When in Doubt, Blame it on Hip-Hop

In case you weren’t already aware, hip-hop has been under attack for the past few weeks. Besides being lambasted for its normal transgressions (acts of violence, misogyny, etc), hip-hop has been roundly blamed for causing poor Don Imus to be confused about proper linguistic etiquette. It was only a matter of time before the Hip-Hop Haterati started blaming hip-hop culture (i.e. young black athletes) for what they perceive as the decline in the popular appeal of the NBA. In a blog I came across yesterday one of the aforementioned Haterites tried to link the “cultural marginalization” of the NBA to its ties with hip-hop culture over the last 10-15 years. The blogger’s spectactularly pedestrian analysis was worthy of at best a “B” in 10th grade Rhetoric, but in the hostile climate created by the Don Imus conflagration it actually passes for a credible argument worthy of mention and discussion on ESPN.com

The argument:

As the sport has further fused itself with hip-hop culture over the past 10-15 years, liking hip-hop music and the NBA have become one and the same. While the league isn’t going anywhere any time soon, it’s becoming more difficult to consider it mainstream culture.

The evidence offered to defend the argument:

-Regular-season network ratings have cut in half since 1998
-One regular-season game this season on ABC got a 1.0 national HH rating, less than a quarter of the average regular-season rating in 1998
-The ratings for this year’s All-Star weekend (especially the game on Sunday) were about as big of a disappointment to Turner as the “South Central” atmosphere was to visitors of the MGM Grand
-Playoff ratings across the board have also faced similar declines

My turn

Let’s be honest here, “mainstream culture” is code for “white” just like “hip-hop culture” is code for black. The insinuation is that as the NBA has become “blacker” it has lost its audience. This argument is about as unoriginal as it is untruthful. At best, it feeds into the stereotype that grew out of the cornrow phenomenon and the establishment of a dress code, which was widely regarded as an attack on the increasingly thuggish image of NBA players. However, in initiating the code David Stern was not responding to any particular dip in the game’s popularity. Ticket sales were rising. Global Merchandising was through the roof. David Stern was doing what David Stern does: protecting his product from the possibility of a backlash not an actual backlash.

Furthermore, if you look at the NBA Finals theme songs over the last five years, you would be hard-pressed to find a true “hip-hop” song among them:

02-03 “Dig In” – Lenny Kravitz
03-04 “Let’s Get It Started” – Black Eyed Peas
04-05 “This Is How A Heart Breaks” – Rob Thomas
05-06 “Runnin’ Down A Dream” – Tom Petty

This year’s theme song, the Pussycat Dolls’ “Right Now,” is by no stretch of the imagination an example of hip-hop music.

Resting the decline in ratings at hip-hop’s doorstep is about as bad as bullying the smallest kid in class in the lunch line. Hip-hop is an easy target because few people sympathize with what they believer are overpaid, oversexed, overindulged rappers and athletes who generally don’t care what people think about them.

The reality is this, though: ABC does a really bad job with the NBA. From the scheduling to the time slots to its cross promotional adventure with Dancing with the Stars, ABC succeeds in giving the NBA fan every reason in the world not to watch a game. All you really need to know about ABC is that it is owned by Disney, and that nothing Disney is involved with has an edge.

The reality is also this: the NBA has watered down the talent pool through expansion to a point where a record number of guys who aren’t even college stand-outs at major universities are opting to enter the draft as underclassmen. The new hand-check rules favoring guards, the constant stoppages of play, the all-too frequently whistled Charge call, and the quick technical foul whistle for any lip and/or aggressive play, have all conspired to drain the game of its chutzpah. The marketing strategy is directly related to the watering down of the league. While the NFL’s community service commercials are at the very least self-effacing and ironic at times, the NBA Cares commercials are downright sentimental and nauseating. I love the kids, too. I want to see them read like any one else. I just don’t want to Lebron James dressed up as Santa Claus three times a game.

Another contributing factor to the decline in ratings is the exclusivity of the NBA game. Somewhere within the last five or six years NBA games became celebrity-sighting spots outside of the standard Los Angeles  and New York venues. Nowadays it’s almost extraordinary if some tanned, contented celebrity isn’t sitting in the front row in even the most obscure arena. Basketball has become the game of the rich and famous. Between the sky-boxes, the floor seats, the insane ticket prices and the outlandish vendor prices, the average fan has been systematically alienated from the game. NBA All-Star Weekend, for instance, has turned into perhaps the biggest celebrity networking event outside the Superbowl. “Mainstream” people have a hard time relating to celebrity culture, not hip-hop culture, which is merely a sub-plot within the larger matrix of gross and ostentatious wealthism that turns off people who are simply struggling to stay afloat.

The evolution of interactive websites and 24-hour sports networks also contribute to the supposed decline in viewership. We don’t have to watch the game to follow the game. Immediately after a game is over, we can log onto the Internet and find complete summaries plus highlights and press conferences. If we don’t want to go online, we can simply turn on a cable sports network and catch all of the highlights we want.

I hope I am not stepping out of line when I say the Nielson rating system is an impracticable indicator of basketball viewership. For one thing, Nielson boxes are in less than 10,000 American homes and have only recently begun accounting for the growing percentage of Americans who rely on DVRs to tape their programs. But even granting the Nielson rating system a measure of reliability as a means of accounting for the viewing habits of a given family, it does not account for the number of people who gather to watch a game under one roof. Moreover, it does not have any way of tracking the number of people watching a game at sports-bars around the country.

If we really want to know whether “mainstream culture” cares about the NBA we have to look at numbers we can actually measure. For example, we know that when the Denver Nuggets acquired Allen Iverson last winter 340 new season ticket packages were purchased in a single day. By the following day a total of 600 packages had been purchased. After the 2005-06 season the NBA reported its highest ever attendance averages and totals throughout the league. After last season 93% of the Phoenix Suns’ season ticket holders re-purchased plans for the 2006-07 season. Those are hardcore numbers that stand up under the weight of scrutiny.

When the NHL’s struggle to woo fans is discussed, no one ever says anything about cultural marginalization. No one suggest that maybe fans are turned off by the sport’s glorification of violence. No, what people routinely discuss is the NHL Lockout two years ago. The NBA is never given that kind of leeway even when the facts don’t corroborate a flimsy, biased opinion that fans are losing interest in the game because it is, essentially, too black. The NBA Playoffs are with us for the next three months. A less than stellar opening weekend should be read more accurately as a regular season hangover than as an indication of the waning relevance of the game. As for people with a biased agenda, they should be more forthright in their analysis.

A Message to the Haterati: hip-hop is not your whipping boy, bitch, scapegoat, red-headed stepchild or nappy-headed ho.

Now that you’ve been warned, blog at your own peril.

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9 Responses to “When in Doubt, Blame it on Hip-Hop”

  1. This is the writing that I used to
    find in old magazines like Sport,
    Inside Sports, and even Sports
    Illustrated. I don’t always agree
    with everything I’ve read in The
    Starting Five, but man it’s great
    place to go when you’ve had enough
    of the crap the four-letter network
    dishes out.

  2. My first thought on seeing that argument was, “In what world is hip hop not mainstream?” I don’t listen to any popular music, but I’ve seen Jay-Z in beer commercials, I’ve seen Snoop Dogg in movies, and I’m pretty sure there are all sorts of other hip hop artists that I can’t name that have been in commercials and movies. You’re right on in seeing the speaker’s meaning of “mainstream” as “white.” I’m also interested to know that “liking hip-hop music and the NBA have become one and the same.” The argument is so absurd I’m surprised you’re bothering to refute it (though the argument is prevalent enough, I suppose somebody has to).

  3. Expansion is a popular scapegoat. But the population has been expanding at near exactly the same rate as the league. Combined with the influx of international players this should result in an even deeper talent pool. I wonder if anyone actually measures the “talent pool” and quality of play, or do the critics just like to believe it was better in the old days.

    Also realize that the NBA’s popularity doesn’t have to be on the decline for them to be alarmed. A slow down in growth will get them nervous before any sort of actual drop off occurs. And given exponential growth over the last 25 years, a slow down was inevitable.

    Finally, those attendance numbers show an all time high occurred last season. doesn’t that render all arguments why the games are less popular moot. Sure the celebrities and ticket prices suck but it isn’t hurting sales. And I doubt people aren’t turning on their tv’s because they might see Britney in the stands.

    Bottom line, the problem is the televised action and the blame rests solely on abc.

  4. 24 hour coverage does not allow for cycles to naturally occur and be recognized as such as they’ve been transformed into very specific events that and hyper-scrutinalized. We take everything in the context of the moment and try to attach a set of extraordinary circumstances and meanings without see a 360 degree view.
    Yes, the NBA is generally expensive to attend. But, there are very cheap tickets ($10 in many cases) avaialble on game day and unless your in a decrepit, old arena, there really aren’t any bad seats.
    I bring this up because it’s a matter of taking responsibility for our own consumption of information and learn instead of being told.
    The reactions we see to Imus’ firing and the supposed movement for lyrical accountability are basic and ill-advised because those reacting were uninformed. Had they been informed heading in, this would have been a discussion on the why and where do we go next.

  5. maxairington Says:

    Nice work. Anyone claiming that hip hop is destroying the NBA is either very young, or very naive. The NBA was troubled by it’s too black image before Grandmaster Flash ever saw a turntable. Coincidentally, David Halberstam tackled that very issue back in the late 70′s or early 80′s in his book Breaks of the Game. He also wrote one of the definitive books on Michael Jordan in which he effectively chronicled Money’s contributions to enhancing that “black” image of the NBA, all while escaping it’s negative associations. Mars Blackmon anyone? He died yesterday morning and he will be truly missed.

    On a side note, CBS is doing a great job of continuing the biased and racially charged ‘exposes’ on hip hop with their intrepid reporting on the “Stop Snitching” phenomenon, formerly associated with Carmelo Anthony. I love how hip hop is “promoting a disrespect for authority” and “no cooperation with the police” but The Departed can win an Oscar showing the same behavior in south Boston. The Sopranos will air their finale tocritical acclaim, and The Godfather will still be everyone’s favorite movie. Omerta anyone?

    Nonetheless, I expect more of the same from the blogosphere’s dimwitted.

  6. Man, all of you guys offer such insightful opinions that I don’t really know where to even begin.

    ChrisH: I hear you about coming up with some measureable means of judging the talent pool. I will say, however, that DWil and I were talking last night and it baffled both of us why and how Tyron Lue can still exist as a starting point guard in the NBA.

    Pacifist Viking: I also felt like the blog wasn’t even worth responding to on some level. But, as you note, it’s not really a response to one blog but to a general attitude and sentiment.

    Nerditry: I totally agree with your point about being accountable for what we consume. You can hit up a game for cheap these days. What I would like you to elaborate on is your theory about the 24 hour media cycle. It sounds interesting and I’d like to hear it in more fleshed out form.

    Maxairrington: Big ups for the history lesson. That is always a suspiciously absent ingredient in the pontificator’s arsenal.

    Des: We definitely try to be that voice that offers something you can’t find elsewhere

  7. Good piece and good points at the end.

    Minor bit at the end: As a hockey fan, I’m willing to cop that fighting might be turning off people. However, half the problem is that the only highlights people see of hockey more often than not are the fights.

  8. TheLastPoet Says:

    Good post and good comments to which I have nothing to add. Could I be more pleased with The Starting Five’s effort day in and day out? No I could not. Yall are the MVPs of this blogging shid, no doubt. If I can think of something more meaningful and profound to say, then I’ll be back. But it really isn’t necessary.

  9. A few days after the incident nearly every television station was breaking down hip-hop lyrics and calling in “experts” to decipher them. (The only credible figure I personally witnessed was Cornel West.) It did not surprise me, but it was rather wearisome watching these tired men screaming at 15-year-old Snoop lyrics. Truly, it’s a brilliant marketing ploy, to pin Imus’ ignorance on hip-hop artists. Only good thing about him ever was partnering with Howard Stern on AM back in the ’80s. Since then it’s been all downhill anyway.

    But I’ve also come to realize that Rutgers will never get respect, period. The football team loses a game this year and the NY Times says that Cinderella dies. When hnic and I were there in the mid-’90s, Sports Illustrated ranked RU football #128. Out of 128 teams. We won’t even go into men’s basketball. We played with those jokers in the Livingston gym when they weren’t at practice. Time and again, every time a light emerges on that campus – this time being the incredible season by the women’s team – the shadow overpowers the light.

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