Last Thursday, UCLA defeated Washington on a last-second shot from Larry Drew II, heroics that were followed by heralded freshman Bruin Shabazz Muhammad — who was clapping and crying for the ball at the top of the key only to be ignored by Drew — refusing to celebrate with his teammates. The media’s postgame spin seemed simple enough: Muhammad is a me-first brat.
Don’t buy into it. While it’s controversial and possibly uncomfortable, the biggest reason for Muhammad’s rap needs to be mentioned: He’s gotten his unfortunate public perception in large part because of our country’s subconscious racial bias, and the way that fans and media members judge athletes is not immune to it.
Muhammad didn’t run over to the dogpile for many reasons, none of which rationally point to him being selfish or a terrible teammate. He later stated that he didn’t jump on the pile because he was honestly worried about his teammates getting hurt, and he didn’t jump for joy because his team should have followed up a terrible loss with a more convincing win. Because the win was so ugly, Muhammad said, he found himself more relieved than overjoyed.
Muhammad’s response proves why the criticism surrounding him is so baseless. He supposedly cares more about himself than the team, but his first reaction was about how his team’s level of play needed to improve. He also stated, “That was a big-time shot and we’re all so happy that we won the game” and that he “knew [Drew’s shot] was going to be good” — the types of comments that many sportswriters would otherwise use to demonstrate a player’s leadership and confidence in his teammates.
In any case, think of how often the best player on a team has been lauded for “wanting the last shot” because of his ultra-competitiveness. Larry Bird, possibly the best white basketball player of all time, said that he always demanded the last shot either because he was on fire or because he was cold and due to finally hit one, which is basketball superstar language for “Give me the ball and get out of my way.” Now, Shabazz Muhammad is no Larry Bird, but neither is Larry Drew II, and the clearly superior Muhammad was justified in calling for the ball. And yet that mindset makes Muhammad the villain.
Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this column if Shabazz Muhammad were the only example of how sports fans and writers spend far too much time looking through the lens of race. The examples are easier to find than you might think.
If you throw a punch in an NBA game, you get a lengthy suspension, as well as a lifetime “bad character” label, as obviously there is no place for fighting anywhere in sports.
Hockey players just laughed at that last sentence. Almost every NHL team has at least one guy who has the job of “enforcer,” and possibly the biggest part of an enforcer’s job is fighting. One member from each team stops play, takes off his helmet and gloves and throws haymakers until the referees — who typically give both players the full go-ahead to fight — finally decide to step in. The fans cheer loudly every time. But do you really think the NHL and its fans would support fighting if the majority races of the NHL and NBA were switched?
My favorite athlete to defend is LeBron James, and while “The Decision” was by no means my favorite hour of television, was it really any worse than what Brett Favre did summer after summer beginning in 2007? James may have held an hour-long television show around his choice, but Favre frequently delayed his yearly decision of whether to keep playing or retire until long after players are supposed to report to training camp. In 2008, when he wanted to come back to Green Bay only to have the Packers finally say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” Favre took to television to complain about how the Packers weren’t protecting his legacy properly. From his living room. The egotistical nature of his TV interview far exceeded that of James’; James never criticized anyone, and he even donated the money he earned from “The Decision” to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. But James — like Muhammad — is the self-centered one.
How he is selfish, exactly, I have no idea.
Like most people, I do believe that our country has made great strides in terms of race. After all, we just re-elected a black man from the South Side of Chicago who smoked weed as a teenager and met his father just once after age three. He defeated a pro-business, pro-family values white man who looks like he was designed in a laboratory.
Cases like Obama’s, though, don’t prove that racism is gone, only that we need to be more specific about the bias that we are talking about. I, for one, view racism in two different ways: conscious and subconscious. Both are huge problems in our country, but the latter is actually far more detrimental in the America that we live in today.
Sports are a part of our culture just as much as books, movies, shows or anything else, which means that they are inevitably exposed to any major cultural problem that we face. Just ask Shabazz Muhammad.
Tom Hoff is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business. DOWN TO THE WIRE appears every Friday.