Is punching the paying customer in the face “a predominately black style of play and sportsmanship.” I think not, but let’s check out what the Kansas City Star’s Jason Whitlock has to say on the subject, anyway.

By issuing three of the harshest penalties in league history ” a 73-game suspension of Ron Artest, 30 games for Stephen Jackson and 25 games for Jermaine O’Neal ” Stern let his players know that the league will aggressively try to clean up its image problem.

Allen Iverson, Latrell Sprewell, Kobe Bryant, Dream Team failures, an embrace of all the negative aspects of the hip-hop culture and a horrid style of play have conspired to make the NBA easy to ignore. By decimating the Pacers and publicly acknowledging that there has been a lowering of expectations in terms of player (and fan) behavior, Stern made it clear he’s not in denial about the NBA’s troubles.

I am, however, concerned that the league’s players will remain in denial. Surrounded by groupies and yes-men, fortified by multimillion-dollar contracts and endorsement deals, it will be easy for NBA players to misinterpret Stern’s warning.

In this column, I am calling on my peers in the media to level with NBA players (and all professional athletes) and tell them what’s really going on.

American sports fans, particularly those who consistently shell out the hundreds of dollars it takes to attend a professional game, are fed up with black professional basketball players in particular and black professional athletes to a lesser degree.

Yeah, let’s cut through all the garbage and get to the real issue. The people paying the bills don’t like the product, don’t like the attitude, don’t like the showboating and don’t like the flamboyance. The NBA, which relies heavily on African-American players, is at the forefront of fan backlash. Stern realizes this, and that’s why, spurred on by the Detroit brawl, he is reacting decisively.

What the players must come to grips with is that just because race is an element in the backlash, that doesn’t mean the backlash is fueled by racism.

We’re witnessing a clash of cultures. A predominately white fan base is rejecting a predominately black style of play and sportsmanship.