A Tale of Two Cultures: Double-sided Mirror By Darrius Williams

The NFL & the NBA player can look at one another and almost feel like they are looking in a mirror. However, while there are similarities, the cultures that the two exist in could not be further apart

May 26

Dating back to middle and high school years, athletes have always shared a bond based on similar experiences and lifestyles. Athletes have always had several factors that they could relate to one another. Although some athletes experienced more favorable treatment than others depending on their sport, how talented they were, and the state they resided in, overall, the lifestyle was the same across the board. The two most popular mainstream sports in America arguably are football and basketball, which in the professional ranks translates to the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. The majority of people's favorite athletes, teams, and even coaches hail from these two organizations. Just as in school, one would assume professional athletes share the same experiences, lifestyles, and struggles all under the identity of being an athlete. When it comes to popularity, money, fame, and media scrutiny, the NFL player and the NBA player can look at one another and almost feel like they are looking in a mirror. However, while there are similarities, the cultures that the two exist in could not be further apart.

Let's begin with the National Basketball Association. It's common knowledge and opinion that the NBA is more player-focused, an organization that understands that the players make up the league and gives them much more of a voice and the freedom to be themselves. NBA players have the freedom to wear whatever shoes they desire to play in, jersey number, and it even seems much more manageable for NBA players to get to the market they want to play in. From a business perspective, the NBA's commissioner is an advocate for the players instead of a warden. Front offices are considered the same way from the general managers to the president of organizations. Although there are disagreements from time to time and a few issues with players, overall, the relationship between players and front offices seems healthy and solid. This is especially indicated in the contracts that many NBA players receive and the guaranteed dollars that players can bring in for a sport that isn't as physical and violent as other sports such as football.

One of the most significant aspects of the NBA is the unspoken connection to black culture. There has always been the notion that "rappers want to be basketball players and ballplayers want to be rappers." NBA players carry a swagger that often can be identified with hip-hop culture, from the clothes to the vocabulary, to who they hang around outside of basketball, all of it connects. Basketball players are more identifiable; young kids on the playground identify with basketball players they want to emulate. Music artists name drop basketball players and are often seen court-side at basketball games, and so on. Apart from that avenue, NBA players and organizations appear to be much more vocal about racial injustices and the ills in America regarding minorities. The NBA floor having "Black Lives Matter" during the bubble season was a massive statement that many organizations would not be willing to make. Despite the criticisms and skepticism of the motives and intent, just the fact that it took place shows how much the culture of the NBA and pro basketball players is weaved into black culture and reflective to an extent.

Now, let's compare this to the other major sports giant, the National Football League, an organization that has been nicknamed the (N)no (F)fun (L)league. The NFL is viewed as the league prioritizing the shield.  The rules and regulations of the NFL have always been strict, with very little flexibility. Players don't have the freedom of self-expression; players will be the kind of players that the NFL desires them to be. NFL players, this past off-season, were just granted the freedom to change their jersey numbers. A few years back, players were given the freedom to celebrate after scoring touchdowns, which used to be penalized during the game. Currently, players still do not have the privilege to play in the cleats that they desire. Many can only enjoy customized cleats during pre-game warm-ups and walk-throughs before switching to a bland shoe for game-time. There is anxiety amongst specific pro prospects about which team they will be drafted to because they know particular coaches and staff will not build according to their strengths. Instead, they fight to change how the player plays, even to the teams' detriment.

The NFL is often viewed as seeing their players as mere property, a means to a wealthy end. Once a player can no longer offer anything to an organization, he is discarded without a second thought. Recently, despite concussion issues, the NFL, dollars not being guaranteed for players, and criticism from many players, expanded the regular season to seventeen games.  The players' best interest is rarely the priority, but rather the league's best interest at the expense of its players in many cases.

While the NBA seems to have a legitimate connection to culture, the NFL falls on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. That is not to say that the NFL has not had players praised and highly regarded by the culture; many black athletes and even non-black athletes are. However, there is a flip side to that within the realm of the NFL. Some franchises can't even recall the last time they had a black quarterback or the face of their franchise being black. Many NFL teams are likened by many to modern-day slave owners, a notion that is rarely ever thrown around when discussing NBA owners . The framework of the NFL is viewed as the commissioner against the players or the owners against the players. Nothing indicted the NFL more in this regard than Colin Kaepernick's decision to take a knee for injustices in America. Many believe that the National Football League blackballed him, which is why he was no longer able to land a job with any team, despite several teams in dire need of a quarterback. This was the biggest indictment of the NFL and left a sour taste in the mouth of many, leading to fans boycotting the league and refusing to watch. As we can see, this is a much different picture than what we see when referring to the NBA.

Most of us love the NFL and the NBA, and we understand the ills in both organizations. One could make the argument that the experience of the athlete in the NBA compared to an athlete in the NFL is like night and day. None of us may be able to one hundred percent speak to this unless we have been a part of these organizations, but it is something to note from the outside and think about. It's like a double-sided mirror.