Wednesday, May 7, 2014

PSYOPBall, Not Basketball: Mark Jackson and Doc Rivers

After an exhausting seven-game Clippers-Warriors series, the focus has shifted to the next round for the Clippers and to the firing of Mark Jackson. But before we move on, can we talk about how crazy and extensive the psychological operations of both coaches were?

During the regular season, the Clippers-Warriors rivalry was well-known. Doc forbid his players to join Warriors players for chapel. Mark Jackson was so into the Clippers rivalry that he trash-talked Doc before a Cleveland Cavs game in March, of all things:
-Q: How do things change with Klay out?

-JACKSON: Obviously Klay’s ability to shoot the basketball; probably as important if not more important, his ability to defend. In a game like tonight he would start naturally on Kyrie Irving.

Contrary to Doc Rivers’ comments, it’s not because I’m hiding Steph Curry. It’s just a smart thing to do as a coach. Take that, Doc. (Smiles.)

-Q: What did Doc say?

-JACKSON: He said he doesn’t hide Chris Paul. So nice subliminal shot.

Both Doc and Mark willingly gave each other bulletin board material before the series even started. They went after potential weak links like Redick and Thompson, already trying to sow some doubt in the minds of shooters.

Mark Jackson called for Clippers fans to boycott pivotal Game 5 to protest Sterling. Of course, such a move favors the Warriors in that pivotal matchup. What you may not have known was just how strong Jackson's comments were:
“If it was me, I wouldn't come to the game. I believe as fans, the loudest statement they could make as far as fans is to not show up to the game,” Jackson said. “As an African-American man that's a fan of the game of basketball and knows its history and knows what's right and what's wrong, I would not come to the game tomorrow, whether I was a Clipper fan or a Warrior fan.”
Tying in the boycott to being black, to what's right and wrong? No, Mark Jackson never said Clippers players should boycott Game 5. But can't you see hints of that idea in his comments and word choices? It's a wonderful bit of psychology. In addition, by the Warriors claimed they were ready to boycott the game had Sterling not been suspended, again, the Warriors seem to be taking the high road while subtly increasing the pressure on the Clippers. Is it ethical? Not so sure. Is it psyops at a high level? Yes.

Sam Amick wrote a fascinating story on religion and NBA coaches that I may spin into a separate article. But let's focus on how Rivers is so available during a supposed tight, busy playoff series to give Sam Amick quotes:
"If it's 75% (who believe one way), that's to me 25% that (don't)," Rivers said. "To me, if it's 95%, the 5% deserve the same treatment as everybody else. And I just think that's what we need to do. If it was church, then that's different. This is not church. This is our jobs. So our jobs come first, respect comes second, and I think that's the way it should be."

Jackson is, of course, the pastor of a church in the off-season. Rivers already banned his players from fraternizing with the Warriors in a religious context. We have Draymond Green, Warrior player, saying "because without (God) we are not who we are and we are not the team that we are and we all know that. We like to give him credit for what he's doing for this team." In the same article, what does Rivers do? He intentionally attacks the idea that the Warriors have any special favor from God. He says "I don't think there's any God cheering for one team over another. I know that." It's no accident Rivers is choosing these words. Again, is it ethical? Not so sure. Is it psy ops at a high level? Yes.

So the series is over, and the two coaches are friendly again, right? Not so fast.
When Jackson gets fired, he brings up that it's ok that he doesn't live in the Bay Area during the offseason. Why?
"But Doc Rivers coached in Boston living in Orlando. The coaches that I played for lived other places."
Oh, and Doc is disappointed at Mark's firing, sure. But wait, how does he say it?
"Mark Jackson gets a team to multiple playoffs for the first time in a thousand years and gets fired."
Yeah, a thousand years, almost as long as it took Vinny Del Negro to take Clippers to back to back playoff appearances. Worry not, psyops fans. I'm pretty sure Doc Rivers will renew the rivalry with whoever the Golden State Warriors next coach is. And we'll be here to appreciate how slyly the psychology of each statement is used to demoralize the other team.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Donald Sterling, Racism, and Nuance

The Donald Sterling tape is a bit of a rarity in our culture. Finally, pure proof of the racism many of us suspected still exists in sports. And it's more dramatic partly because the NBA has the best track record among the major sports in being race-blind. It's almost sure to improve the way athletes are treated by their "owners," correct? So what's wrong?

"Back to the tape: It really does have all you could want from a bigotry case study. Perfect material for a race, class, and gender sociology seminar. So much so that it begins to feel not real. Not in the sense that you’re surprised someone could think this way — not even close. But more in the sense that this whole thing — from the racial revelations to the symbolism of the players’ uniform removal — starts giving off strong vibes of a Disney race movie." --Rembert Browne, Grantland.

It's almost too convenient, the scriptedness of it all. The coverage severely lacks nuance, with a few notable exceptions (I highly recommend the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar article in Time as well, and Mark Cuban's comments on the possible ramifications of a thought witch hunt). Problematically, what worries me is that the very act of seeking nuance to this story is seen as suspect. Bryan Curtis hints at this in on Grantland:

A certain opinion — and I’d argue that this is, in nearly every case, an opinion that falls on the lefty side of the political spectrum — is articulated. It surfs Twitter. The opinion builds momentum until it becomes, with a few noisy exceptions, the de facto take of the entire sportswriter intelligentsia (perhaps the wrong word). That opinion then becomes something like a movement.

Sports blogs have come a long way. I recall the bad old days, where any act of a minority athlete that seemed "weird" was ripe for ridicule on a sports blog, with little room for nuance or cultural interpretation. High-five the blogger next to you, because they deserve it. Overall I'm pleased at how sports blogs have a more pro-labor, pro-individual understanding of sports than your typical columnist.

However, this has come at the cost of nuance in the sports blog community. The voices are more united, but they are more shrill. Alternative angles to a story are buried and shunned. Yes, your first article should be that Donald Sterling is a condemnable racist. But let's look at the other angles:

1) V. Stiviano fulfils every last stereotype of an opportunistic gold-digger. Her recordings, which may be as many as 100 hours worth of content, may not even be legal according to California law. She no doubt sold the recordings, and timed them for maximum impact. Relying on her tape as unbiased and clean testimony is hazardous. Sterling is not a first time offender and deserves much of this, but she also clearly targeted and exploited an elderly man. Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Pierce both brought this up, and deservedly so.

2) Mark Jackson tells Clippers fans to stay away, which sounds good!...until you realize it helps his team win pivotal Game 5 in LA. Magic Johnson deservedly hammers Sterling for telling Stiviano to stay away from Johnson in photos, good!...but Magic Johnson may have an ulterior motive in that this press could force Sterling to sell the team to Johnson at a lower price than face value. (For what it's worth, Magic denied interest in buying the team and also said he will not do more interviews on Sterling, which I give him credit for. But the rumors are floating.). I don't blame Mark and Magic for what they are doing, but it's important to point out the business of castigating racists can be rather lucrative. Doubt me? The LA NAACP would like a word. And finally...

3) There is a certain irony in organizations that have for years struggled to put a black face on camera or behind a computer piously criticizing a white man who employs blacks. Besides Grantland's wonderful Browne/Morris article, I struggle to think of a sports blog that has featured a black writer's take on this story. That's highly problematic. Donald Sterling is a racist...who hires black men. Sports blogs are not racist per se, but they have historically struggled to hire black writers. Thus such writers have been forced to start their own blogs to get noticed. (Full disclosure: I worked with DK Wilson at one such blog, just one example of this trend). I'll just gently and forcefully say that our whiteness is showing in coverage of this story. This is particularly true of those who are shouting at various black players, owners (Jordan), and workers to be "courageous" while offering little evidence of any personal courage in their linking, hiring, and publishing blog practices. Finally, sports blogs have mostly refrained from asking actual experts on race and business to weigh in. I understand that to some extent, such actions are more the Wall Street Journal or SI's domain. But there are definitely some voices out there that would talk to blogs, if we asked. (Popsspot has some interviews with experts on this, as an example).

I'm pleased that Sterling has been fully unmasked, but I worry about a blog culture in which asking any questions about the nuances of such stories is in itself suspect. No one wants to be seen as supporting a racist, I understand that. What worries me is that no one seems to want to be seen as thinking out loud on this topic, either.