The article Detroit Pistons and Capitalist Racism now called part 1 was first published in final form on 6/8/05. Written to express and explain the frustration I experienced as a basketball fan, and as a fan of the Detroit Pistons, the article received a surprising response. I passed it out and found people discussing and yes arguing about the content. It was then published in a hip hop magazine and again received intense response.
The theme of Part I was that the “star system” was corrupting the game and in particular corrupting the officiating. At the time, it was openly related to the commercial interests that promoted the game. Their immediate profit depended on the “stars” winning. Their myopic inability to understand that the corruption of the game would ultimately undermine that push for maximum profit meant that they were sacrificing their long-term interest for short-term gain. That process, however, is the essence of capitalism, particularly American capitalism. The inability to plan and preserve, defines the destructive character of the inherent processes of capitalism and is the very reason that it is not sustainable.
But capitalism means ultimately that there is a ruling class. Because the system is so profitable to that ruling class, control becomes the primary focus. Control is always primary because that is the source of profit. It is, therefore, neither surprising nor unpredictable, that this year the Miami Heat would defeat the Detroit Pistons just as they lost last year.
“In a sport where the T in Team often looks like an I, in a league inexorably guided by the shoe company agenda, it should be no shock that the Nets have become Vince Carter’s team more than Jason Kidd’s.” Harvey Araton, NYT 04/26/06 page C21.
For those people who do not closely follow the game, Jason Kidd is not only the quintessential team player, he is also the superior player to Vince Carter. Nevertheless, the market demands that Vince Carter gets the media play; the market demands that Carter get all the shots even though team effort would mean that the best shot taken is the most successful shot. And there is a beauty in such a game that anyone can eventually appreciate even those who are not aficionados. But that is not immediate profit.
“Lip service and Steve Nash notwithstanding, the perception looms large in the minds of those who market the league that superstars and scorers are the sexier sell. They go to bed every night now praying that Detroit and San Antonio fall before they give graying purists another opportunity to hail selflessness, while ratings sag. They continue to show little faith in their core game.” Harvey Araton, NYT 04/26/06 page C21. (emphasis added)
It is not “perception and Steve Nash notwithstanding”, it is rather that there are contradictions in the very process of the cultural impact of the game. Every day millions of working class people participate in basketball activity and engage in discussion and debate. They necessarily demand the improvement of the game that they support with their time and money. The market, however, demands not only maximum profit, but also immediate maximum profit. In demanding immediate maximum profit at the expense of “selfless purity of the game”, they necessarily sacrifice the core game and thereby undermine the very basis of their profit-making machine.
What is important here is the cultural contradiction that is being played out. It is not simply “graying purists” who oppose the “star system”; it is anyone who knows the rudimentary rules of the game. Those who know the game know when the “star calls” favor the privileged and then push certain teams to victory, teams with the stars. There is a very cynical and conspiratorial point of view.
“Kobe Bryant and LeBron James will probably be Olympic teammates in 2008. If the NBA is as much like professional wrestling as I think it is, the league will find a way to manipulate a Kobe-LeBron finals match up within the next two seasons.
They are, potentially, this generation’s Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.” Wm C. Rhode, NYT 05/6/06 page B11.
As always is the case with cynicism, this statement is facile and inaccurate, but contains a germ of truth. Having watched this process for many years, I don’t believe it is simply a process of individuals manipulating the process as puppets on a string as is alleged by Rhoden. It is rather a process where the contradiction between the inevitable and unavoidable demand for immediate maximum profit comes in direct conflict with the need for control over that which produces the profit. The game must have integrity or it will not produce the necessary profit but it is the “stars” that create the immediate and maximum profit. A culture is created where everyone in the game, including the referees, know that “those who market the game” have nightmares about a Detroit/San Antonio finals even though they are the two best teams in the league.
Is this conspiratorial or simply cultural or both? I opt for the conclusion that it is both. There are individuals who make a lot of money this year if their “stars” win and they lobby everyone to insure that those “stars” are given the necessary privilege a star calls. The argument is that they “pay their way” which translates to the conceptual framework that the role players are excess baggage which can be replaced with other role players if necessary.
But that merely represents a self-fulfilling paradigm, one that supports the idea that the rich are supposed to get richer and the privileged are supposed to have privilege. Anyone who disagrees is immediately attacked. For example, I was switching between the national broadcast of the Pistons/Cavaliers game and the local broadcast. The Detroit TV announcer Mark Champion along with Greg Kelser watched as LeBron James made a particularly outrageous and blatant step carrying the ball half way across the court. The announcer Champion said that LeBron had earned the right to get such a call. How can one earn the right to cheat, requiring the referee to make bad calls? Their answer is that he is extremely talented, an athlete with amazing abilities. But if we add to that ability to give him special calls, then that is simply privilege. It is unfair and it is simply wrong! And the announcer had no idea of the impact of what he had said.
On the other hand, it is apparent that the national media has figured out that such a viewpoint is corrupt. For the first time in 16 years, the national announcers and color commentators have abandoned the term “star call”. That can only mean that thousands of people have figured out that such a concept is inherently corrupt. The calls are still there but no one says it anymore. Anyone who watches the game regularly knows that there are at least 40 players in the league who could make 30 to 40 points per game if they got the kind of favored calls that are given to LaBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, and Shaquille O’Neal. And that shows how the cultural context is pervasive but uneven. Apparently, the national announcers were specifically told that they could not use that analysis any longer but the local announcers were not let in on the secret. It is therefore both cultural and manipulative.
If this pattern is set and most but not all follow the pattern it becomes a very subtle process. It is neither blatant nor obvious. If those who “market the league” have nightmares about the possibility that the two best teams in the league will make the finals, then is it any wonder that neither team made it to the finals. Do we, as fans, have a right to complain? Of course. Do we, as fans, have a right to become bitter and posit conspiratorial theories as to why we, who love the game, are being cheated by corruption? Of course. But is that enough. No. Because the process is far more complicated than that.
After all, Miami and Dallas are very good teams with tremendous athletes. That does not change the necessity to expose the corruption and to demand more. After the first two games against Cleveland, Detroit did not play that well. It is now clear that the Pistons imploded, became a different team and Ben Wallace was central to that implosion if not the cause of it. He signed with the Chicago Bulls as soon as possible. In the meantime, he destroyed the unity that was the hallmark of the Pistons team. Shooting 23% from the free throw line, Wallace appeared to intentionally throw the game or was in such a pout that he did not care. In either case, it was clear that the Pistons poor play was partly a reason for not reaching the finals. That is the subtly of the process. But in terms of this analysis, it was ego and greed that destroyed their chances of playing in the finals. Ego and greed destroyed unity and the destruction of unity is what the capitalists rely on to preserve control.
In the finals this year, Miami clearly got all the calls. Dallas was not accustomed, as is Detroit and San Antonio, to being mistreated by the referees. Mark Cuban is a person accustomed to privileged treatment and he hated being treated as a second-class citizen. He spoke up and was fined $250,000.00. He has to find his place and accept it. That is how the system works.
“Mark Cuban knows all, so he believes the icon of Stern’s vision is Dwayne Wade. He is the humble Heat star with a drama gene, a player who has turned Pool shark in using every angle off the glass, who has soothed Shaq’s Hollywood breakup with Kobe.” Selena Roberts, NYT, 06/21/06, page C14
In other words, Miami has the bigger stars and the bigger market and the market always wins. Cuban, however, has mistaken money for wealth. He believes money begets privilege and it does, but not at the sacrifice of control. The league must always maintain control. Indeed he learned that privilege will not necessarily give you control.
“Trouble is, Cuban often mistakes his dot-com wealth for worldwide self-righteousness. If Cuban would pause from his various profane rants over his perception of Heat bias which cost him a $250,000.00 league fine yesterday—he would discover he has sabotaged his team as well as his own status as Stern’s secret love.”Selena Roberts, NYT, 06/21/06 page C14.
Culture, however, is like a huge ocean liner—it takes a long time to turn and it has no brakes. While it may be true that Stern wants Cuban to become the light of the NBA, he has no players with the star power of Wade. O’neal, or for that matter Pat Riley. The bias perceived by Cuban, the coach Avery Johnson and Dirk Nowitzki was real. In one game, Wade went to the line more times than the entire Dallas team. But no matter what Stern wanted, Dallas would not get a break. That is why it is not simply manipulation. As Roberts states:
It’s true: Cuban had Stern at hello. But Cuban, the Maverick’s owner, is undermining Stern’s covert plan to cast him as a league darling. More than the splendid Wade, Cuban is the great hope for a league that has lost suburban fans who feel alienated by players they find to be too urban, hip-hop and well too unlike them.” Selena Roberts, NYT, 06/21/06 page C14.
Because of 300 years of struggle by millions of people, Selena Roberts cannot and will not say that Cuban is the Great White Hope. But she can and will use the necessary code words to express the same thing. That is why the term must be capitalist racism, not institutional racism. What institution are we referring to—capitalism. Plus, it is racism that is run by money and dictated by the necessity for maximum profit, immediately, not with planning.
Detroit has always been literally the black sheep of the NBA. When the Pistons win, it is by playing against 8 men on the court—the 5 opposition players and 3 referees. In fact, when the Bad Boy Pistons won in 1989 and 1990, the league added the third referee. In order to keep the vaunted Piston defense under control. It was alleged that the league needed a third referee because two referees could not keep track of all the Piston fouls.
Detroit, however, has the longest running full sellout crowd in the league. The team plays in the suburbs and the majority of the audience is white. But the unity between white and black workers is anathema to the system. Therefore, Detroit continues to be the Black sheep of the NBA. It is the best team in the league precisely because it plays as a team. The team gets no recognition and has the greatest number of technical fouls called on it.
Because they play defense with their feet, the team has the fewest number of fouls, except in crucial games. Then the referees take over. In game 5 against the Miami Heat, the referees called 47 fouls against a team that rarely fouls. Symbolically, Detroit cannot be allowed to win. Even with Detroit in a complete funk, they could have beaten Miami with games being called fairly. That is why it is so subtle. One cannot say Detroit played well but the other side cannot claim that the games were called fairly.
No one can ever step out of the propaganda paradigm. We are constantly, incessantly, without relief, subjected to the rigid and narrow view that the individual, not the union of the team determines success. Even the slightest step out of this viewpoint will be immediately squelched. Detroit as a team creates no identity of the individual and actually rewards cooperation at the expense of individual greed. But with Ben Wallace, the core of that concept, bowing to individual greed and ego, it will be difficult if not impossible for Detroit to come back. With this analysis, however, it will certainly be interesting to see how the whole scenario plays out.
Cuban represented the Great White Hope because he was white and rich. By exposing the unfairness of the referees, he stepped out of the accepted NBA position. Even though Dwayne Wade and LeBron James have inherited the Jordan rule—if you touch them, it is a foul and no one is to dare speak the truth. This cultural rule applies in every aspect of our lives.
That is a clear contradiction of capitalism. It must promote individualism to justify the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, but it must contain and control individual expression. When Hillary Clinton uses the term plantation, reminding of the history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, then she is immediately attacked and brought back in line. When Ray Neagin uses the term chocolate city, then he is attacked and rebuked. Any discussion of race necessarily raises the element of class. Racism can be expressed with code words as Selena Roberts illustrates, but that divides the class and is therefore permitted but within very strict boundaries. Open racism will unite the class because the majority of workers will accept that form of racism, even George Bush. When the blatant racism inherent in Bush’ actions during Katrina were exposed, Bush responded as follows:
“Asked in an interview with NBC News whether the response would have been the same had the destruction occurred on Nantucket or in Chicago or Houston, Mr. Bush said he was aware of the criticism that the government acted slowly because he was a racist, and he said such criticism was absolutely wrong. ‘You can call me anything you want,’ said Mr. Bush. But do not call me a racist.’ Richard A. Stevenson, NYT, 12/13/05 p.A30
The answer to Bush the Second is that actions speak louder than words. It is important to remember the Kanye West said that Bush did not care about Black people or “poor” people but the controlled media has consistently left out the second part, again because that would lead to unity.
The propaganda paradigm goes even further. The Dixie Chicks, for instance, cannot express even the most minor criticism of Bush the Second, such as saying they are ashamed of him. For this, they were immediately attacked and their records silenced on the largest radio outlet in the country. Why? Because that criticism necessarily would unite their audience (white country) with Black urban population which is 98% against Bush the Second and the anti-war forces that are often suburban. In other words, unity cannot be mentioned, implied, whispered or even suggested.
That is why the term “middle class” is used even though it is completely useless for analysis. In the middle of what—the rich and workers, which implies that, the middle class does not work. Is it between the rich and the poor? If so, which poor. Again, the poor work in order to survive; does that mean that the middle class does not have to work to survive. Of course not. The correct term is the working class because that includes all of those people who must work to survive and excludes those whose wealth makes it unnecessary to work in order to have food, shelter, transportation, and clothing. But that term is never allowed because it raises the specter of class warfare.
This brings us full circle to the Pistons. While LeBron James is called the King and his fans display signs of “we believe” as if proselytized, the Pistons have to regroup after an excellent but disappointing year. It is important to note that even in the quotes from Araton, the media bends the perspective. Why, for instance, are those who struggle for the protection of the core elements of basketball called “graying purists” as opposed to those “who market the game”. Why are not those who market the game not called greedy commercialists intent on destroying the integrity of the game. Why are they not exposed as seeking immediate maximum profit at the expense of the long term interests of the game? The answer is that to do so would expose the truth and risk loss of control. As with any part of this society, basketball represents the perfect metaphor for the class war that is waged by the rich in this country. Bush the Second has sacked the national treasury, giving huge riches to the already disgustingly rich and the NBA has awarded their chosen “stars” with championship rings.
Dwayne Wade is a magnificent athlete. Sadly, he is bought and paid for; unable to do anything that will challenge the status quo. Shaquille O’Neal is bought and paid for but he apparently relishes the experience and will always be a lackey for the highest bidder.
Because they are now and likely will always be the black sheep of the NBA, the Pistons can regroup to fight another day. Functioning within a corrupt system, as we must all do, they can symbolize the struggle for unity, that cooperation and team play will always be superior to individual greed. Whether they like it or not and whether they intend it or not, their actions will for the foreseeable future represent a better way to play the game and a better way to organize society. That is why it will be so interesting to see if Detroit can overcome the setback of the loss of Ben Wallace who sold his soul to the highest bidder. We will see if it works for him. Maybe it will maybe not.
For individuals such as myself, the struggle for unity is an end in and of itself. One that contains enormous gratification and therefore enormous wealth—the kind of wealth not measured by money. The unity between white black and black workers, between workers and the undocumented workers, between women and men. The unity of all people who work will make society better for everyone not just chosen individuals who live privileged lives at the expense of everyone else. That struggle for unity is a day to day reality of enormous importance. Wait until next year.
Yours in Struggle,
Ronald D. Glotta
220 Bagley, Suite 808
Detroit MI 48226-1409
(313) 963-1320 (313) 963-1325/Fax