I started calling myself “The Champ” in February of 2006, a week or so after the Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl XL. At first it was a bit of tongue-in-cheek homage to a Bill Simmons joke–after he won a fantasy football championship, he started referring to himself as “The Champ” for a year –but the name (obviously) stuck with me. I didn’t mind though. The Steelers have so permeated my fabric that the idea of permanently adopting a Steeler-based pseudonym seemed (and still seems) perfectly normal.
But, as this NFL season approaches, I’ve come to realize my affection for the black and gold isn’t extended to the league as a whole. Sure, I enjoy watching professional football, but when the Steelers aren’t playing, it doesn’t completely consume me in the way it does much of America. Wait, let me rephrase that. It doesn’t completely consume me in the way the NBA does.
You know, it’s interesting being a diehard NBA fan these days. Despite the fact that everything from the overall talent level to the television ratings has been steadily increasing for the past decade, the league is still faced with a ton of negative (and contradictory) PR¹.
Depending on who you talk to, there’s either too much defense or too much offense, the games are too boring or the games are too filled with highlights, the players are too soft or the players are too thuggish, the league is too Euro or the league is too urban, and usually these pointed complaints are made by people who say they don’t actually watch the games.
Seriously, defending the NBA today is like dating a great woman who everyone thinks has been around, even though nobody has ever actually met anyone she’s been with.
Admittedly, I have a few biases. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I played college basketball. Also, my father (and one of my uncles) played college ball as well, my closest friend coaches pro ball in Europe, and I have a cousin who’s played in the NBA. I’m a stone-cold hoops junkie surrounded by stone-cold hoops junkies.
Biases aside, it’s still easy for me to find 5 reasons why the NBA is just better than the NFL.
1. The players have actual power
In the NFL, the (primarily black) athletes are the working class while the (overwhelmingly white) coaches, management, and ownership serve as the aristocracy. In this dynamic, with the exception of a few white quarterbacks (ie: Favre, Manning, Brady, Brees), the players wield no power. None.
A great example of this general powerlessness is occurring in New York City right now, as grossly underpaid Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis (arguably the best defensive player in football) deserves a lucrative new contract, but the team is under no obligation (or pressure) to appease him. He has no real leverage, and because of this, he’ll probably end up signing a new contract paying him maybe 50% of what his services are worth (as opposed to the current contract paying him 15% of what he’s worth), even though he knows since NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed, they could release him at any point during the contract and not pay him a dime. (They wouldn’t do that, but they could)
Regardless of how you feel about Lebron James and his ill-conceived decision show, you have to admit he took advantage of every ounce of his personal leverage to achieve his desired result. While Lebron’s situation is an extreme example, no other professional athletes are as self-aware as NBA players, and in no other team sport are black professional athletes afforded the same opportunity to take advantage of this self-awareness. They know they’re valuable commodities with a finite window of earning power, and they act accordingly because they have leverage. They have power.
2. The best team always wins the championship
In the National Football League, a team can sneak into the playoffs after winning approximately half of their regular season games, catch a couple of somewhat lucky breaks, and make it all the way to the Super Bowl. With a few more lucky breaks, they can win the Super Bowl. While this unpredictable parity is usually lauded as one of the best things about the NFL, it’s completely unfair, completely wrong, and easily one of my least favorite things about the league. (I’m not the only one who feels this way, btw)
Seriously, imagine if other fields were set up similarly to the NFL (and the NCAA tournament). Think about how unfair school would be if a person who earned D minuses all semester long was able to get an “A” for the year if he just got a couple B pluses on his last two exams.
With its best-of-seven game playoff series format, the NBA ensures that flukey sh*t like this doesn’t occur. It’s the only true meritocracy in sports. The best teams, the teams most deserving of winning, usually win. If you want to win in the NBA playoffs, you have to actually go and get better. You can’t rely on bad weather or lucky breaks to help your cause.
If a team gets hot, catches a few lucky breaks, and beats the favored team, great! Good for you. Now, do it three more times if you want to advance.
3. Bigots hate it
The one infallible lesson we’ve learned in our 400 years in this country is if bigots universally hate something, that something is usually a great thing. From slavery and women’s suffrage to Manhattan and Michelle Obama, this test has never been wrong. Seriously, if you’re ever confused about where you should stand on a controversial topic or issue, just ask the nearest bigot and do the exact opposite of what he suggests and you’ll be right as rain. And, since bigots unanimously hate the NBA (seriously. if you ever want to find out if someone’s a racist, ask him to share his thoughts about the NBA), there’s obviously an inherent super positive quality about professional basketball that NFL stans just haven’t recognized yet.
4. Skill matters
Why is this true? Well, just let me put it this way: Dwyane Wade. Lebron James. Derrick Rose. Nate Robinson. Shannon Brown. Rajon Rondo. These are just a few of the dozens of NBA players who have the athletic chops to be able to retire from the NBA today, and get signed by an NFL team tomorrow.
The number of NFL players who could do the same? Zero
I’m not suggesting NFL players aren’t extremely skilled at their crafts, and I’m not attempting to minimize the amount of energy and work it takes to be a professional football player. But, as any athlete will tell you, it’s much more difficult to make an NBA roster than an NFL team because pro-level basketball is much more difficult to play than pro-level football.
Don’t believe me? Well it can’t be too difficult to make the roster in a sport where this guy..
…is a number one draft pick.
5. Each player matters too
From the otherworldlyness of Ron Artest to the perpetually petulant Kobe Bryant, each NBA player has a unique personality, skill set, and narrative. Even marginal players–like a Rafer Alston or Delonte West–have their own distinct and distinguishable qualities, and each of these characteristics are easily seen by the public.
And, while the NFL tries to sell you on the concept that it’s the only true team sport, the one place where each individual part matters as much as the next, in reality the National Football League is comprised of a few superstars (the aforementioned quarterbacks and a few other marquee players) and a bunch of anonymous and interchangeable drones.
There are no personalities, just 32 mega corporations each headed by 30 to 35 year old white males who rule over a bunch of throwaway parts. This is strongly and sadly evidenced by the very real fact that, as long as it’s people like Chris Henry and Andre Waters dying, nobody seems to care that the NFL is turning its players into mush brained zombies.
Damn, I guess this truly makes the NFL America’s game. But, it doesn’t make it better.
¹My three favorites theories about why the NBA gets so much negative P.R.
A) There hasn’t been a white American basketball superstar since Larry Bird, and the fact that there’s no one for middle America to really root for cultivates a general disinterest with much of (white) America. There are no Mississippi farm boys (Favre), royal families (The Mannings), or superstar heartthrobs (Brady). This isn’t racist. It’s just hard for many to get behind a sport when you feel like you can’t relate to any of the players. In turn, this disinterest eventually turns into distaste.
B) For almost a decade, the best NBA basketball has been played out west. Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Denver, and Utah have all had consistently good teams, while New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, and (up until 3 years ago) Boston have consistently sucked. Thing is, the majority of the nations important sports media is located in the Northeast. And, since they haven’t had winners in their home cities for the past 10 years, they’ve written and reported with an anti-NBA slant. This actually leads to…
C) Casual NFL fans are more sophisticated than casual NBA fans. Wait, let me rephrase that. Casual NFL fans are more accepting of and willing to learn about football strategy than casual NBA fans are of basketball strategy. For instance, when a star NFL player has difficulties, the announcers point out that “Manning has always had difficulties against the Cover 2. Lets see if he can make adjustments at halftime” and people accept this as truth. When an star NBA player has difficulties, the announcers might point out a certain defensive tactic the other team is using, but the casual fan usually ends up thinking “Damn. Carmelo just isn’t giving any effort tonight. Damn overpaid NBA diva.” And, I think the casual fan’s willingness to give NFL players the benefit of the doubt (and not NBA players) is partially due to media influence. If you hear “NBA players don’t care” enough, you’ll start to believe it.