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Lowering the Sports Bar: Basketball and the State of Race, Class & Labor in America

Kate Perkins Apr 13, 2010

The Daily Show made quick work of abasing Don “Moose” Lewis and his all-white “All American Basketball Alliance” league. Of course, much of the racial tension that’s pervaded basketball history — not to mention baseball — in this country has its roots in geographic and, more essentially still, class factors. To basketball fans watching the Magic/Bird controversy unfold, the matter may have looked black and white. But the A Courtship of Rivals, the HBO documentary about the Magic/Bird rivalry, does a pretty good job of coloring in the more subtle socioeconomic factors: Larry Bird’s poor, rural Midwestern upbringing; the challenges faced by young Earvin Johnson—son of a Lansing, Michigan autoworker and school custodian—as a burgeoning superstar at a recently and reluctantly desegregated school. Both of these legendary players were clearly influenced by the class tensions that desegregation unleashed in both rural and urban America.

The NCAA Championship looked pretty black and white this March, too; and plenty of people have noted Duke’s relative lack of non-white players over the years. But David Brooks, ever the bastion of progress, zeroed in on the class consciousness that underlined the Duke/Butler story. Specifically, a false consciousness, he’d have you believe, that was burdening Duke the whole way to their lucky win: the misconception of unearned privilege. Matt Taibbi handled Brooks’ latest flatulence so handily that I’m pretty much going to just copy Taibbi’s entire commentary, aptly titled “Brooks: Let Them Eat Work,” here. It’s a howler. My favorite parts are in bold type.

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BROOKS: LET THEM EAT WORK
By MATT TAIBBI (Published on TrueSlant.com; 4/10/10)

I know, I know, I was supposed to lay off David Brooks for a while. But how can [his] latest gem possibly be ignored? I’m beginning to absolutely love this guy — for sheer comedy value, he really doesn’t have any peers at this point, especially with Thomas Friedman seeming more subdued and gloomy than ever…

Brooks’ column  [“Redefining What It Means to Work Hard” – Opinionator Blog – NYTimes.com] — a sort of running conversation he has with Gail Collins — manages to take the experience of watching the recent Duke-Butler NCAA championship game and turn his impressions into the missing last chapter of Atlas Shrugged. He starts with the above observation that the reviled Dukies, who are often painted as college basketball’s spoiled children of privilege, won because they simply worked harder than those poor mid-major farm boys from Butler. Then he has a remarkably funny exchange with Collins in which he expands this observation to the rest of society. The whole passage reads as follows:

David Brooks: A few hours after that atrocity of opening day, Duke went on to beat Butler the national championship. You should know that Duke is one of my alma maters. I am very generous in my definition of alma maters. I claim that affiliation with any school I went to, taught at, lived near (Villanova and St. Johns) or parked at.

Unlike 90 percent of America, I was rooting for Duke last night. This was widely cast as a class conflict — the upper crust Dukies against the humble Midwestern farm boys. If this had been a movie, Butler’s last second heave would have gone in instead of clanging off the rim, and the country would still be weeping with joy.

But this is why life is not a movie. The rich are not always spoiled. Their success does not always derive from privilege. The Duke players — to the extent that they are paragons of privilege, which I dispute — won through hard work on defense.

Gail Collins: I’m sorry, when the difference is one weensy basket, I’d say Duke won neither by privilege nor hard work but by sheer luck. But don’t let me interrupt your thought here. I detect the subtle and skillful transition to a larger non-sport point.

David Brooks: Yes. I was going to say that for the first time in human history, rich people work longer hours than middle class or poor people. How do you construct a rich versus poor narrative when the rich are more industrious?

I had to read this thing twice before it registered that Brooks was actually saying that he was rooting for the rich against the poor. If he keeps this up, he’s going to make his way into the Guinness Book for having extended his tongue at least a foot and a half farther up the ass of the Times’s Upper East Side readership than any previous pundit in journalistic history. But then you come to this last line of his, in which he claims that “for the first time in history, rich people work longer hours than middle class or poor people,” and you find yourself almost speechless.

I would give just about anything to sit David Brooks down in front of some single mother somewhere who’s pulling two shitty minimum-wage jobs just to be able to afford a pair of $19 Mossimo sneakers at Target for her kid, and have him tell her, with a straight face, that her main problem is that she doesn’t work as hard as Jamie Dimon.

Only a person who has never actually held a real job could say something like this. There is, of course, a huge difference between working 80 hours a week in a profession that you love and which promises you vast financial rewards, and working 80 hours a week digging ditches for a septic-tank company, or listening to impatient assholes scream at you at some airport ticket counter all day long, or even teaching disinterested, uncontrollable kids in some crappy school district with metal detectors on every door.

[…]

Brooks is right that most of the people in that 5% bracket log heavy hours, but where he’s wrong is in failing to recognize that most of us have enough shame to know that what we do for a living isn’t really working. I pull absolutely insane hours in my current profession, to the point of having almost no social life at all, but I know better than to call what I do for a living work. I was on a demolition crew when I was much younger, the kind of job where you have to wear a dust mask all day long, carry buckets full of concrete, and then spend all night picking fiberglass shards out of your forearms from ripping insulation out of the wall.

[…] I’m not complaining about my current good luck at all, but I would wet myself with shame if I ever heard it said that I work even half as hard as the average diner waitress.

Then again, maybe I’m looking at this from the wrong perspective. Would I rather clean army latrines with my tongue, or would I rather do what Brooks does for a living, working as a professional groveler and flatterer who three times a week has to come up with new ways to elucidate for his rich readers how cosmically just their lifestyles are? If sucking up to upper-crust yabos was my actual job and I had to do it to keep the electricity on in my house, then yes, I might look at that as work.

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Read Taibbi’s post in its entirety here.

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