SLAM: Are those human connections, or any other kind, are so easily attained? There’s a disconnect between players and writers backgrounds and most of it can be attributed to their contrasting races.
Robson: Well, I’ve always been of the belief that race and class are exponential when you mix them. I think if the players made as much as the writers and vice versa, the race difference wouldn’t be nearly as bad. I think that if everybody was the same race, but the players are still making much more than the writers were, then you’d still have a situation that isn’t a positive. But the idea that you have really wealthy, mostly black people being covered by relatively, if not impoverished, middle class people that are white. I have seen with my own eyes people that resent the wealth and privilege of athletes. Some of it is racism, but more of it is classism. I’ve seen people resent someone for their race. When J.R. Rider was here, one of the reasons I went crazy defending him was I got pissed at the way-I don’t want to call people out, I did at the time. Sometimes I’m right, some of those times I was wrong and you don’t want to be wrong when calling people racist-but there was a racist factor to the J.R. Rider backlash. There’s no doubt that the economic difference and the racial difference between people who cover sports and the people who play sports has a role in the coverage. That said, it gets back to what we were saying before, where that will show is in the mythology rather than in the game itself. You can still describe the game and be a racist or a classist. Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan and Michael Jordan could be purple, but it’s the fact that he plays the game so well. There are racists who think that Michael Jordan isn’t black, he’s just great. The great thing about athletics is that the spectacle, at least temporarily, overwhelms race in the game itself.
SLAM: You’ve worked with Black Enterprise, reviewed hip hop albums and done work on local gangs. Have those experiences helped you relate to players in ways other writers can’t?
Robson: For the people who can’t see me, I’m a bald 55 year old white guy. When I was a balding 35 year old white guy, it was easier to talk to these guys about hip hop than it is now. I can tell, I pull it out. I cop to the fact that when I’m introducing myself to black players, the fact that I know something about hip hop, the surprise factor helps me stick in their mind as somebody that might be good to talk to honestly, hopefully. But it’s less and less effective because of the way I look now, it’s almost too outlandish a surprise to them. Like I’m cramming for a test or something, you know? So I don’t use it as much as I used to. That said, I didn’t grow up around a lot of black people, I did grow up in the civil rights movement which was crucial for me as was the anti-war movement. Both of those things had a great impact on the way that I look at life. It was a time of great hope and great violence. I was real impressionable at the time, so I was open to having black friends and indulging in black culture on a basis that I felt like even if it wasn’t my culture I could appreciate it on a deep level. And so what that has done to me, more than anything else is…I’m frankly stunned that black people aren’t walking around just furious twelve hours a day. Obviously it’s something where you pretty much have to check it, there’s a V Chip in your brain that you have to deactivate when you get home and say “Motherfuckin…”. I think the fact that I’m aware of this and want to be aware of this gives me insights that a lot of white people don’t have and shame on them. It’s out there, it doesn’t take a genius to see it. It doesn’t take a genius to know that…if I walk into a boardroom and you walk into a board room, I’m going to get further than you are before either one of us opens up our mouth. I can go so many different places based on the fact that I’m male and white and have been raised male and white. It’s one thing to be male and white, but it’s another thing to know the codes, know how privilege is wielded, know how racially-if not racist and mostly it is racist-the way things are set up. I have one of the pass keys to understanding how that happens, how people think and talk. If I go to a wedding and I talk to somebody who’s a CEO of some company, I can sling the bullshit until the cows come home about what he does. If you do it from an assumption of privilege, it doesn’t feel forced. I could have gone in that direction, maybe not necessarily as successful as a CEO, but I always knew those avenues were open to me due to my gender and race. Just having that privilege as I’m moving along, forms part of my being. It gives me less to struggle against, which is a pro and a con, and it gives me an innate sense of privilege and confidence which has a good and a bad aspect to it. So knowing that I have that, but also at least seeing, other people not like myself are dealing with, it’s only in my interest to be able to appreciate as much as I can what I don’t know and the things things that I can’t get, for good and for bad. And that’s one of the reasons quite frankly, I have a number of black people who I really like and I relate to, but there’s very few deep black friendships and part of that is cause I don’t want to give these people the sense that I’m trying to be their friend, you know what I mean? There’s some people that when we see each other, it’s great and I really like it, but I feel a little self conscious. Part of is racist of myself, but part of it is “Don’t overdo it”. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ right? I’m only in for a couple of pennies here. That’s what my life is like, I can’t be in for a pound. And if I tell you I’ll be in for a pound, then I’m going to disappoint myself and whoever else I’m trying to be in it for. So, what I’m trying to say is, black people really have no choice but to try and study white people, their culture and how everything works because it’s dominant. But that de facto makes them pretty good experts on how white culture works. But they’re also obviously experts on how black culture works, and for the most part they’re true to that too. It would be crazy for me to not know as much as I could about black culture. Without being a phony about it. Diversity has become such a cliche, but what diversity means is options. You have more options, you have more hybrids, you have more refractions, you have more billiard balls on the table to knock into pockets from different options. It’s richer. Right now I’m really into Indian jazz. Miles Davis, they just put out this Miles From India record, Miles Davis music played by some of his guys and by a bunch of new Indian musicians. And it’s great. I’m just stoked to have this connection with Indian culture that I’ve never really had before. And there’s so many other things like that out there. If you’re not open to it, it’s your loss. Basketball is black culture, let’s face it. As it turned out, i was lucky enough to be exposed to it before I knew anything about race, so I loved the game anyway. Hip hop is the blues essentially, everything has a blues root to it. I was lucky enough to be reviewing records, started with rock, then jazz, but I began to get hip hop records in the mail so I was exposed to it. So I didn’t have to seek it out so much as it came to me. I’ve been blessed and had a lot of input. The quick answer to your question is, “Yes”.
SLAM: Has being white ever been a problem for you in covering the league? Has it ever held you back from writing or saying something?
Robson: Yeah, I think it has. I think sometimes I’ll soft pedal the racial implication of what I might say sometimes. The temptation is not to become “Mr.Black Culture” and that’s what kind of happened with the Rider thing when I was younger. It was dramatic to me, but it wasn’t dramatic to anybody else. I wasn’t marching in the streets or anything. I just perceived that this guy was getting screwed, but as it turns out he was a chucklehead and I had a little bit of egg on my face at the end of it. But I do notice when things are happening in a certain way and it pissed me off. I don’t like to write that a black guy is an athlete and a white guy is smart. Even when the white guys is smart or the black guy is an athlete, it reinforces a stereotype. Now things are stereotypes because often times they can be true, but that’s something where as a white writer for me to write “Steve Nash is a heady player and Chris Paul is a great athlete”. Anybody who knows me or would assume that I’m white and I wrote that, I’m feeding into the idea that I’m a racist guy. So I’ll think of another way to say it. I happen to believe that Chris Paul is very smart and that Steve Nash is underrated athletically. Larry Bird wasn’t a great athlete, he was incredibly smart. Dumb as a post in life, but in basketball he was a smart guy, he had physical intelligence. I worry about stereotypes and also I think that…. For example, Paul Pierce got a huge fine for apparently sporting some gang sign, so you get these situations where if I don’t think something is racist and it might be racist, I think long and hard before I open my mouth. Because on some level I worry that I really don’t know what I’m talking about. If I’m going to wade into issues that are racially fraught, I really need to feel it. I really need to know that I might have to defend it for a long time. As for the other part of your question, I think that black people naturally treat black writers with a little more empathy and I expect no less. I think that to some extent, especially when you’re older and not coming in a suit, I mean I’m coming like a schlub. Like a white, middle-aged schlub. That’s the kind of guy that black athletes are conditioned to think has it out for them and I have to accept that. That’s part of the game. But I also expect to be treated like shit by athletes, at least for a while until I prove myself. Whether it’s fair or unfair it’s the nature of the game. They’ve been exposed to so much, basically sticking a mic in front of their face and saying “Dance for me!” or ” Gimme the quote of the week!”. I wouldn’t want to deal with that every fucking day. Now of course I’d get paid a lot of money, but still.
SLAM: How has being white been an advantage for you?
Robson: For one thing, people aren’t afraid of me. Sometimes that matters. Say I don’t have my credential properly in place, most of the time, I can talk to somebody or show them my credential. Let’s say that person didn’t even mean anything by it, that V Chips I was talking about before… you’ve gotta wonder “Is that guy fucking with my credential cause I’m black?” I don’t have to think about any of that stuff. I’d just say “That guy’s just doing his job and maybe he’s an asshole”, not “maybe he was a racist”. So all of those things make my life easier. I live in a privileged culture on the privileged side of the fence. Even in a black dominated sport like basketball, most of the fans are white, most of the gatekeepers are white and a lot of the decision makers are white. As disseminators of information, I think the league trusts white people to play the myth making game with a little more fidelity and no scandals. They don’t make waves. I see Larry Fitzgerald challenge Kevin McHale at a press conference and I know he does it cause he’s pissed cause they fired Dwane Casey and hired Randy Wittman, probably more pissed about it than I am and I think it was a mistake too. But I don’t have that racial component quite as clearly as he does. When he starts asking about Wittman to Kevin McHale, McHale is probably going to respond differently to Larry than he does to me. So all of those things, it’s like life writ small. You basically have the same sets of pros and cons, but as a person who is a white male in American society those are the times that it proves in my favor.
SLAM: Has it ever helped you in dealing with players directly?
Robson: I don’t know. K.G. was a great example. I can’t remember exactly who it was, it might have been the Lox or somebody. They were on the air and I said “Who is this?” and he said “The Lox.” then I said “Oh, Puffy’s boys…” He was like “Oooh look at you!” I think if I was a black guy and said the exact same thing or was a guy in my mid thirties, it wouldn’t have made quite as much of an impression. I think the next time I came and talked to him and I was able-very manipulatively-to say something like “So, do you like the Lox or DMX?” The fact that I was white and talking about that stuff helped me out. I wasn’t expected to know that stuff and the fact that I did know it proved more in my favor than a black guy knowing that stuff too.
SLAM: Do you think players are more comfortable with reporters of their own race or vice versa? And does that place an unfair burden on either?
Robson: It depends on the story. If you’re just in the locker room getting quotes, I think by far the biggest difference is gender. I think women reporters……well I wouldn’t want to be one of them. I would much rather be an effeminate black guy than a white or black woman in the locker room. They get it the worst, then effeminate people are the next worst. But regular people, you and me, I don’t think it makes that much difference on one level. If were doing a ‘deep’ story, like if Charles Hallman is doing a story for the Timberwolves and I’m doing a story for City Pages back then, I might notice-say it’s Al Jefferson or Tony Campbell or whoever-they might make assumptions based on the fact that he’s black or that we’re a certain way. Put it this way, when I tried to get deep access to K.G. for a story one time I wasn’t able to get it, but I think it was SLAM-it might have been Hoop-got it. I think one of the best one of the best articles I read about K.G. behind the scenes in the offseason came out of SLAM and I don’t think it was a coincidence that it was for SLAM as opposed to somebody else. I think that players, like anybody else, want to ‘keep it real’. I’m not on that side of the fence. It may cost me a little, but you know….So technically yes, but it’s not something I spend a lot of time worrying about.
SLAM: There are instances where race affects coverage, but how much do you think that influences the reader?
Robson: I think there are a lot of writers-particularly non white writers and non male writers-that you know they’re not white males in their writing. There used to be a writer, now he calls himself Greg Tate, but when he started writing about music he called himself Gregory “Iron Man” Tate. He was a very flamboyantly, partly Black Nationalist, partly hip hop, but a very, very, “black” writer. But he was writing about black stuff. I think he founded the Black Rock Coalition, he was real good friends with Vernon Reid from Living Colour and stuff. His instincts about black music really resonated with people and so the codes he was letting me in on in terms of the culture were codes I trusted more. Just to go back to what I said before, what you have more than anything else of as a writer is credibility. You have to be able to sell what you’re presenting. I try to present myself as a ‘racially aware white guy’ when it matters, otherwise a ‘racially neutral white guy’. I love that my first name is gender neutral, because some people think I’m female. Not so much in sports, but in music and other things. But I love that cause it’s great to be able to kind of scramble things. [inaudible] I’m a white male and eighty percent of sportswriters are white males, but I notice when somebody’s obviously not a white male and is giving me something beyond the white male perspective and has credibility. I’ll tend to go to that person.
SLAM: Do you think that a writers misconceptions, racially speaking, can influence the reader just as much?
Robson: Yeah. I really do wonder what I would have sounded like as a writer if I were writing in 1961. Aside from the fact that I would have used the word ‘Negro’. Would I have just automatically have said some things that just made me now want to bury my head in the sand? And whether twenty years from now, something I’ve said today might have those implications? I don’t know. I’m certainly not immune from it, I’m a product of this culture and this is not a racially equal culture. So yes, the easy answer is writers are part of this culture and they also write for the culture, which means they don’t-some writers-don’t want to challenge the culture. Very few people-I didn’t anyway-say “Wait a minute. Paul Pierce is getting this big fine for making a little gesture? That’s probably racist!” I didn’t get on a soapbox about it, but there’s people who say that it was a good thing and “We need to keep the sanctity of the game intact”. And so it becomes one those things where what we accept without comment can often be as bad as what we protest incorrectly. And to that extent, yeah, we perpetuate bad shit all the time.
SLAM: Are there instances where you think race impacts the actual game?
Robson: Good question. I think that when Kermit Washington punched Rudy Tomjanovich I was really pleased to see how little that got turned into hysteria. That’s a classic fear mongering scenario, you know? To be honest with you, if it happened today, I really don’t know what would happen. Cause this nation is pretty fucked up sometimes, sometimes even worse than it was before. But when I think of things like that, I think “Maybe not.” Is it coincidental that most of the people that K.G. has had beef with in the last ten years have been white? I don’t know. It’s not for me to say, quite frankly, but I notice it. The Joel Pryzbillas and the Pau Gasols and Zaza Pachulias, there’s a dozen of them. This is kind of like when Wally and Juwan Howard got into something. Howard was clearly-from what we saw-as much of an aggressor. At the very least it was mutually bad. And K.G. said something like “I understand Juwan, Wally can get under your skin…” Again, I see this. Am I gonna call K.G. a racist? No fucking way! I don’t even know, cause Wally is a jerk. [inaudible] I know that to be true. I shouldn’t…My experience with Wally Sczerbiak is he pretends to answer questions, but doesn’t really answer questions and if you try to make him answer questions, he gets very perturbed very fast and that facade flies away. On the basis of that I call Wally a jerk and on the basis of a lot of people disliking him for whatever reason. But the point is, race is always the elephant in the room and when most of the people in the room are black, it’s just a different kind of elephant. But it’s still an elephant. You can’t separate race out of the conversation, but-this is a total cliche, yet I happen to believe it-it’s no better or worse than it is in society. What happens in sports, what happens on the bandstand, what happens in the military or wherever, at the very least is the same if not a little bit better than what happens in the street.