At the close of nearly every sporting even in the United States, competitors exchange handshakes. Long recognized as a conventional expression of respect, many take it to be a reaffirmation the ethics of sport, routinely glossed in more sexist shorthand as sportsmanship. Only rarely does the ritual make plain its place within predominant racialized modes of being and seeing. Such neglect, of course, limits our understanding of the limits race continues to place of humanity, precisely because it turns on respect, respectability, and the recognition of a shared humanity and became traditional during an era in which sport, like society generally, endorsed racial exclusion.
The conclusion of the 2011 NBA Finals offers a striking starting point to reconsider the racial significance of the post-game handshake. Amid the hoopla and the ample criticism directed at LeBron James, there has been very little critical discussion of Dirk Nowitzki’s quick exit from the court. Rather than celebrating with his team and congratulating the members of the Miami Heat for a well-fought series, Dirk retreated to the locker room. Responding to Hannah Storm’s question about his post-game activity, he explained his decision as such:
I had to get a moment. I was crying a bit. I was a little emotional. … I actually didn’t want to come out for the trophy, but the guys talked me into it.
While others noted this to be unusual and out-of-step with protocol, little has been made of his decision in a critical way. Some even described it as touching, while Skip Bayless on 1rst and 10 linked his decision to his justifiable anger against Wade and James for “mocking his illness.” Stacey King, on the same show, dismissed the issue since Dirk is “a classy guy, this is a guy with humility.” These reframings of the series Most Valuable Player championed his character, simultaneously affirming his humanity, while revealing a racial double standard.
What is curious here is how this silence can be read in relationship to past media discourse about (black) players leaving the court without the requisite hugs, handshakes, and pleasantries. In 2009, after the Magic defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James exited the court in such an “unsportsmanlike” way. James explained the situation:
I’m a competitor. “That’s what I do. It doesn’t make sense to me to go over and shake somebody’s hand.
His explanation was unsatisfying to many, leading to an avalanche of criticism directed at him for his lack of respect, sportsmanship, and maturity. “There’s not much debate to be had there. You’re not likely to find anyone who would seriously argue that snubbing the Magic was a classy move on King James’ part,” wrote Phil Taylor.
But so many athletes are now cut from that cloth. They think the inability to deal with defeat gracefully is a sign of competitive fire, when it’s often a sign of immaturity. A real competitor gives every ounce of effort to win, but is enough of a man to give respect to an opponent who does the same and prevails.
David Aldridge concurred, chastising James for poor sportsmanship:
Not one word of congratulations to a team that beat yours fair and square, after a tough series. That was poor sportsmanship, LeBron, no matter how you or any of your followers, acolytes and media protectors say otherwise.
Others were not so constructive with their criticism: While Ann Killion identified him as “the definition of a poor sport.”
Not surprisingly, sports writers took the moment to lament the lack of desired values in sport and the ways in which contemporary athletes were teaching kids the wrong lesson. “Every kid in every sports league—soccer, Little League, field hockey, lacrosse, football, you name it—from kindergarten to college has to shake hands with their opponents,” noted Mary Kate Cary.
Many times the coach will bench them if they refuse. So why don’t the adults have to do the same thing? I guess good sportsmanship is just for kids these days. It’s certainly not for the adults who make it to the top of their sport.
LeBron, who is no stranger to controversy and media “haterrade” (see Dave Zirin’s column on LeBron’s post game comments), is not alone in facing media criticism for failing to shake hands at the end of game. During the 2011 playoffs, Russell Westbrook faced a similar level of criticism for walking off the court without congratulating the Dallas Mavericks at the conclusion of the Western Conference finals. Described as like “LeBron,” as “Westpunk” and a “classless chicken shit” and otherwise criticized, the instance (as with LeBron) was used to once again question his emotional make-up, maturity, and respect for the game.