A New Kind of Jock: Is this as good as it seems?

Berner, Robert. 2006. “Cheap Chic.” Business Week (21 August): p. 14.

“Fed up with the high prices urban kids pay for sneakers marketed by their basketball heroes, New York Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury is launching the Starbury One, a $14.98 sneaker he’ll wear on the court.  Discount retailer Steve & Barry’s will make and sell the shoe, which is 1/12 the price of Nike’s $180 Air Jordan XX1.  “Two hundred to buy a pair of sneakers,” Marbury says, “that’s groceries for the week.”  He wants Starbury One’s low price to show kids how little it costs to make a high-quality sneaker.  “History is going to say Stephon Marbury changed the game,” he says.”


In my book Transcending the Economy I wrote this about expensive shoes and racism:


Basketball, Racism, and Computer Technology


Racism is pervasive in the present day United States.  Even in sports, one of the few venues where society associates Blacks with excellence, Blacks still face discrimination.  For example, in cities where the population is more White, professional basketball teams hire fewer Black players (Brown, Spiro, and Keenan 1991).  In an unpublished paper, Dan Rascher and Ha Hoang found that after adjusting for a number of factors, Black basketball players have a 36 percent higher chance of being cut than Whites of comparable ability.  This statistic reinforces the widely held impression that while teams will want to employ the Black superstar for a better chance of winning, they will prefer a higher mix of White players on the bench to please their predominately white audience.  A cynic might think of the employment of an excessive number of Whites in professional basketball as a form of affirmative action.    

Today, in the United States, one aspect of racism is a stereotype of Blacks as natural basketball players rather than having a natural aptitude as engineers or business leaders.  Accordingly, Blacks appear to have an unfair advantage over Whites in the sports arenas.  I would like to explore this stereotype a little further.    


True, many of the greatest basketball players today are Black.  Why basketball?  In the 1920s, the prevailing stereotype was that basketball was by its nature a Jewish game.  According to the wisdom of the day, qualities such as sneakiness and guile, gave Jews a major edge that allowed them to be the best basketball players of the day.    


I suspect that we will do well to steer clear of stereotypes and look for other influences on the social makeup of basketball players.  The most commonsensical approach seems to be economic.  After all, basketball is a very inexpensive recreation.  You do not need elaborate facilities, such as certain water sports or ice hockey require.  You do not even need the large open spaces that soccer or baseball requires.  You can nail up a basketball hoop almost anywhere.  So basketball is a wonderful sport for poor people, not because of the genetic makeup of Blacks, but because it is more available to people in the inner cities than, say, golf or polo.    

Now let me shift gears for a second.  A study by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the United States Commerce Department shows that at the end of 1997, 40.8 percent of non-Hispanic White households owned a personal computer, compared to 19.4 percent of Hispanic and 19.3 percent of African American households, a gap of 21.5 points (United States Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration 1998).    


Now, suppose that computers were as accessible as basketball hoops.  This possibility is not nearly as farfetched as it might seem.  After all, while basketball hoops may be readily available, the ratio of the cost of basketball shoes to the price of a computer continues to soar.  Should this trend continue, in the near future, we might see innumerable young Blacks pounding away at their keyboards with all the exuberance that we now see on the basketball court.  Those Black children with the advanced computer skills would enjoy the admiration of their peers.    


Once excellence with computer skills becomes commonplace among the Black youth, some eminent scientists would will no doubt set out to explain why the mental or biological makeup of Black children makes them ideally suited to computer programming.  Perhaps we will hear that the result of natural selection over generations of cotton picking left them better suited than Whites to working with a keyboard.    


Computer skills would soon command a lower wage, just as typing did, once the stereotype of operating a typewriter changed from being a man’s job (since the typewriter was seen as a machine) to being a woman’s job.


In the wake of the depreciation of computer skills, opinion makers will bemoan the fact that so many Blacks waste their lives sitting in front of computers instead of following some higher calling where White youth seem to excel, perhaps basketball.    


I want to emphasize the point that racism does not only harm Blacks.  We all suffer from racism.  Forget the moral and ethical implications of racism.  That dimension of racism is so obvious that we have no need to subject it to detailed discussion here.  Instead, I want to insist that from a purely economic perspective, racism is a disaster for most people.  Racism denies society the benefits of the talents of those people that racism stigmatizes.  Racism is expensive for society.  Educating people in schools and universities is far more economical than incarcerating them.


1 comment so far

  1. Jim on

    That article, has nothing to do with your blog post

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