Monday, August 24, 2009


This post was going to be about Slumdog Millionaire, which I finally saw the other night. But honestly I'm happy to see a news item that's going to distract me past Slumdog, which is relieving. What's the point of bashing a Best Picture winner? Films that win the top Oscar prize are seldom great art, they speak more to the neuroses of the grizzled, white-haired crowd that holds the bulk of the Academy's votes. Slumdog was as a film marginally better than Bend It Like Beckham, with a witless script with no interesting characters and zero surprises. Its flashback structure made every scene predictable and its gangland storyline showed no advancement from the romantic fiction of Charles Dickens' time. The sound design and music, however, were awesome. Less than half an hour in I just began tuning out the dialogue and listening to the way the sound design mixed ambient noise, rhythmic city sounds, and carefully selected multicultural urban dance music to artful effect. Brilliant as a long-form music video, tedious as a film. Danny Boyle can do better.

But instead of giving Slumdog more paragraphs I want to talk about Michael Beasley, the basketball player for the Miami Heat. I don't like Beasley as a player, because in NBA 2K9 he can't make a 12-foot wide-open jump shot off of a pick-and-roll. Also, he entered the league as a rookie last year opposite Derrick Rose, who plays for my favorite team and has quickly become one of my favorite players. It made me angry all season whenever I read that Beasley and not Rose should win the Rookie of the Year award, because Rose last season was a starting point guard who passed, scored, and orchestrated his team's attack and Beasley was a bench player who barely played any defense and had little offensive game besides ugly short hooks and putback dunks. It was probably silly of me to form a grudge against Beasley, who obviously is the inferior player -- Rose won the award in a landslide. But still I've never thought particularly well of Michael Beasley, another in a long line of guys who dominate down low in college because of their huge strength but can't hack it in the NBA (where almost every team has a couple of seven-footers) because they're not tall enough to play power forward and they're too lazy and stupid to practice their jump shots, free throws, and post moves.

I really hate college basketball, if you can't tell. There's this myth that they "play the game the right way" in college, where in truth what the top teams do is sell their souls to get top recruits, then let these massive manchilds run amok. You think Michael Beasley went to class at all in his one year as a "student" as Kansas State? More likely he lived in a luxury condo paid for by a booster, drove a different brand-new SUV every three months, and smoked marijuana like it was going out of style, which it evidently isn't. This kind of practice is accepted in a disingenuous, disengaged way by most basketball fans, who simply want to eat the sausage, not see it being made.

But perhaps now it will be more difficult for fans to look the other way. I personally can't watch college football or basketball for even a second without being acutely conscious of how the largely black players are being transparently exploited by the largely white coaches, athletic directors, boosters, and administrators. There isn't a spot in the NFL or the NBA for even one one-hundredth of NCAA African-American scholarship athletes, but our "amateur" athletic competitions are openly getting black kids to pass up what's held in the open hand, a free college education, and take what's in the closed fist -- for 99.9% of them, absolutely nothing.

"Come live like a pro athlete for two or three years," the colleges offer. "Sleep with groupies, travel all over the place, be a guest on 'Pardon the Interruption.' Work on your smile and on-camera diction. When the big leagues come calling, you'll already be a superstar." The vast majority of top-flight NCAA athletes are given no courses in budget management, self-awareness, mediation skills, or the grounding in racial and feminist history they seem to profoundly lack as a class.

Guys like Beasley, who succeed despite their shortcomings due to uncommon natural talent and make the big show, dominate the debate whenever it comes time to again indict college athletics. How could this guy be rich and famous and successful and still be a dangerously depressed drug addict, to the degree that he voluntarily entered inpatient treatment this week? By focusing on the sad fact of the many big-time NBA and NFL players who somehow have arrived as superstars without ever being fully socialized, the media has effectively -- and ominously -- moved the debate away from the vast rank and file of excellent college athletes who have to face life after university without eight-figure pro sports contracts. It's shocking and titilating when Plaxico Burress shoots himself in a nightclub or when Michael Vick gets busted for dogfighting, but what about the thousands of former college athletes who get zero real-world skills out of their "educations" and end up in domestic violence incidents, drug rings, thefts, murders?

The fact that the NCAA failed Beasley is sad, but it's not really news. There's a handful of pros out there who are exceptions (Shane Battier and um... did Derek Fisher graduate from college? And Warrick Dunn) but for the most part every big-time player in the NFL and NBA who went to college learned nothing there, except the mechanics of having sex with as many as four basketball Annies at once. Whether there should be a separate kind of program, maybe a compensated one, for prodigies who are clearly just making time until the spotlight calls is a separate debate. The one that likely will have been swept under the rug before the sportwriters all line up to wring their hands over Beasley's dilemma is the fact of all the average athletes who have no shot at pro careers and yet learn nothing in college anyway, for no other reason past the fact that the colleges face no consequences at all for chewing these kids up and spitting them out. Michael Beasley's not out of the woods yet. He could end up broke, like Antoine Walker, or imprisoned like Burress and Vick. The fact is that even with millions of dollars and fancy-degreed experts on call, a signifcant number of black athletes ruin their lives every year. What does that say about how we're socializing our children in this country? What does that mean for the millions of pretty good ballers out there who could play college ball but won't make the pros?

1 comment:

  1. I am with you on this rant, but my memory from college is that there were a lot of people that went through college like Beasley without the sports skills or the boosters, they just had rich parents or student loans. The reality is that what you have described is actually quite common, even beyond the ranks of college athletes.