Jason Whitlock Raised Some Hackles

Jason Whitlock (who I suppose I should point out, is black, and was in Las Vegas for the All-Star Game) wrote this:

Good luck fixing All-Star Weekend.

The game is a sloppy, boring, half-hearted mess. The dunk contest is contrived and pointless. The celebrity contest is unintended comedy. And, worst of all, All-Star Weekend revelers have transformed the league's midseason exhibition into the new millennium Freaknik, an out-of-control street party that features gunplay, violence, non-stop weed smoke and general mayhem.

Word of all the criminal activity that transpired during All-Star Weekend has been slowly leaking out on Las Vegas radio shows and TV newscasts and on Internet blogs the past 24 hours.

"It was filled with an element of violence," Teresa Frey, general manager for Coco's restaurant, told klastv.com. "They don't want to pay their bills. They don't want to respect us or each other."

Things got so bad that she closed the 24-hour restaurant from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m.

"I have been spit on. I have had food thrown at me," she said. "I have lost two servers out of fear. I have locked my door out of the fear of violence."

All weekend, people, especially cab drivers, gossiped about brawls and shootings. You didn't know what to believe because the local newspaper was filled with stories about what a raging success All-Star Weekend was. The city is desperately trying to attract an NBA franchise, and, I guess, there was no reason to let a few bloody bodies get in the way of a cozy relationship with Stern.

I was there. I walked the strip late at night. I have lived in bad neighborhoods of major cities. (In the mid-1990s, people came to my block buy crack and heroin. I often stepped over comatose junkies to get into my front door.) I do not startle easily, and I'm telling you, Whitlock is not wrong when he says that the crowd at All-Star was dangerous. Forget baggy pants. Forget skin color. The scene was bad, and any event organizer would tell you that if you were organizing this event again next year, you'd want to make sure it went better. I have no expertise in this area, I'm not sure what crowd control changes (no guns might be one, come to think of it...) to recommend. But I'm pretty sure you don't want that many people that drunk and violent in that way again, if it's avoidable.

Let me also point out that no one said anything about NBA players or their posses being troublemakers. Whitlock didn't. I didn't. It's just not the case. NBA players, on a weekend like this, are in executive suites, stretch SUVs, the spotlight of the TV cameras, or exclusive clubs with red carpets, velvet ropes, and oodles of security.

But then first Dave Zirin (who is white, and was not there) jumped in to say, essentially people are just upset because there were a lot of black people there. No doubt, correct, on one level. There are certainly some white people who were uncomfortable being a minority, and that's something that's good to fight against. Yes, sadly, some of the complaining was undoubtedly rooted in that. I heard some of that. But then Zirin adds:

Jason: it's time for you and your sports writing brethren, all hot and bothered over All Star Weekend, to take a long overdue reality check. You rail against the violence of NBA "posses" yet turn your back to the fact that this is one of the most violent nations on earth. This is a country that imprisons 2 million of its citizens. This is a nation that spends 1.7 billion dollars a day on the military. This is the country that started an unnecessary war in Iraq that's killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and more than 3,000 troops. Surely a fan of Rosa Parks like yourself is familiar with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government."

As you heroically churn out columns in between trips to the local gentleman's club, a very real world beats with injustice. Black unemployment is three times that of whites. Unemployment today for young Black men aged sixteen to nineteen tops out at more than 30 percent, double that of young whites. And the latest Bush budget will mean all of this will get worse.

By devoting your column to the amplification of the worst racial stereotypes, you actually divert attention from the real issues Black America faces. In this post-Katrina world, it should be all too clear that the problem is institutionalized racism and poverty, not a kid in baggy jeans.

Zirin makes two mistakes here: first he pretends that if Whitlock, a sportswriter, hadn't been writing about social issues then he would have been writing about the Bush budget and education funding (when in fact, Whitlock's plan B, no doubt, was to write about the dunk contest, which might have helped the social standing of maybe one young black man, Gerald Green, but wouldn't have gotten anyone a job).

Secondly, he assumes that Whitlock is merely reacting to kids in baggy jeans. I think Zirin and Whitlock both know that kids in baggy jeans aren't the problem. Drunk kids with guns, however, have always been a problem. Different people like to party different ways. The way some people like to party ends up with people getting killed. This was that kind of party. (It was palpable as early as Friday night, as I blogged early Saturday.)

Whitlock did what he probably thought was his job: to tell the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. Sure, he way overdid it by comparing himself to Rosa Parks. (He also calls himself Big Sexy. Shameless!) But that doesn't mean his point wasn't valid. The crowd on the streets of Las Vegas was drunk and violent. Many had weapons. If major steps aren't taken to prevent that kind of scene in New Orleans then a major mistake will have been made.

This morning in The New York Times Harvey Araton (who is not black, and did spend some time in Las Vegas but admits he was in his hotel room with his family late at night) joins the fray with lots of talk about racists fueling this, and an oddly off-base defense of the NBA. That's one party that, as far as I am aware, remains unaccused of wrongdoing here. This is like if there are hooligans at a British soccer match, do we really need a spirited defense of the premiership? As a friend would say "umm... Commissioner Stern? Step out of the center."

There are violent drunk people jamming the streets. Who in their right mind would choose that incident to obsess about market share of the NBA vs. the NFL? Harvey Araton, I guess:

Hindsight is 20-20, but a troubled football player accused of inciting a triple shooting — how, exactly, is this a reflection of Stern’s league?

A few hundred arrests over several days, roughly half for prostitution in a city that is the home office for Hookers R Us — how does this qualify as an indictment of a certain (read: African-American) element now said to have been running rampant everywhere but between Dick Bavetta and Charles Barkley during their charity race?

Isn’t it possible that a fair percentage of those arrested included some from among the tens of thousands in town for conventions unrelated to the N.B.A. or to celebrate the Chinese New Year? Or are only black people vulnerable to the seductions of Las Vegas?

“The subject is just so delicious that everyone from Imus to Letterman thinks it’s just hilarious to dump on the ‘hip-hoppers,’ ” Stern wrote. “Of course, race plays a part in the perceptions. Do you doubt that there were more African-Americans in Las Vegas last week than at any time in its history, and some people felt threatened by that simply as a matter of culture?”

It must be noted that Jason Whitlock, an African-American columnist for The Kansas City Star and America Online, initiated the criticism of All-Star weekend. But his perceptions represent only one of the hundreds of journalists in Las Vegas and ultimately have become less the issue for Stern than the latest round of mostly uninformed N.B.A. bashing it triggered on Talk Show America.

We know Stern’s league has issues. But, once again, pro football players and their entourages have been on a criminal rampage for years while a majority of the news media ignored the sobering reality on the way to another Super Bowl buffet.

Maybe it was the relative anonymity of the average player in a team-first league, compared with the N.B.A.’s individual marketing strategy, that has wrought a more flamboyant and inflammatory product. And maybe, as the Dallas Mavericks’ owner, Mark Cuban, argued via e-mail: “Football pays the bills for the sports media in every N.F.L. city and some non-N.F.L. cities. It’s that simple.”

"Seductions of Las Vegas?" People who live in Las Vegas, the cab drivers, hotel employees and the like, expressed that they were seeing things that were unlike anything that had ever happened in Las Vegas before (I heard one report that it was the busiest weekend in Las Vegas history--a lot of the danger I perceived was just from overcrowding). This wasn't about gambling and prostitution. This was about violence and intimidation.

So my question to Araton and Zirin is: if you love the NBA, if you love black people, what would you have us do in this situation? Because of the way the media treats the NFL, or because of something the Bush administration did or didn't do, is Jason Whitlock--even though he was there and saw it with his own eyes--supposed to believe that the street scene in Las Vegas was just swell? Am I? I was almost trampled by people rushing to join a massive street fight. Somebody was murdered in my hotel. Everyone who was there has stories. (Bill Simmons' account of the weekend includes a reference to "martial law.") Everyone I know who was there felt like it was out of hand. Are we doing a good job as reporters if we just stay quiet about that?

I have this notion that the public airing of the truth, in the long run, ends up making things better for people. A notion somewhat along those lines is what lies behind our freedom of the press. Does anyone believe Jason Whitlock is not telling what he believes to be the truth? Are any of his facts wrong? And if not, what is behind the attacks? Why we should we ignore the reality of the street scene? The only reason I can imagine for attacking Whitlock on this issue is that his message is politically inconvenient.

UPDATE: If this talk about violent people in Las Vegas is too much--and believe me, there was a lot more to the weekend than that--read this account of the weekend. Way more fun.