This isn’t a column about Luka Dončić. But it is about how Luka Dončić is covered.
On Sunday, the Mavs star — and one of the best and brightest young talents that the NBA promotes due to his international appeal — was ejected from Dallas’ game against the Cavs in the third quarter after a flagrant foul 2, for hitting Collin Sexton in an area on the body in which men don’t hit other men unless they’re attempting to inflict serious pain and discomfort.
“After I saw the video, I knew I hit him, but it wasn’t nothing on purpose,” said Dončić. “I think that kind of stuff happens a lot in games, but I don’t know. That’s my explanation. It obviously wasn’t on purpose. It was just two guys fighting for a rebound, I guess.”
In fairness, even Sexton didn’t think there was evil intent behind the below-the-belt blow.
“It was just a boxout play,” Sexton said. “Usually, whenever someone is hand-checking, then you punch down or swing down. It was just in the groin, but it’s all good.”
The only reason that Sunday night’s ejection is newsworthy is that Dončić is leading the league in technical fouls this year with 15, which means he’s one away from an automatic one-game suspension. Last week, Dončić got two techs in a game against the Kings, leading to his ejection with under a minute left.
Again, this isn’t about how Dončić plays or acts on the court. Because, to be honest, I don’t care or have an issue with it. But, what I do have a problem with is that “others” in the media landscape don’t talk about him in the same way that they have done players in the past with the same issues.
And when I say “others,” I’m talking about white people.
Deadspin reached out to the NBA, and according to them, these are the men Dončić could join as the only players in league history to be suspended for reaching the technical foul threshold, which was put into play before the 2005-2006 season.
- DeMarcus Cousins (4 times)
- Rasheed Wallace (3 times)
- Dwight Howard (3 times)
- Blake Griffin, Stephen Jackson, Russell Westbrook (1 time)
Besides the obvious fact that all of those players are Black, and Dončić is one of the few white stars in a Black league, the majority of the guys on that list have been labeled as a troublemaker a time or two. Dwight Howard’s goofiness and head-scratching off-court issues — that dude is always in some relationship drama — may have been what saved him from the labels. And Blake Griffin is on this list because of the way he used to react to all the hard fouls he had to endure, as he — like Zion Williamson is now — was once the uber-athletic big man that nobody could stop.
I’m not here to defend the things Cousins, Wallace, Jackson, and Westbrook have done on or off the court — or even in the stands. I’m not even mad at the words that may have been used to describe their actions, outside of calling them “thugs” — which is a coded way for white people to say “ni**er.” The problem here is that Dončić doesn’t have Howard’s silliness, nor does he get fouled in the way that Griffin did. There is no shield to protect him, except for his whiteness.
We see stuff like this all the time. If a player is labeled as “athletic,” that means he’s Black. And if he’s described as a “gamer,” “hard worker,” “gym rat,” “competitor,” “deceptively quick,” or has “surprising athleticism,” he’s always white. Coded language has been a part of sports for a long time. The problem with it is that it’s never been helpful, it’s just lazy. And there’s a reason why.
The 2018 Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) Racial and Gender Report Card — the latest edition — is a biannual account that sports editors across the country hate because it’s a constant reminder of how much they suck at hiring, promoting, and developing diverse talent. According to the last report: 85 percent of the sports editors, 76.4 percent of the assistant sports editors, 80.3 percent of the columnists, 82.1 percent of the reporters, and 77.7 percent of the copy editors/designers are white. Added to that, 90 percent of the sports editors, 69.9 percent of the assistant sports editors, 83.4 percent of the columnists, 88.5 percent of the reporters, and 79.6 percent of the copy editors/designers were men.
If you’re wondering what those numbers and percentages mean in the real world, it’s that there aren’t enough Black people in this industry that could have changed the narrative or properly told the story of why players like Cousins, Wallace, and Jackson acted in some of the ways they did. They weren’t allowed to be labeled as a “crybaby” — at worst — for always complaining about fouls, crying to the referees, and picking up technicals like Dončić has been allowed to do.
And since the NBA had “Black Lives Matter” on their court last season, it should mean that those same Black lives should be allowed to cry and complain about calls in the same way that Dončić does without being considered headaches or labeled as players that are too emotional with attitude problems.
I love watching Luka Dončić play basketball, and I wouldn’t change anything about his game. But, if I had a magic wand, I’d change the diversity issues in this industry, so that more Black players could be given a pass in the same way that Dončić does.