Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Stephen A. Smith, Race and the Access to Fantasy Football

In a recent ESPN The Magazine article, replete with his usual bluster, misdirected and missing-the-point hostility and supreme self-righteousness, everyone's favorite television/radio/print "personality" Stephen A. Smith declared "to hell with fantasy. I'm about what's real." He would go on to label those who do participate in fantasy sports as "nerds desperately in need of more sociable leisure-time activities" while maintaining that "black folks" generally have better things to do such as attending "a family barbecue or hanging out with friends." The great irony (or tragedy) of Smith's story is that when offered a relevant assignment about race by his boss - Smith tells the reader he was asked to find out why most fantasy sports enthusiasts are white - he retreats to stereotypes and my-way-is-better-than-yours defense mechanisms rather than digging deeper into the issues screaming for attention just below the surface.

The first two points he makes are that 1) white people who play fantasy football are nerds with nothing better to do and 2) that minority groups have better things to do. And, to be honest, if Smith would have been a little less arrogant about making these assertions and worded them in a more thoughtful manner then I might not have thought either of them was ridiculous at first blush. First of all, I love playing fantasy sports but I'm not going to take too much of a stand against someone saying I'm a "nerd" when it comes to sports. And, secondly, if Stephen A. would have said that minority communities, due to their externally enforced insularity over preceding generations (or some other such reasoning that permitted for the existence of white people BBQs), were later to come to fantasy sports than the big mass of status-quo whites then I wouldn't have challenged him on it.

Those statements would have been plausible and certainly would have made sense as the opener to the sort of story that his boss at The Magazine was looking for. Smith could've opened with the joke (at my expense) and then given his pre-research answer to the question being posed before really digging into the issues to see what he could find out. Of course, that wasn't what Smith was doing. In fact, he was never going any deeper or thinking any further than his first two statements, even when everything he learned was begging him to. He was never getting past his personal feeling about himself and fantasy sports: It was for dorky white people and he was a cool black guy. And, never the two shall meet. This being the way things were, Smith saw no need to take his boss's question about the racial disparity seriously. After all, he didn't want to play anyway.

Even after an associate professor at Ole Miss, whom Smith refers to as "the CEO of Fantasy Sports Research Specialists," tells him that "that people who have well-paying jobs with fast Internet connections are more likely to play fantasy sports" Smith doesn't take his article any deeper - carrying the 1 - to see the posited positive correlation between white-collar jobs and white-faced fantasy sports players. I mean, for crying out loud (which is what made Smith famous), the Ole Miss professor that Smith interviews even uses the phrase "white workplace" to describe the environment where fantasy sports are prevalent. Shouldn't a writer purportedly interested in race ask why it is, in fact, a "white workplace" in the first place and what is keeping it that way? Shouldn't he use this discussion as an entry point to a discussion about the lack of access that African Americans in this country still have to high-paying employment and the aforementioned "white workplace"? Isn't that phrase the sort of thing that a journalist would seize on after it is uttered in an interview? Couldn't Smith use this revelation of difference to also talk about the way that a lack of high-speed Internet access can be a detriment to a child's education in this era as well as be an inhibitor of fantasy football participation? Shouldn't he do anything other than making an unoriginal joke (I mean a lot of people have already called fantasy sports players nerds before) when given a potentially serious/controversial assignment by his boss?

Unfortunately, Smith doesn't waste a sentence pondering racial inequity or the de facto segregation of the American work force. Nor does he talk about the varying degrees of access to high-speed Internet and all that comes along with it. Nope. He briefly notes that expanding access to the interwebs could eventually diminish the racial disparity pertaining specifically to the fantasy sports world. He doesn't say why access is growing or how it is growing, he just says "as the web grows" and then tries to squeeze in one more one-liner directed at his boss before signing off.

Although it is not literally every American's constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness and a fantasy football league title a case could be made that the two things are inextricably and economically linked. Yeah, it might be a stretch but it would have been a lot more meaningful and interesting if Smith would have said that instead of choosing to say nothing at all.