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The Book of Basketball and Staggering Casual Sexism

Posted By Emma Span On December 17, 2010 @ 12:38 pm In Arts and Culture,Basketball,Book Review,Bookish,Emma Span,Games We Play,Pop Culture | Comments Disabled

I meant to write a post like this a solid year ago, but I kept putting it off. It’s not directly baseball-related, and it has a decently high likelihood of inspiring an exhausting reaction. But then Bill Simmons’ “Book of Basketball” [1] came out in paperback, and he has been on a mini-tour to promote it, and started a mini-multimedia-feud with Charles Pierce (who returned fire and then some [2]), and Alex started pestering me to do it, and so I will.


Photo from doulikeme.wordpress.com

I’ve mostly found Bill Simmons to be an entertaining, engaging writer. His persona gets too over-the-top frat-boy for me at times [4] (choose your own adventure with that last link), but I used to enjoy his columns even if I rolled my eyes often – anyone who spends as much time as I do on sports blogs is inured to a certain amount of that, and usually, if it doesn’t seem malicious, I brush it off easily enough. You can’t fight every battle and it’s no fun trying. Anyway, I got a kick out of Simmons’ baseball columns even though I often disagree with him there (even aside from him being a Red Sox fan) — but when it comes to basketball, he really knows his stuff. So when I visited my publisher last winter I was pleased to pick up a copy of the then-new “Book of Basketball,” and even more pleased to see that it had pushed Mitch Albom’s latest pap out of first place on the New York Times bestseller list.

The first really clear sign of trouble was this sentence and footnote (talking about going to Vegas, of course):

“I needed permission from my pregnant wife, who was perpetually ornery from (a) carrying our second child during the hot weather months in California, and (b) being knocked up because I pulled the goalie on her back in February.(1)
(1)The term “pulling the goalie” means “eschewing birth control and letting the chips fall where they may.” Usually couples discuss pulling the goalie before it happens… unless it’s Bridgette Moynahan. In my case, I made the executive decision to speed up plans for kid number two. This did not go over well. I think I’m the first person who ever had a home pregnancy test whipped at them at 95 mph. In my defense, I’m getting old and wanted to have a second kid before I wouldn’t be able to have a catch with them anymore. I have no regrets. Plus, we had a son. In the words of Joel Goodson, sometimes you gotta say, “What the fuck?” (pages 30-31)

What the fuck is right. I assume this is a joke — at least, it’s clearly supposed to be funny, but man did it fall flat with me. “Ornery” does not begin to describe my reaction if my husband, who’d very soon be my ex-husband, made an “executive decision” to stop using birth control without telling me. (Also, what the hell were they using that he could do this without her knowing? A valid question, though not one I care to dwell on).

A lot of reviewers noted “The Book of Basketball’s” sexism at the time. Writing in a discussion at New York Magazine’s Vulture Blog, here’s Tommy Craggs [5]:

I’m glad Jonathan [Lethem] brought up the sexism, because, well, it’s pretty astounding (this from a guy writing next to the stripper pole at Deadspin HQ). Let’s just pass over the story about the “mediocre Asian with fake cans” and head straight to this little pearl, provided by Simmons’s buddy Bug: “Every time I watch Jason Kidd play, initially it’s like seeing a girl walk into a bar who’s just drop-dead gorgeous, but then when he throws up one of those bricks, it’s like the gorgeous girl taking off her jacket and you see she has tiny mosquito bites for tits.” Yeesh.

His take was followed by Ben Mathis-Lilley’s [6]:

First, some thoughts on the book’s horrible sexism. In my notes on TBOB, I actually stopped bothering to copy down the most egregious comments and figured I’d just note when Simmons mentioned a woman for any reason other than evaluating her appeal as something to put a penis in. I’m open to correction on this, but I believe it was when he praised Meryl Streep’s acting somewhere around page 500.

The annoying thing about Simmons’s sexism in this book is that it’s not only abhorrent—we probably all look up to writers and artists and Shawn Kemps who have personal attitudes we don’t agree with—it’s intrusively abhorrent. I’m not a Puritan. I don’t mind battle-of-the-sexes banter or bachelor-party anecdotes and I’m not, presently, wearing pants. But Simmons gets into weird, pathological territory. Here’s a selection from one of his columns [7] that the book prompted me to look up:

I flew to San Fran to hang out with my buddies Bish, Mikey and Hopper (the heart of the original Vegas crew) for a few days. The weekend started off with Mikey showing us a then-legendary porn scene–one where Rocco Siffredi randomly decided to dunk a co-star’s head into a toilet–which we analyzed like it was the Zapruder film for a good two to 10 hours. Then we flew to Vegas and gambled for three straight days, and every time someone got killed by a blackjack hand we made a variation of a joke about someone getting their head rammed in the toilet by Rocco. Vegas is the place where you beat the same joke into the ground, but this went to another level–flushing sounds, gurgling, “No, no Rocco, not again!” and everything else. It just never got old.

Jeez, man. Jeez. I didn’t realize guys like this had friends; I assumed they were all rapey basement loners. We reviewers and commenters seem to be in agreement that it’s not cool—so who’s out there egging him on? Am I misjudging the sleaziness of the American male?

Both of those writers did a good job of laying out the hostile tone that surfaces in this book dozens of times, though I should point out that both of them went on to mostly enjoy it otherwise. And I can see why – it’s easy reading, outside of this issue, and as I said the guy knows his basketball; he did a lot of research, put a lot of thought in, and his love of the game shines through. Unfortunately, so does his utter contempt for women, and I just couldn’t ignore the mounting pile of passages like this:

“There are three great what-ifs in my life that don’t involve women. The first is, “What if I had gone west or south for college?” This haunts me and will continue to haunt me until the day I die. I could have chosen a warm-weather school with hundreds of gorgeous sorority girls, and instead I went to an Irish Catholic school on a Worcester hill with bone-chilling 20-degree winds, which allowed female students to hide behind heavy coats and butt-covering sweaters so thick it became impossible to guess their weight within a 35-pound range.” (page 157)

“…Phoenix swapped Kidd to New Jersey for Stephon Marbury a few months after Kidd was charged with domestic assault. (36)
(36) Anytime “he smacked his wife, let’s get him the hell out of here” is the only reason for dealing one of the best top-ten point guards ever, I’m sorry, that’s a shitty reason. By the way, this footnote was written by Ike Turner.” (page 236)

(Yes, I know it’s a joke. I think it’s possible to pull off a funny joke about domestic violence — as George Carlin used to say, you can find some sort of humor in any topic. This is not that joke.)

“I’m springing one of my favorite theories here: the Tipping Point Friend. Every group of female college friends goes between eight and twelve girls deep. Within that group, there might be three or four little cliques and backstabbing is through the roof, but the girls get along for the most part and make a big deal about hanging out, doing dinners, having special weekends and everything else. Maybe two of them get married early, then the other ones start dropping in their mid-20s until there’s only five left – the cute blonde who can’t get a boyfriend because she’s either a drunk, an anorexic, or a drunkorexic; the cute brunette who only attracts assholes; the 185-pounder who’d be cute if she lost weight; the not-so-cute one with a great sense of humor; and the sarcastic chain-smoker with 36DDs who isn’t quite cute enough to land anyone but hooks up a lot because of the 36DDs. In this scenario, the cute brunette is the Tipping Point Friend – as long as she’s in the group, guys will approach them in bars, clubs or wherever. Once she settles down with a non-asshole, now all the pressure is on the drunkorexic and if she can’t handle it, then the girl with 36DDs has to start wearing crazy shirts and blouses to show off her guns.” (page 258)

“I wish WNBA scores would be banned from all scrolling tickers on ABC and ESPN. I’m tired of subconsciously digesting tidbits like “Phoenix 52, Sacramento 44 F” and thinking, “Wait, that was the final score?” before realizing it was WNBA. Let’s just run their scores on NBA TV with pink lettering. And only between the hours of 2:00 a.m and 7:30 a.m.” (page 262)

I could have picked out and transcribed a dozen more examples, but life is short. Taken one at a time, any of these could be shrugged off, but each one piles on the previous instances until they have so much cumulative bulk that they can’t be ignored. I read a lot of books that are written by men and for a largely male audience — in fact that describes many of my favorite books. But this book goes further: it’s not just not coming from a male perspective, it seems to have been written without the slightest hint that any woman could ever conceivably read it. I don’t know what Simmons is like personally, but with this book the Sports Guy persona that he’s constructed for himself has become downright toxic.

Simmons does have a number of female fans, and hey, to each their own. I would have liked to know what the rest of his NBA Pyramid looked like, but not enough to wade through 400 more pages of this stuff. In light of the above passages, reading Melissa Jacobs’ well done but not exactly hard-hitting interview with Bill Simmons [8] on espnW, I found this exchange interesting:

MJ: Moving on to the great world of fantasy football and your “Fantasy Fixes” column, which outraged a lot of women. Do you still think women shouldn’t be allowed to integrate into men’s leagues?

BS: I don’t think it should be a law. I just personally like to be in a league with all guys. I like hanging out with guys in certain situations and I think we should be allowed to do that without it being sexist. Sometimes I like just hanging out with my guy friends. My wife likes hanging out with her friends.

MJ: But you’re not against other dudes, who don’t have a history of being in a league with their buddies, having integrated leagues?

BS: (laughing) You say integrated like it’s the 1960′s. Brown versus the Board of Education or something.

MJ: (laughing) I know. It’s quasi intentional.

BS: If it was one of my friends and he was in a league with girls, would we make fun of him? Yeah. Whatever. I don’t care. For me, we like to sit around and make fun of each other and, if we had a girl in our group we hung out with all the time, it would make sense. But just to bring in a random girl doesn’t make sense.

So… no close female friends, then? Shocking.

I have to say that, after all this, I’m still glad “The Book of Basketball” got Mitch Albom out of 1st on the Times list. But the enemy of my enemy is not my friend here. I wish I could have read more of “The Book of Basketball” without getting pissed off and grossed out, but there was, if you will, a Tipping Point Sexist Paragraph effect at play in this book. After a certain number of them go by, you can no longer see it as casual or unintentional or thoughtless – it’s flat-out unattractive, and I will not be approaching it in bars or clubs.

Article printed from Bronx Banter: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com

URL to article: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2010/12/17/the-book-of-basketball-and-staggering-casual-sexism/

URLs in this post:

[1] Bill Simmons’ “Book of Basketball”: http://www.amazon.com/Book-Basketball-NBA-According-Sports/dp/034551176X

[2] returned fire and then some: http://www.boston.com/sports/columnists/pierce/2010/12/blog_fight_blog_fight.html

[3] Image: http://doulikeme.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/an-asian-moment-w-a-pseudo-celebrity/

[4] too over-the-top frat-boy for me at times: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/glossary

[5] here’s Tommy Craggs: http://nymag.com/arts/books/bookclub/book-of-basketball/index5.html

[6] Ben Mathis-Lilley’s: http://nymag.com/arts/books/bookclub/book-of-basketball/index6.html

[7] one of his columns: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/081113

[8] interview with Bill Simmons: http://espn.go.com/espnw/blog/_/post/5906597/an-evening-bill-simmons

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