Moments ago on SportsCenter, Stephen A. Smith showed us again why nobody knows why he's on television, with his fundamental lack of understanding of the city of Atlanta:
Bob Ley: ...In the real world, given where Vick has been in terms of PR issues in Atlanta, how does this issue of dog fighting affect where he is in the minds of Atlanta management?
Stephen A. Smith: I think in the minds of Atlanta management, it's definitely a problem because remember they're not just marketing the football player in terms of trying to get you to come to the games to watch them on Sunday afternoons, but they're using his name to sell paraphenalia, they're using his name to ingratiate themselves to the public at large. You gotta remember a lot of people migrate to Atlanta, that's why it's considered one of the worst sports towns in the United States [Ley chuckles], simply because most people aren't from Atlanta, a lot of people come there from other different places, so you need a marquee name to draw and attract people to your product. And the reality is that when you've got somebody like Michael Vick conducting himself the way that he's conducting himself, and I repeat this on constant occasions in terms of the black athlete, the majority of patrons are white, and so you take that into account and you consider the fact that he's gotten himself involved in this kind of nonsense, you have to believe that it's going to alienate the viewing public, no question about that. The Atlanta Falcons are gonna feel that in their wallet at some point if they haven't started already.
There's a lot in there that's lazy punditry. Let's go point by point.
- Are we not yet to the point where it's obvious to anyone that teams care about more than just how a player performs on the field. Of course teams care about image so they can market players in other ways than just selling tickets. So the initial response offers no insight that isn't patently obvious. In this sense, Ley and Smith are at fault. The question is simply stupid. There is no person alive that can say "it won't affect anything." But Smith takes a bad question and answers it first with the obvious, but then leads on to the incorrect.
- I have no idea why Stephen A. Smith thinks the Atlanta Falcons have to reach out to the community more than any other city. As of last season, the Falcons had sold out the Dome for 5 years straight, and had a waiting list for season tickets 40,000 names long. Pro football in Atlanta is as big a deal as it is anywhere else.
- I believe the transplant argument on why Atlanta isn't a good sports town is flawed, and usually made by people who have a fundamental misunderstanding of the city. Yes, Atlanta is a transplant city. Many people who live here retain loyalties to the cities up North they came from. But that's the case in dozens of cities across the nation. Phoenix, Denver, San Antonio, Tampa, Charlotte all have similar demographics - cities that have increased in population dramatically with rust belt refugees seeking better job opportunities. Further, there is a sizable percentage of Atlantans who either did grow up here (and that number's increasing), or those who grew up in rural areas of the South (places which for the last 30 years did support Atlanta's professional teams). There aren't many 15 generation Atlanta families, like there might be in some Eastern Seaboard towns. But Atlanta isn't a town that only has Red Sox and Giants fans.
- The first reason why Atlanta isn't a "great sports town" under the typical definition of an Eastern Seaboard sports pundit: WE DON'T NECESSARILY CARE ABOUT THE SAME THINGS YOU DO. Atlanta has more college football fanatics than there are in probably 10 states of the Northeast. NASCAR's following in the South is a little larger than in Boston. High school sports, even in the metro Atlanta area, are a core source of community involvement and support. Thanks to good weather, Atlanta's participant sports community is significantly larger than most in the Northeast. Name a mid-Atlantic city that has anything comparable to ALTA. Running, cycling, golf, and a host of other activities, I'd argue, are far more participated in in Atlanta than in Boston, where the frigid begets the mud season, begets mosquitoes.
- The second, and I believe the most fundamental, reason why Atlantans don't fit Northeastern pundits' understanding of what a good sports city is: Atlantans take a different approach to incompetence from professional athletes from that of Northeastern cities. In Boston or Philadelphia, when a professional sports team performs badly for a few years, the city stews, internalizes the frustrations, talks about it incessantly. My extended family is from the Philadelphia area. Try to tell me that's not how people react. In Atlanta, when a professional sports team performs badly for a few years, fans direct their attention toward something worth paying attention to. Atlantans like basketball, a lot actually. NBA television ratings are typically much higher in Atlanta than in other cities. The Hawks don't draw regularly because they've been terrible for a decade. Atlantans don't mire in misery like Northeasterners do (at least not for professional sports - college football is a different story). Perhaps that's because the professional franchises in the South are just in their third generation, as opposed to 7-10th up North. Perhaps it's because there are other things to care about (see above). Perhaps it's because the weather isn't a constant 34 degrees and raining that makes people that live here, I don't know, not insufferable (sufferable?) misanthropes. Whatever the reason, people here just don't have time to worry about BS like a professional sports team. It's just sports, and guys who get paid to play. Atlantans seem to realize that. I tend to disagree with the premise that you aren't a good sports city if you aren't blindly supporting teams that stink. I actually appreciate that Atlanta is a more discerning sports city.
- That was a bit of a tangent, but let me just add that I think it's bullshit that the arbiters of "what's a good sports city" are (Ley) a guy who has worked in a state without a professional sports team since the hockey team left for greener pastures in the Southeast and (Smith) a guy whose sportswriting career almost entirely occurred in the single most miserable sports city on earth - Philadelphia. Misery does not equal being a good fan.
- Atlantans do not go to professional sporting events because of marquee names. They go because the teams are winning. This has been the case for every single professional franchise in the city, for 30 years or so. The correlation between winning and attendance in this city is clear. The correlation between "having a marquee name" and attendance isn't provable.
- I dispute the argument that the majority of fans of the Atlanta Falcons are necessarily white, or at least that the race of the fans comes into play as much as Smith suggests. One of the reasons why Atlanta is a great city is that it has a vibrant, active, professional, highly-educated African-American community. I'd argue that no major city in America has the kind of Black community that Atlanta has. And that community are among the most fervent supporters of the Atlanta Falcons - and long before Michael Vick wore #7. It's my experience living in Atlanta that the primary allegiance of whites is to a particular college football program, but among African-Americans, the primary allegiance is to the Falcons. That's not to say that whites don't care about the Falcons at all. A lot do care. The point is that the spectators at Falcons games aren't a bunch of white dudes. It's a pastiche as diverse as the city itself. There are thousands of African-Americans who are among the Falcons' biggest supporters. To suggest that the front office of the Falcons has a primary concern of pleasing a white audience shows a complete lack of knowledge of the fans.
- Here's where I sort of argue against myself: I think it's kind of offensive to suggest that black Falcons fans wouldn't be as troubled as white Falcons fans by the allegations and rumors against Vick with dog fighting. I find it a colonial, 19th-century stance - to suggest that the whites would abandon the team because of Vick's behavior, but blacks wouldn't. There's no doubt in my mind that thousands of African Americans in this city that are disgusted by dog fighting. The Falcons should be concerned with all of them as much as the stereotypical suburban white rich dude in the stands. That said, and I hinted at this in a previous post, it also wouldn't surprise me if the Falcons took something akin to this offensive, semi-paternalist argument. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the Falcons have brushed aside some of Vick's or other player's indefensible behavior because they viewed the fanbase as being composed of a large percentage of African Americans who would be turned off by discipline against African American players. Does this make sense? Here's my thinking, in admittedly coarse language I normally wouldn't like to use: The NBA (in most markets) is selling a largely black league, with a "hip-hop" culture (whatever that means, I consider racist code), to a largely white audience. So they have stupid rules like the bench suspension or dress code to try to make the league less "gangsta" (wtm,Icrc). The result is a paternalistic approach that cracks down on players, possibly unfairly. The Falcons, on the other hand, have a large African American audience. Cracking down on players for doing things like dog fighting, or softer drugs, or general misbehavior/FnDC stuff might turn off the black fans (or so they might think). So they let stuff slide. This, in my view, is equally paternalistic, and wrong. Heavyhandedness on the part of the NBA against the slightest indiscretion to protect the sensitive sensibilities of white audience is wrong. Lighthandedness on the part of the Falcons against actual misbehavior so as to not be accused of cracking down on someone "keeping it real" (wtm, Icrc) by a black audience is also wrong. That make sense? I hope the Falcons aren't doing that.