a clip for you of my friend Steven Jackson-- who was once suspended for 30 games for putting his hands on a fan during a brawl. Here is Jackson talking about the incident.

(Steven Jackson audio) And it turns out the man that shoved Kyle Lowery is actually an investor in the team. Notice I didn’t say owner. Just a few years ago, Draymond Green suggested we stop using that word, ‘owner,’ and instead switch to ‘investor’ – and I think he’s right. We don’t talk about the owners of other companies; we talk about investors. And I think these fans and certainly the investors, often think because they’ve put their money into this that they own these players. In no other place in society would that frail white man have put his hands on Kyle Lowery. Nowhere! Even after shoving him, the man repeatedly yelled obscenities at Lowery. But in that place, Mark Stevens knew the rules protected his privilege--hat he was literally in one of the only places in the world where he could shove a big Black man, cuss out a big Black man, and be all but guaranteed that the Black man would do nothing in return.

And the NBA needs to do something about it. Earlier today, I counted at least a dozen times this year where NBA fans said or did something horrible to NBA players and the players had to do everything they could to restrain themselves – as fans said or did something to a player that they’d never say or do anywhere else. It happened earlier this year when a white fan in Utah crossed the line with Russell Westbrook. The Celtics suspended a fan for two years for calling DeMarcus Cousins a racial slur. I love the NBA – but the league is going to have to proactively address these problems. I think it’s a sign of the times. It’s a sign of 2019 – a sign of the loss of civility in the age of Trump. There was a time where I thought we’d move past this, but we’re not past it – not all. We’re right in the middle of it. ----- Thank you all for making it all the way through this episode of The Breakdown! If you haven’t already subscribed to our podcast, we’ll be right back here every single weekday, breaking down important news stories and issues, and we’d love for you to subscribe on your favorite podcast apps like Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Please share this podcast with your friends and family. Our next goal is to get to 100,000 subscribers and we won’t get there without you! Have you left a review yet? On Apple Podcasts we now have over 8,000 5 star reviews, but we’re aiming for 10,000 – so we still want to hear from you so please leave your best review when you get time. Thank you so much to the nearly 30,000 founding members of The North Star whose generosity even makes this podcast possible. Love y’all and appreciate you so much. If you love this podcast and want to support our work – or want to see the show notes and transcript for each episode – we’d love it if you considered becoming a founding member of our community at TheNorthStar.com. There we not only have our podcasts, but hundreds of original articles and stories and commentaries from some of the leading scholars and thinkers and journalists in the world. Lastly, a shout out to our Associate Producer Lyssandra and Podcasting Director and Senior Producer, Willis, for their hard work on this and every episode. Take care everybody. ----- Credits: Produced by Willis Polk II Additional Instrumentation by Christian “Idrys” Shannon, Lance "Lance Fury" Powlis, Markeith Black & Smok Tagous Additional Engineering by Amond “AJ” Jackson for Salem Psalms Library Additional Vocals by Garnett “Natti” Bush & Jason Coffey Scratches by Kenny “DJ FlipFlop” Vanderberg