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.