Bill Simmons and the Bell Curve:
The “limited intellectual capital” of the NBA’s Players
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
Like many sports writers, Bill Simmons has used his columns this week to condemn NBA players, ostensibly blaming them for the cancellation of games. On Friday, he offered the following that put the onus on the players:
Should someone who’s earned over $300 million (including endorsements) and has deferred paychecks coming really be telling guys who have made 1/100th as much as him to fight the fight and stand strong and not care about getting paid? And what are Garnett’s credentials, exactly? During one of the single biggest meetings (last week, on Tuesday), Hunter had Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Garnett (combined years spent in college: three) negotiate directly with Stern in some sort of misguided “Look how resolved we are, you’re not gonna intimidate us!” ploy that backfired so badly that one of their teams’ owners was summoned into the meeting specifically to calm his player down and undo some of the damage. (I’ll let you guess the player. It’s not hard.) And this helped the situation … how? And we thought this was going to work … why?
Congratulations, players — you showed solidarity! You showed you wouldn’t back down! You made things worse, and you wasted a day, but dammit, you didn’t back down! Just make sure you tell that to every team employee who gets fired over these next few weeks, as well as to all the restaurant and bar owners near NBA arenas who are taking a massive financial hit through the holidays. I’m sure they will be proud of you.
Beyond trotting out the “angry black man” trope, which seems to be commonplace within the NBA punditry, and blaming the players for the forthcoming unemployment facing many employees within of the NBA, Simmons hinges his evidence about the incompetence of the players by citing the amount of formal college education of Piece, Bryant and Garnett. In other words, people are losing jobs and fans are losing games because the NBA is at the mercy of its stupid/uneducated black players. And, Simmons wasn’t done here, offering additional clarity about his comments in “Behind the Pipes: Into the Arms of the NHL.” Explaining why he started going to hockey games, Simmons once again returns to the lockout or better said the player caused cancellation of games. In this column (sandwiched in between his general arrogance, dismissive rhetoric, and overly simplistic analysis that presumes sports exists in his theoretical mind and not reality), he writes
Where’s the big-picture leadership here? What’s the right number of franchises? Where should those franchises play? What’s worse, losing three franchises or losing an entire season of basketball? What’s really important here? I don’t trust the players’ side to make the right choices, because they are saddled with limited intellectual capital. (Sorry, it’s true.) The owners’ side can’t say the same; they should be ashamed. Same for the agents. And collectively, they should all be mortified that a 16-hour negotiating session, this late in the game, was cause for any celebration or optimism. In my mind, it was more of a cry for help.
Unusually Simmons offer some blame for the owners. As the intelligent ones, they have an obligation to fix the situation. Although they have the intelligence they allow the players, who lack intelligence, to have input in the situation. To Simmons, this is the source of the NBA’s problem.
The racial paternalism here is as striking as are his efforts to resuscitate the bell curve. What we are left with is an argument that the NBA faces a lockout because those who possess the requisite intelligence, who posses the proper fitness, have failed to control their inferior players. Michael Eric Dyson described such rhetoric as central to the history of American white supremacy: “Skepticism about black intelligence and suspicion about black humanity have gone hand in hand throughout the history of this country in feeding the perception that black people don’t quite measure up.” Writing about black male athletes and processes of representation, Ben Carrington invokes Frantz Fanon, who wrote about the incompatibility of blackness and intelligence within the white imagination. Carrington notes Fanon’s exploration of the ways in which blackness was conceptualized and envisioned through white supremacy:
When Fanon gives his white patients a word association test, it is significant to note how often his respondents mention either sports, or prominent black athletes of the period. Fanon informs us that the word, ‘Negro brought forth biology, penis, strong, athletic, potent, boxer, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Senegalese troops, savage, animal, devil, sin’. For Fanon, the black male was the repository of white fears, fantasies and desires, and of all of these constructions, there was one figure above all others that held a central place within the colonial imaginary: ‘There is one expression that through time has become singularly eroticized: the black athlete’.
In reading Simmons, it is clear that the black athlete remains both eroticized and demonized, a repository for white fears, fantasies, and desires, as well as a rhetorical space to articulate white fantasies, desires, and ideas about whiteness. It is no wonder that Simmons recycles the bell curve, explaining the lockout as simply a violation of nature or what happens when the intellectually inferior get to have input in a world where adults should make those important decisions.
This is not a question of intent or even individuals, but the ways in which larger narratives and the white racial frame (stereotypes about
intelligence, athleticism) plays out within public discourse. This is a discussion of the words, the ideology, and the history within them and how
they impact OUR collective discussions. It is one of stereotypes and the assumptions that are embedded within our language. It is the ways in which
race and a history of racism imprisons our assumptions and the ways that it impacts our collective imagination. This is NOT a commentary on Simmons as a person or him at all but the words themselves, which have a larger social context, that carry with them assumptions and history. Those assumptions, those ideas, and the ideologies guides my discussion and the ways in which those assumptions cloud both the discourse and policy inside and outside of the NBA