Mark Cuban's Misplaced Apology

The Mavericks owner regrets his homophobic humor, but is it really all about him?
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Mark Cuban has apologized. Not in the way Rush Limbaugh, who attempted to distance himself from a few key words but not their meaning, did. Cuban, guilty of cracking a decidedly tame joke about homo-moments on the Kiss Cam during the Sloan Conference of Important Sports Ideas and Equally Important Sports People, opted for soul-searching. Rush lost the tip of his spear but soldiered on. Cuban, criticized rightly for an idiotic aside, decided it was time to look deep within himself and confront his latent prejudices. That's how a quip—albeit one tacky enough that ESPN tried to suppress it—turned into a post titled "Am I a Homophobe?"

While Cuban unmistakably had the greater corporate good in mind, there's a flatulent sincerity to it that's hard to resist, or stand for very long. Maybe Mark Cuban really has never conducted an inventory of his personal biases; he wouldn't be the first vaguely progressive and somewhat dense, dude to make the leap from unreflective, casual "haha you're totally gay" statements to "who am I, really?" self-examination. What’s troubling is that about Cuban isolated the incident, making it about him instead of paying the slightest bit of attention to the circumstances surrounding his offense.

If you haven't heard, the major sports of this land have yet to come to terms with queerness. It's hard to tell whether we're dealing with a spectrum, or several otherwise disconnected hubs. But as a cultural "space," the sports that matter are totally cool with calling people "faggot” and  worrying about a gay teammate’s gaze in the showers. You could make a pretty strong argument that sports culture feeds these myths as much as it is influenced by them. None of this is news. Mark Cuban isn't a homophobe, he's just trying to fit in with a sector of American culture where dudes kissing dudes is somewhere between demeaning and terrifying.

Cuban's self-flagellation totally missed his mark. He could have blamed sports for this uncontrollable itch to bro down at the expense of others, and even critically examined this tendency. Instead, "sports" appeared in his post only twice, and in the most literal kind of context: "I was at a sports conference." Ironically, the NBA, Cuban’s arena, is one of only two major sports leagues (the NHL being the other) to take any sort of public stand against homophobia, no matter how unthinking.

Over the weekend, USA Today quoted two NCAA officials calling John Calipari's one-and-done compact a scourge of college sports. Calipari, asked to comment without knowing the speakers’ identites, grabbed the third rail without flinching: "I bet you they're white. And I bet you they don't say a word about golf or tennis … and that's all I'll say." Steve Wieberg, the story's author, attempts to walk back Cal's declamation, or provide the perhaps too-obvious reasoning behind it. Calipari offers an NBA finishing school for kids who have a realistic shot at a professional basketball career. For a kid whose gifts are beyond dispute, and who may have an immediate need for money (not to mention, a chance to make more money than other college students eyeing the job market), Cal is a godsend. Maybe he bastardizes the concept of the "student-athlete," instead manufacturing students of athletics; then again, if the alternative is the blind leap of preps-to-pros, then Kentucky is still a form of responsible patronage—better than a naive, or shameless, endorsement of amateurism.

Class figures prominently in this analysis, and yes, when we talk about basketball players, it's virtually impossible to not see race-as-culture, and culture-on-race, entering the picture. Calipari, though, went on the offensive, daring the NCAA to prove that it wasn't treating black kids, and the sports they play at a high level, differently.

It's not quite trolling—I don't quite think that "trolling," once an internet-specific practice, need now refer to the kind of real-world incident that "trolling" imitated in the crudest possible way (see also: "brand")—but Cal's rhetorical gauntlet will stir his supporters, leave his critics tripping over themselves to deflect the accusation, and most importantly, further the cred he has among would-be players. Calipari is, in his own way, an idealist. He just happens to believe fervently in his right to take advantage of a fucked-up situation. He's the mirror image of the NCAA, which insists on putting forth principles and then turning a blind eye to their consequences.

Calipari invoked race, knowing full well that it would get people's attention. There's more measured way of explaining the conflict between his program and the NCAA, but in this fight for the moral high ground, going for the jugular is sometimes the most effective strategy. It's directness as a form of obfuscation, the same approach that Mark Cuban unwittingly danced himself into. The difference is, Calipari can bring up race while neatly implying a panic-free version of his position—a safety net, if you will. In Cuban’s case, the insistence on pushing the big picture as far away as possible is the safe move. Taking the fall himself, which can easily be mistaken for honesty, is an evasion.

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I appreciate the attempt to add some complexity to both of these issues, but I think you have overlooked a lot in Cal's comments.

Cal is suggesting that these officials must be racist because they are not making the same criticism of golf or tennis.

But the early entry situation in golf and tennis is completely different. There is no one-and-done rule. Most top players go pro at 17 or 18 and bypass college. Very few leave college early to go pro. In the current men's top 100 in tennis, there is only one player who left college to go pro--James Blake from Harvard. After the end of the 2012 draft, Calipari by himself will have produced 15 early entrants from Kentucky. Does Calipari really think that the Kentucky's men's basketball team is doing the same thing as the Harvard tennis team or the Stanford golf team, who produce maybe a couple early entrants every ten years? Of course not. His comments were disingenuous. He is playing the race card in order to deflect criticism.

Do you know what Cal did when he first arrived at Kentucky? He kicked four of the team's existing players out of the school in order to make way for his one-and-dones. All of the ejected students had been offered four-year scholarships by the previous coach. All were students in good standing. And all were African-American. For him to pose as some kind of guardian of the interests of black youth is weaselly and gross.

Cal has gamed the system expertly, but he provides no social purpose. He is not a "godsend" to these players. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Love seemed to do just fine without Cal. Wall could've spent the year playing YMCA ball and still gotten drafted.

Cal's needs them a lot more than they need him.