Weekend Updates

1) Jason Collins was signed by the Nets today and has already appeared in tonight’s game against the Lakers. He becomes the first openly gay active player in the history of the major North American sports leagues (sorry, CFL!).

I just heard Sage Steele say that, from now, on, “all that matters is the stat line.” In Collins’ case, I don’t think that’s true. For one thing, Collins is, to put it charitably, not a good player, nor has he ever been. He’s below average in essentially every way a basketball player’s performance can be measured, except when it comes to fouling, which he does a lot of. But lots of folks have attested to his character and his value in a locker room. I am not sure that’s what the Nets need at the moment, but he’s a bench player who’s unlikely to get much playing time. So to the extent that he will have value to the team, it won’t really be in what he does on the floor, since that will be very limited. Collins says he’s not focused on making history and that’s a perfectly appropriate thing for him to say. But that *is* what is most significant about him. And that’s a great thing, especially as it will help other players feel emboldened enough to do the same.

2) Bob Ley hosted a well-meaning panel discussion and special tonight about the N-word in honor of Black History Month. Some historical context was provided about the provenance of the word and its place in American history. ESPN also had a kind of focus group with some high school kids about how normalized use of the word has become among their peers – that the word really just isn’t a big deal any more. The panel Ley moderated included Common, Michael Wilbon, Jason Whitlock and Ryan Clark. Common and Wilbon both reiterated previous statements that they will continue to use the word in certain company, with Wilbon in particular noting that among many of his friends, it’s a term of affection. Clark says he avoids using the word, but noted that one hears on the field of play (and in the locker room) all the time, typically uttered by African Americans. Clark was skeptical that the NFL would be able to enforce successfully its new rule that saying the N-word on the field will result in a penalty. Whitlock continued to push the line that the word is an abomination whose meaning is unchanged from the days of slavery, Jim Crow and lynching and that it is black youth culture today that is the purveyor of anti-black hatred – the new KKK.

The entire special suffered from a lack of any discussion of structural or economic factors that might explain the circumstances of violence and deprivation that suffuse many black communities and how that context might be relevant to the issue under discussion tonight. And it’s that lack of context that makes it easier for Whitlock to continue to assert, ridiculously, that rap music and something he understands as black “culture” more generally, are the main causes of the ongoing and severe disadvantages that confront African Americans today. As if that culture is the precise historic equivalent of a fully institutionalized system of racial repression – and that the latter’s legacy plays no role in the plight of blacks in America today.

3) last night, Carmelo Anthony scored 35 points on a very efficient 13-25 shooting, including 4-8 from three point range. The Knicks lost, of course. Because the Knicks suck. But it’s of ongoing fascination to me how most basketball analysts and talking heads evaluate performance. Because lost in the Knicks season is that the generally wildly overrated Anthony is having his best season. Among the things he’s doing better this season than he’s done in any season in his decade-long career: shooting from three point range (he’s right at 42% this season, an excellent rate; his previous career best – about 38%); rebounding – he’s averaging about a board a game better than his previous career high; assist-turnover ratio, driven by the lowest turnover rate of his career (though his ratio is still mediocre): more blocks+steals per game than in any previous season.  This has gotten lost because of a combination of his own overrated reputation, a failure to evaluate all aspects of a player’s game and and the Knicks’ pathetic play this season. But add it all up and, lo and behold,  Melo’s been a very good player so far in 2013-14.

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