What price headbands?
The Chicago Bills signed center Ben Wallace in the off-season to a $60 million dollar contact, on the assumption that his dominant inside presence – hes a 4-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year – would elevate the team into serious title contention in the Eastern Conference. Wallace to date has been something of a bust, averaging just 9.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. He has appeared disinterested. The Bulls have struggled, with a record at 5-9. In a game against the Knicks over the weekend, Big Ben wore a red headband. No big deal, right? While making his reputation with the Detroit Pistons, Wallace commonly wore a headband, along with an Afro that would make Dr. J proud, and various other creative hairstyles.
It turned out, however, that wearing a headband is against team rules. Bulls Coach Scott Skiles pulled Wallace out of the game. Controversy erupted. Skiles apparently established the rule because some malcontent players had worn goofy headbands in past years. Skiles is a graduate of the Tom Coughlin – or Captain Queeg, take your pick – school of coaching discipline. Sweat the small stuff. Rules are rules. Everyone is treated the same. No special favors. Wallace may not have known about the rule before he signed his contract but he was made aware of it long ago. It turns out that Skiles and Wallace have had other run-ins over team rules, including the mandatory taping of ankles and a headphones-only policy for music in the locker room. Wallace, who played only 20 minutes the previous game (zero points, zero rebounds), seemed to be picking a fight with his coach and the organization. Wallace protested that if anyone was being picked on, he was the offended party.
Spoiled athlete or over-controlling coach? The debate is a constant in modern, big-money sports. Most of us would happily wear a clown suit, or no suit at all, for a guaranteed $60 million contract. On the other hand, diplomacy may be in order. Wallace seems to have more than a bit of Manny Ramirez in him, with the constant need for special treatment and reassurance. Manny may have finally worn out his welcome but the Red Sox got a World Series out of him. Phil Jackson dealt with Dennis Rodman’s eccentricities by quietly fining him, early and often, and letting it go at that. Skiles admits that in his own playing days, he wasn’t exactly the model citizen. The key is how Wallace is viewed by his teammates – how disruptive he is – and that’s not easy to assess from the outside.
But the debate often has an interesting and troubling subtext. Wallace is black; Skiles and Bulls General Manager John Paxson are white. On more than a few radio talk shows and chat rooms, this is being portrayed by some as a racial matter – “it’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” The same argument was made about Andy Reid and T.O. Steve McNair and the Tennessee Titans. David Stern and his dress code and crackdown on on-court misbehavior. The connection isn’t obvious to most of us. McNair’s shabby treatment seems to have been determined by class, not race – the lack of class by Tennessee. But not a few ordinary and high-profile blacks, hardly just the lunatic fringe, think otherwise. See William C. Rhoden’s recent book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. Just something to keep in mind the next time a player-coach blowup occurs.