02.22.11

Buzz Bissinger Wrote A Terrible Piece About The NBA, But It’s Only Kind Of His Fault

Posted in Basketball, Buzz Bissinger Is Out To Lunch, Sports Journalism at 3:31 pm by

I wrote multiple NFL-related columns during the football season, for a few different venues, and it was exhausting. Not just because I feel ambivalent-to-grossed-out about the NFL in general, although there was that, but because cranking up the dudgeon when I’d really have preferred to write about something else (or take a nap) was not as easy as it seemed before I actually had to do it. It’s much, much better than not having work, of course, and there are of course a near-infinite number of harder jobs in the world than pretending to care about the Jets. But I mention it because having experienced that enervating, gnawing combination of lack-of-interest and impending deadline is about as close as I can get to sympathy for Buzz Bissinger in his sportswriting dotage.

The guy obviously does not much care about sports anymore, which makes it kind of a shame that he has to keep writing about them. Everyone has to eat, I guess, and while Buzz would obviously rather be in a steakhouse, listening to Tony LaRussa bitch about illegal aliens and taxes, or just kicking back and screaming at young people in an A&P parking lot than writing columns about sports, no one’s paying him to do what he’d rather be doing. (Although they already paid him for the LaRussa bit, kind of) So he’s still out there, banging out his played-out curmudgeonhoods about the sports topic of the moment. It must suck, in a way.

But that’s about as far as I can go, honestly. Buzz, who now writes for The Daily Beast’s sports section, delivered himself of a pretty embarrassing column on the NBA over the weekend. Bissinger’s thesis was that the NBA’s problem connecting with fans owed to the fact that the league was “too black” — aesthetically and in terms of, you know, how many black people it employs — and that some people, though not Buzz, were turned off by that. The column itself is pretty much indefensible, but not necessarily because Bissinger managed to be more or less totally wrong in an utterly out-of-touch way. Here’s how it starts:

My editor thinks I should write something about professional basketball. The timing is certainly right—the National Basketball Association’s All-Star extravaganza starts today in Los Angeles, culminating in the All-Star game on Sunday night. The problem is, I don’t really know what to say about the NBA other than I almost never watch it anymore. I am not a basketball junkie and I have no desire to be one. There are maybe three players I would pay to watch.

And we could stop right there, some five sentences after Buzz should’ve stopped. Not just because leading with an admission of ignorance and some mushy contrarianism sure is one Bleacher Report-y ass way to start a column (except for the part about editors, which is obviously not a Bleacher Report thing), but because Bissinger is copping, up top, to an inability to 1) want to or 2) be able to write the column that he then (of course) proceeds to write. Everything that Bissinger goes on to be wrong about — why the NBA “is in trouble, and I don’t think there’s much dispute about that,” that attendance is down, that the game is suffocatingly one-on-one, as well as some really dicey stuff about how black players’ body language scans to white fans, though not to Buzz, who is not a racist but a truth-teller — is explained by a lede in which he allows that there is absolutely no reason why he should be writing this column. Which is effectively the same thing as admitting that there’s no reason why anyone should be reading it.

That Bissinger is wrong about a great deal in his column might not be surprising, given all that, but it’s still worth pointing out. At The Score’s Basketball Jones blog, Scott Carefoot does a good job of that:

I contacted the NBA league office and they confirmed David Stern’s recent claim that attendance is actually up “just shy of 1 percent” this season. That’s not a massive increase, but it’s certainly not a decline. Where you will see a significant increase in the NBA’s popularity if you bother to do the research — which Bissinger didn’t, and I did — is in the TV ratings for this season. Multiple sources have confirmed that ratings have been way up throughout the season, but here are the latest numbers provided by the NBA as of this past weekend:

* Viewership for the NBA’s network partners is up double-digits across the board.
* TNT viewership of NBA games is up 30 percent, ESPN viewership is up 20 percent, and ABC viewership is up 34 percent compared to this point last season.
* NBA games have reached over 86.5 million unique viewers this season, nearly 20 percent ahead of last year’s regular season pace to date.

Carefoot proceeds to dissect the maybe-sorta racial problems in Bissinger’s “too black” thesis, and while he does so well enough, it’s also not really worth the time. “I have no hard-core evidence,” Bissinger allows early in the piece (again) on that thesis, and he later admits that his proof that the NBA “has a problem… beyond dispute” comes from conversations he has had with friends who no longer watch the league. Buzz’s friends, of course, being a demographic that, given Bissinger’s age (56) and wealth (above-average) and friends (Tony LaRussa, other people who curse at young people in A&P parking lots) is not really representative of much — and certainly not representative of the demo that appeals most to the companies buying ads during NBA games. Instead, the admission is representative only of the thing that Bissinger is semaphoring wildly from the article’s opening words — that he is not qualified to write this piece, and shouldn’t have written it, and that it shouldn’t have run, period.

And so all this really collapses on the editor, for me — the one who told Bissinger to write a piece he shouldn’t have written, and who then read that piece and waved it into print despite the fact that it came out every bit as badly as one could have (easily) predicted it would. Bissinger has a job to do, and as long as he’s getting paid (well) to do it, he should of course try to do it better. (Another option would be getting out of the game altogether and stick to writing about things he actually cares about, like what a nice guy Don Imus is) This sort of hacky, half-assed pundi-trolling isn’t new for Bissinger, and in its way does considerably more damage to his bruised rep than did his unhinged HBO assault on Will Leitch or its slightly less crazed aftermath.

That televised shrieking suggests why an editor — someone almost certainly younger, certainly less well-paid, and presumably not any more keen to get screeched at by Crazy Eyes Buzz than those skateboarders in the A&P parking lot — might not want to put a spike through a Bissinger column. But everything in Bissinger’s embarrassing piece suggests that he might not have been all that unhappy with an editor canning this particular column, a column that scans as one long argument against itself/plea for the wastebasket. Nightmarish post-literate dystopia though it may be, the Bleacher Report guys at least seem to be having fun with their sports-underboob slideshows and malaprop-laden MMA sermonizing. Buzz just wants to be left alone, it seems, and his editor would’ve done both Buzz and the Daily Beast a service by doing just that in this case.

7 Responses to “Buzz Bissinger Wrote A Terrible Piece About The NBA, But It’s Only Kind Of His Fault”

  1. WeWanttheFunk says:

    Why spike it? It’s stupid, wrongheaded, blowhard crap – perfect bait for metacoverage.

    I assume that TDB doesn’t have a real basketball writer. Having Buzz write something dumb and pseudo-envelope-pushing is bound to get him shredded by the cutting edges of basketball commentary at points far and wide – all with links to the original steaming pile.

    The article is actually written inside out. If he lead with his finish and worked it that way, it could have come out sounding progressive. Instead it’s all “I’m not racist… BUT…”

  2. jason says:

    Simple solution – Affirmitive Action needs to apply to sports, just as it does to all other Businesses. The black players on the NBA are at 85% if you include black foreighners from the Carribean. That is almost 7x more black people on the NBA than are in the general population.

    The NBA should be 65% White, 13% Black, 14% Hispanic and 3% Asian. And even if alot of Black players are kicked out despite being better…So what, it happens all the time in the business world, where a White person who is better educated is fired so they can fill a minority quota.

  3. David Roth says:

    Well, you’re right, Braden. A failure in most every way — although I would’ve loved to have seen your editorial suggestion taken, if only to see how the piece would turn out — Buzz’s piece is indeed a success on its own debauched terms. The problem, as I’ve written before here, is that the incentives in the market aren’t running the right way to induce or incent quality writing — trolling pays better, and the reputational damage that the piece will do to the Daily Beast (or the weirdly Teflon-coated Buzz) is probably nil. So yeah, why not?

    If The Daily Beast cared as much as about its image as I think it does, they would’ve held it or spiked it, because it sucks like crazy (and is wrong on basic facts). Evidently, though, they’re not above pulling a HuffPo Move — Huffington Post being Bleacher Report with worse medical advice — if the buzz (ha, ugh) and potential eyeball payday is right. This market is not working.

  4. David R. says:

    NPR seems to have done a thing springboarding off of Buzz’s scintillating thesis — way to validate lazy racism, commies! The only other publicly-funded radio thing I have less interest in listening to or clicking on is the special Player’s Coffee episode of A Prairie Home Companion (tho I heard Donna Murphy kicks ass w/ her rendition of “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio”).

  5. glenzo says:

    Yeah, I heard the NPR All Things Considered piece about an hour after seeing this CSTB entry- so the echo chamber effect has been achieved.

    Bissinger did allow that in hindsight he wishes he had clarified that he was referring to *a certain segment* of the white demographic (i.e., older guys like him). It’s the same tired complaint I’ve been hearing about basketball for years- whch is why the argument fails. Bissinger acknowledges that the % of white players has been fairly constant recently (although he then segments between Real Americans and Durn Foreigners) but claims whites have no star they can relate to. Seems to me Larry Legend’s been retired nearly 20 years, though, and I don’t think John Stockton inspired that many casual fans to stick with the NBA. So it’s a little tough to pin a “decline in interest” (if there were any evidence it even existed) on a condition that was already in place throughout the heady 90s.

  6. GC says:

    “it happens all the time in the business world, where a White person who is better educated is fired so they can fill a minority quota.”

    Since you can’t properly spell the word “foreigners”, I’ll presume the above sentence wasn’t self-referential.

  7. WeWanttheFunk says:

    As long as we’ve got the red pen out, he can’t find the right “a lot” either. Were you kicked out of grammar school to fill a quota, Jason?

    David – Unfortunately for both readers and writers of sports journalism, I contend that the market is indeed “working”, and producing the above mentioned crap to fuel genuine(ly disappointing) demand.

    Remember, though: trends come and go. Interests shift. It could be that the intelligent feedback to the Bissinger bullshit, or future bullshit like it, generates more interest and attention than the genesis.

    So, don’t give up.

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