by Lang Whitaker

Ryan passed along this link to a column in this week’s Sports Illustrated by SI’s longtime NBA guru, Jack McCallum. In this column, McCallum writes about the perception of the NBA, specifically about how the NBA is seen as a league of “gangsters” and about how most people out there — the critical mass, as it were — favors the NFL over the NBA, so much so that McCallum says many people become accustomed to the hating and develop a thick skin:

“…the theme is consistent: dissatisfaction with the players, the game or both. Anyone associated with the league gets accustomed to it and dons a kind of armor. One veteran official, Bennett Salvatore, says that when someone recognizes him and starts babbling away, he says, ‘Oh, you got the wrong guy. That’s my twin brother who’s a ref.’”

I know of which he writes, as I’ve often casually met people (at parties, dinners, etc.) who, when I tell them I predominantly cover the NBA, almost immediately go into some sort of dissent about how the NBA sucks, because there’s no fundamentals anymore, etc. What’s interesting to me is that the NFL is completely different than it was 40 years ago, too, but nobody complains that the Statue of Liberty play or the Wing-T formation have disappeared. Same with baseball — the eephus pitch, anyone? — although baseball has its own set of issues to deal with now that all the best players are automatically thought to be on steroids and the way the bigger teams spend obscene amounts of money, so much so that baseball is dying in most places that aren’t big cities.

McCallum mostly focuses on the NFL players who have had run-ins with the law, including the NFL’s own Isaiah Rider, Chris Henry. He concludes by saying:

“Why the popularity gap? The unassailable fact remains that the NBA is a predominantly African-American league (73%) with a more openly hip-hop culture. While blacks make up about 65% of NFL rosters, football has never been seen as an “urban” sport. Moreover, because there are so many NFL players, and their sport is so team-focused and they’re covered in padding, they maintain some anonymity. It’s easier to embrace felons — of all colors — hidden under helmets than tatted-up black men in plain view.

Some NBA players, such as Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal, have been outspoken in their view that race is the major reason for the league’s negative image. But team and league executives rarely wade into public debate about it. Commissioner David Stern declined to speak to the popularity gap, other than to say, “When you have the most-recognized athletes in the world and you take the good that comes with that, you also have to take the bad.”

In the end the popularity gap isn’t just Stern’s problem. It’s ours, too, because it might say more about us than the NBA or the NFL. The less disturbing reason for the NFL’s invulnerability is that America likes pro football better than pro basketball — better than almost anything else, in fact. I’ve heard a hundred discussions about the NFL in NBA locker rooms and precious few about the NBA in NFL locker rooms. Still, we must acknowledge that the players of one sport should not get a free pass while those of another are systematically skewered for similar misdeeds — or for none at all”

I’m not sure I totally agree with McCallum here, because I don’t think people care less about the NFL’s problems because there’s more white people playing or because the black people are wearing helmets. Look, the NFL is more popular, and whenever anything is popular, people will generally overlook the flaws to focus on the fun. Look at “American Idol,” where a judge allegedly slept with a contestant and bought him a phone and all kinds of other stuff and…nobody cares.

(And there’s also no mention of how the NBA is miles ahead of the NFL and MLB in terms of worldwide popularity. But I guess McCallum was focused on popularity within the USA.)

All of this raises a valid point, though: Why isn’t the NBA as popular as the NFL? And what will have to change for the NBA to catch up to the NFL?