This is the time of year the NBA hands out kudos to its players for jobs well done. MVP, rookie of the year, defensive team - more trophies are being passed out than on Oscar night.
Now it's the league's turn to get a pat on the back.
Say what you want about the dress code brouhaha or the study that came out last week suggesting racial bias among referees. When it comes to the touchy issues of race and workplace diversity, the NBA gets it. Better than most.
The NBA got an A- when it comes to the number of minorities and women in top jobs, according to the annual Racial and Gender Report Card. When the season began, 40 percent of the NBA's head coaches were black. It has the only black CEOs and presidents in men's pro sports, and three of its 30 teams have black general managers.
It also has the only black majority owner in professional sports in the Charlotte Bobcats' Robert Johnson.
``This is something to celebrate,'' said Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, which issued the report card Wednesday.
``The NBA has helped to lay out a roadmap for society,'' Lapchick said. ``We're a sports-loving country. If we can model successful behavior in terms of race and gender in the sports world ... my ultimate hope is that it's going to go the next step and impact corporate America and higher education in America.''
It was only a few days ago that the NBA was caught up in a firestorm over an academic study that found evidence of racial bias among the league's referees. Players of every color were quick to say refs weren't biased, with Kobe Bryant even joking he might be the victim of reverse discrimination because he'd gotten most of his technicals from black refs.
The NBA has tried to shout down the study, insisting its own analysis of referees' calls showed no evidence of racial bias. Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the study, has been equally insistent that he's right and bias exists.
All of which misses the point.
The study wasn't about fouls or bad refs. Or even about basketball, really. It was about subconscious biases that might exist in our minds, no matter how enlightened we are. It was about the subtle ways we process information, oftentimes without even realizing it.
It was about what might well be the toughest hurdle to overcome if we're ever going to get to the point where the color of skin matters as little as eye color.
``If you think about it, and I do a lot, whether it was Magic announcing he was HIV-positive, we always change the debate,'' NBA commissioner David Stern said earlier this week. ``It gets people to think about that, about whether there is subconscious bias. That's OK.''
The NBA and Wolfers probably won't ever agree on whose analysis is right. And that's fine. But they can agree on the larger picture: That we're not yet a colorblind society.
No doubt the NBA still has room to improve. According to the report card, the percentage of women in the NBA office dropped for a third year in a row, and the percentage of female team vice presidents went down, too.
But at least it's making an effort. More important, it's getting results.
Despite the ``Rooney Rule,'' there are only six black head coaches among the 32 NFL teams, and three black GMs. Commissioner Bud Selig has applied similar pressure in baseball and yet there are two, count them, two, black managers this season, and only a handful of Hispanics.
The NBA has never needed a ``Rooney Rule'' or its equivalent. Its history as the trendsetter for racial equality is long and consistent. Although it took until 2007 for two black head coaches to meet in the Super Bowl, Al Attles and K.C. Jones faced each other in the NBA finals way back in 1975.
Minority coaches are so much a part of the game these days their race is no longer even mentioned when they're hired and fired. Aside from Minnesota Timberwolves fans and his relatives, who even realized Dwane Casey got canned in January?
Even the controversial dress code was, in some ways, an attempt to make the league race-neutral. Fans were being turned off by the sloppy, urban chic some guys were sporting, much as fans once balked at the hippie look. Problem was, most who favored the hip-hop look were black players.
So Stern slapped a dress code on the league. If a fan was going to dislike a player, it wasn't going to be based on appearance.
``Our special opportunity is that you can talk about anything if you talk about it in the context of sports,'' Stern said. ``We're the place where you engage in that conversation, and I think I'd be worried if we stopped being that place.''
Sadly, there's still plenty of conversations to be had. But at least the NBA has the guts to have them.
And for that it should be applauded.
Nancy Armour is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to her at

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