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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

Sports and Society: Race and the NBA MVP


The NBA MVP Award has always been completely ridiculous. It is the most confusing award ever conceived with zero agreed-upon criteria with which voters can even begin to formulate an opinion. Surely this hasn’t caused any problems over the past few weeks.

While stupid in its own unique way, the NFL at least narrows down the award to basically one position, and so long as a quarterback on a successful team has a solid statistical season, we can all go home feeling like the world won’t end. This formula of 99% of the league having essentially no chance from the outset is not feasible in the NBA, so league officials have decided on determining a league MVP through rampant subjectivity, voted on exclusively by sportswriters. Now, the NBA must face an unfortunate byproduct that comes with explicit subjectivity: implicit bias.

Kendrick Perkins, a former player and influential pundit, lobbed accusations that Nikola Jokić — a white player from Serbia who has won the last two MVP awards — is being artificially boosted in this year’s MVP debate by racism among voters. Perkins backed up this claim with two lies and a truth, correctly stating that the last three MVP winners to not finish top-10 in scoring were white but falsely asserting that 80% of voters are white and that Jokić pads his stats to appear better than he actually is.

Perkins, who by all accounts is a wonderful guy to work with, was quickly rebutted by J.J. Redick, a former player, who said that Perkins was mischaracterizing the situation by falsely implying that white voters favor white players.

Their conversation, which aired on ESPN’s “First Take” —one of the most infuriating shows in existence for those of us who still appreciate thoughtfulness in sports commentary these days — has been all over the news spectrum. Fox News articles painted Perkins as being a racist himself while HBO’s Bomani Jones defended Perkins and warned Redick that his rebuttal had won him support from people he probably would rather not have on his side. The next day, ESPN ended up issuing a correction for Perkins’ 80% claim.

Talking about race and sports is always difficult but becomes utterly impossible when nuance and facts are removed from all sides of the argument. Perkins’ claim that Jokić may be buoyed by racism in voting is not by definition wrong, and Redick should not have dismissed it out of hand. Racism is so pervasive in America that it would be hard to imagine it does not play any role in the MVP conversation.

Perkins’ mistake was not his initial claim but that he made things up to support it. The NBA does not publish demographic information about voters, but ESPN’s internal review found it was significantly more diverse than Perkins had suggested. And, anyone who has ever watched Jokić play knows also that he does not stat-pad but is rather a genius at exploiting floor spacing with incising passes and superhuman vision.

Why did this conversation around race quickly devolve into an on-air yelling match? It is a fascinating question to ask and gets to the crux of why I started this column in the first place. We should be having these discussions, but we should be having them in good faith. I don’t know who is going to win the MVP — if I had to vote today, it would probably go to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who just eviscerated the Kings with a 46-point masterclass — but let’s have every uncomfortable conversation necessary. Hopefully, then we can figure out what it even means to be the NBA MVP.