The Common Good
June 1994

We Are What We Watch?

by Bob Hulteen | June 1994

Many of us would say, if we were to be honest, that we think NBA basketball is of a
higher ilk than monster-truck pulls.

Many of us would say, if we were to be honest, that we think NBA basketball is of a higher ilk than monster-truck pulls. Those who like basketball are willing to sit and watch a game without questioning the significance of the sport. (They may feel guilty for not using the time to go out and save the world, but that's another issue.) Monster-truck pulls and all-star wrestling are things that less-enlightened people do to fill their empty lives, we say in the back of our minds.

But is the difference here anything more than aesthetic? And is it not mainly rooted in class consciousness? (Though these days monster-truck pulls are becoming more popular with the yuppie set, as they "rediscover" their roots.)

Monster-truck pulls arise out of a folk lifestyle. They're a direct descendant of the mule pulls, a popular pastime in small Southern and Midwestern communities a century ago when people's entertainment grew out of their work. Mule pulls probably made the drudgery of muling the other 364 days of the year a little less "drudgy." Economic, community, and personal benefits came out of these folk traditions.

I fear NBA basketball is different. I don't know the circumstances of basketball's creation in Springfield, Massachusetts, more than a century ago. But it is true today that too many people watch it without participating. And many of those who do participate as youngsters do so only to try to match the fame and wealth of the Magic Johnsons, Shaquille O'Neals, and Michael Jordans of the world.

Is the NBA sinful, one might ask? Probably not, in and of itself. But it is now fueling a dangerous longing in inner-city neighborhoods, much as the drug trade does. And it has become a gladiatorial contest where increasingly white-dominated audiences watch predominately African-American combatants duke it out for wealth and fame, but with little access to power and decision making. How many African-American owners are there in the NBA?

Not too many, certainly. But then many of the players are only a few generations removed from people who only owned 40 acres and a mule--and had very little pull indeed.

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