Archive for sports
The Oneida Indian Nation of New York is leading a national effort urging the Washington NFL team to drop its offensive “redskins” name and mascot. The first ad in its “Change the Mascot” campaign has been released and some key people seem to be getting the message.
Recently, the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has declared that league and team officials “need to be listening” to the mounting calls for change. The commissioner’s declaration, made during an interview with a Washington, D.C. radio station. Reporting on Goodell’s comments, the Associated Press noted that “momentum for a switch has been growing.”
Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter said:
“We are encouraged to see that Mr. Goodell is joining us and so many others in calling for a serious discussion about ending the Washington team’s use of a racial slur. Mr. Goodell is absolutely right – it is time for the Washington team’s owners to start listening. If Dan Snyder continues to be dismissive of the concerns of Native Americans and disdainful of the fact his franchise bears a name that is defined in the dictionary as an epithet, it will be incumbent upon the other owners, the League and the Commissioner to step in and take action.”
The plan is to have ads that run each week in every city the Washington NFL team visits. The campaign isn’t about mere ‘political correctness’ because this sort of language carries with an implicit violence.
(Image posted by Twitter user @Mzhakdo)
Even if the NFL commissioner and the Washington, D.C. football franchise doesn’t want to change the mascot because it’s racist, perhaps they will be moved to change it so that they can distance themselves from images like the one above. Surely, someone at the NFL thinks this sort of symbolic racial violence hurts their brand.
Surprised? No. Hurt? No. I am neither bamboozled, disillusioned, flimflammed, confused, taken aback, floored, or any other adjective one would possibly use to describe their emotions pertaining to the latest public act of overt racism and idiocy which was illustrated by Spain’s top golfer Sergio Garcia. Media outlets from the Huffington Post to ESPN reported on his comments relating to Tiger Woods. In summary, this past Tuesday evening in London during the European Tour’s Players’ Awards dinner, a reporter asked the golfer if he was planning to invite his nemesis to dinner during the imminent U.S. Open. Garcia responded by saying, “We will have him round every night…”We will serve fried chicken.” After reading the story, I instantly saw my southern elderly grandmother saying, “Oooh Weee!!” But I digress. After you know what hit the you know what, Garcia issued a foreseeable apology.
I apologize for any offense that may have been caused by my comment on stage during the European Tour Players’ Awards dinner. I answered a question that was clearly made towards me as a joke with a silly remark, but in no way was the comment meant in a racist manner.
To me what seemed pure and concentrated racism was in fact a harmless joke? What was I thinking? Seriously, it seems whenever well-known white politicians, sports figures, and movie stars are forced to retract hurtful comments, pertaining to non-whites, which usually only occurs due to the possible threat to their financial “Cheese,” the term “joke” is always utilized to set forth rationalization. Dr. Jane Hill, out of the University of Arizona who studies language ideologies in the reproduction of racism, would deem this behavior as an example of a “gaffe.” The supposed slip of Garcia’s tongue reproduces the white “folk-theory” while advancing the highly constructed virtue of whiteness. For the ultimate purpose of justifying white privilege, the use of gaffes permits whites to stigmatize nonwhites through the process of “reproducing racist stereotypes.” Even though many people do not truly believe all Black people are genetically drawn to eating fried chicken, Hill would argues that Garcia’s gaffe
still becomes easily accessible, become an element of automatic, unreflective action and reaction that is very difficult to notice and contest.
The media serves an excellent instrument for the accessibility of these messages.
It is important to note here the media has historically and currently function as an instrument of the white racial frame. I argue the frame itself acts as a bulwark in its attempts to maintain the deep-rooted system of oppression that ultimate seeks to gain supremacy. What is presented on within the media around the world is an unvarying spin cycle of stereotypes and demonizing imagery that at the end of the day devalues non-whites, in particular blacks. I determine that today’s media reproduces the collective images and messages that were first seen as early as the 1915 movie, “The Birth of a Nation.” The images and sounds that carry messages of the past are facilitated and directed by those in charge—White elite.
As seen in the past, the historical stereotypes associated with non-whites today are simply socially reproduced neutralizing agents utilized to secure the continuation of racial conquests. Unlike in the past, today’s acts do not include the deed of public lynching. Come on, those are socially frowned upon, right? But the utilization of racial stereotypes, such as those performed by Garcia, ultimately affects the psyche of both whites and non-whites. Moreover, they can be used as social control techniques to remind non-whites the stereotypical worthlessness of Blacks. This can be seen within others in the sports world. For example, many do not recall a popular sports commentator named, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder who worked for CBS. He was fired for his comments relating to the dominance of Blacks in sports. Moreover, in 1988 he stated Black male athletes were
bred to be the better athlete because, this goes all the way to the Civil War when … the slave owner would breed his big woman so that he would have a big black kid [CNN. Sports Illustrated. Video Almanac, 1988].
Dr. Joe Feagin would deem these noted acts as a resource needed by whites to rationalize the treatment of Blacks in order to legitimize U.S. white power and privilege, while at the same time denying the same power and privilege to non-whites.
But then again, Garcia is not an American citizen. How did a Spaniard come to utilize the white racial frame? One would be remiss to believe the legitimization of white dominance is foreign to those overseas. The power of anti-black sentiment and action are publicly demonstrated. For example, it has been documented that during soccer’s World Cup events, non-white players were spat upon, and racially mocked. At the same time spectators and even some players visibly replicated Hitler’s mustache and Nazi salute while yelling, “Heil Hitler.” Another example which gets little attention from the white dominated media can be seen within Greece. Currently due to the economic doom experienced by its people, citizens have taken up arms against non-Greek citizens. I mean literally taken up arms. Specifically, violence and racist sentiments are on the rise. The political party, Golden Dawn, which resembles the Nazi faction of the past, has gained political power and devotion though their rhetoric which expresses violence toward immigrants.
The Racist Violence Recording Network reported 154 cases of racist violence in 2012, including 25 in which the victims said the perpetrators were police. The figures were released a week after more than 30 Bangladeshi workers suffered shotgun wounds on a strawberry farm in southern Greece during a dispute with foremen over back pay.
Some have even pointed to Israel as a place of rising acts of racism which target African immigrants and asylum seekers.
Overall, in relations to the remarks of Garcia, and others who will definitely be heard in the future, are merely methods of social control and oppression. They serve as reminders of the past. Control initiated to remind whites of their power and placement upon the self-constructed hierarchical ladder. Control initiated to remind non-whites, specifically Blacks, of their placement at the bottom. The ramifications of historical enslavement, repetitive social and institutional practices of oppression, and racism itself toward non-whites is normalized through the use of false perceptions, and stereotypes. All of which are steered for all to partake in destructive thoughts and violent actions.
United States history has taught us it is not new or unusual that blacks are viewed as second class citizens compared to whites; our contemporary realities has informed us that women are not on equal footing as men; and our society has still not come to grips that one’s sexual orientation could be anything other than heterosexual, if that individual is to be positively accepted. What can make matters much worse is when someone possesses any combination of these nonnormative characteristics. For instance, a black female who is also lesbian would be located at the lower rungs of human acceptance in the US, even more illuminated when compared to a white heterosexual male. While there are an abundant number of discriminatory examples in which a combination of race, gender and sexual orientation can lead to detrimental consequences when that mixture is located at the opposite end of what is “normal”, none has been more predominant than the recent “discretionary discipline” handed down to the two coaches at the University of Texas (Austin).
For those who are not familiar with the recent events at UT, let me briefly explain. Although two coaches at UT both had consensual relationships with students at the university, the ramifications of the two incidents proved discriminatory. Bev Kearney, a black lesbian and head female track and field coach, was forced out of her 20-year-long career after admitting her previous relationship with a student-athlete. Major Applewhite, a white heterosexual male and assistant football coach, was only suspended after revealing he had a one-night-stand with a student athletic trainer. What makes matters even more puzzling is consensual relationships between staff and students, according to university policy, are not explicitly prohibited. It can be argued that other factors played a role in this decision such as football being a high-profile revenue-generating sport and track and field being a low-profile sport, and thus sacrifices can be made. However, the obvious double standard, especially when accounting for the success of Kearney (e.g., seven national championships, high student graduate rates, inspiring mentor, International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame inductee), makes this woman’s characteristics (i.e., black, female, lesbian) more of the cause than an inadvertent coincidence.
Being a black woman is already problematic enough in the US, with this group receiving far less access to society’s resources, underrepresented in every major institution, and having to work harder than any other group to make it (see Feagin, 2010), adding lesbian to the mix most definitely muddles things. Although there are few laws in contemporary society that institutionally limit the lives of the LGBT community, Pharr (1997) suggests a restrictively heterosexual and homophobic culture continues to bind these individuals. This is no different in the sport context. For instance, Krane and Barber (2005) found discriminatory hiring practices to exist towards female coaches perceived to be lesbian. Even when these women do make it through the interview process and eventually hired, Griffin (1998) argues the “lesbian stigma” continues to threaten their status and power and contributes to the maintenance of their out-group status. Researchers (e.g., Wright and Clark, 1999) contend that media discourse plays a principal role in perpetuating these inequalities, since they “construct a particular view of the world, of both individuals and social relations” (p. 228).
It is the numerous media outlets discussing the case of these coaches that perpetuate the differences between the two. For instance, in the various media accounts there is no mention of the type of relationship (homosexual or heterosexual) that Applewhite was involved in, but in almost every account Kearney is characterized as a black woman who had a lesbian relationship. Similarly, Applewhite and his family are continually discussed in a positive way through the media, which appears to suggest he has more to lose and we have to give him a chance; whereas outside of her accolades as a UT track and field coach, there is minimal reference of Kearny’s personal life. Just like there are two sets of rules applied in these similar cases, there are two different stories being disseminated to the public. Consequently, the powerful institutions of sport and the media continue to remind us what is most valued in the US: men over women, heterosexual over homosexual, and white over black.
UPDATE: I had several interesting conversations with folks about this blog piece. For the record, these were not contentious conversations, just casual talk with acquaintances. For instance, one person said they liked the post, but thought I should have focused more on Kearney’s race than her sexual orientation. Another said they didn’t believe sexual orientation played a big role in her being viewed negatively; it was primarily her being a woman and black. A third person didn’t think sexual orientation should have been an emphasis on a “racism” blog. I tried telling these folks that every media account highlighted Kearney’s sexual orientation while no mention of Applewhite’s, and thought it was an important inclusion to demonstrate how it may have compounded (on top of race and gender) her negative treatment. I suggested that maybe they should go look up the dozens of media accounts and tell me what they think afterwards… By the way, these were all black folks.
Bibliography and items to read:
*Griffin, P. (1998). Strong women, deep closets. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
*Krane, V., & Barber, H. (2005). Identity tensions in lesbian intercollegiate coaches. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 76, 67-81.
*Pharr, S. (1997). Homophobia: A weapon of sexism. Berkeley, CA: Chardon Press.
*Wright, J., & Clark, G. (1999). Sport, the media and the construction of compulsory heterosexuality: A case study of Women’s Rugby Union. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 34(3), 227-243.
Have you ever wondered to yourself while watching a college football game on a Saturday afternoon why there are so many (often times a majority) black players on the field, but an overwhelming majority of fans and coaches are white? If you have not, rest assured you are not alone. The black athlete and everything else white seems to be the norm. The problem, however, is this racial standard continues to hamper blacks’ progression throughout US society, and is even more elucidated in the very institution one would expect the most progress to be made – sport.
When considering the historical and systemic nature of racism in the US (see Feagin, 2006), much more attention has been placed on economic, political, educational, and legal institutions. The institution of sport, however, tends to be overlooked. Perhaps this is the case because of its egalitarian façade that gets displayed to the public. What is not being shown is the real racial inequality that has and continues to exist in the leadership structure of sport. Most prominent is the multi-billion dollar industry of NCAA Division I collegiate athletics. For instance, according to Lapchick, Hoff, and Kaiser’s (2011) latest Racial and Gender Report Card for college athletics, black male student-athletes are overly represented (60.9% and 45.8%) in the two most revenue generating sports (basketball and football, respectively); however, black head coaches for men’s basketball and football are represented at 21% and 5.1%, respectively, and assistant coaches at 39.5% and 17.6%, respectively. Even worse, whites dominate (81.8%) the athletic director role as well. Considering sport represents a microcosm of society, reflecting its ideals, hierarchies, and problems (see Edwards, 1973; Eitzen & Sage, 1997; Sage, 1998), it is not surprising to see whites in a position that guarantees them the most abundant financial rewards. As a result of this white hierarchy, though, blacks wishing to enter the coaching profession continue to face racial barriers.
Hawkins (2001) argues the power structure of NCAA Division I predominantly white institutions of higher education (PWIHE) “operate as colonizers who prey on the athletic prowess of young black males, recruit them from black communities, exploit their athletic talents, and discard them once they are injured or their eligibility is exhausted” (p. 1). This colonial model seems fitting, given several researchers (e.g., Eitzen, 2000; Hawkins, 2001; Lapchick, 2003) have found that black student-athletes on PWIHE campuses are entrenched in a system that exploits them politically, economically, and racially. For those black student-athletes who do survive the abuse, they continue to find their professional outlook limited.
The notion of stacking in sport, or positioning of players to central or non-central positions on the field based on race and/or ethnicity, often surfaces as an explanation as to how whites carry on their dominance in sport leadership. Whites have traditionally placed themselves in more central positions, positions associated with greater interaction, leadership, and intelligence; while blacks have been situated in more peripheral positions, which are linked to less leadership, minimal interaction, and greater athletic ability. Brooks and Althouse (2000) found there to be a correlation between those higher up in the leadership ranks (e.g., head coach, athletic director) with past playing position. In particular, prestigious sport jobs are generally acquired by those who have played more central positions (e.g., quarterback in football, pitcher in baseball); thus, because blacks more often are relegated to peripheral positions (e.g., wide-receiver in football, outfield in baseball), blacks are often framed as less qualified to enter leadership positions beyond the playing field.
Further explanations (e.g., Sagas & Cunningham, 2005; Sartore & Cunningham, 2006) demonstrate blacks’ promotional and/or hiring coaching opportunities are thwarted due to the tendency of white decision-makers choosing white candidates (qualified and unqualified) over qualified blacks. This struggle for racial equality is more troubling given those with the final hiring decision (i.e., athletic director) perceive employment opportunities to be equal for blacks (Tabron, 2004), which ultimately trickles down to those wishing to enter the coaching profession (e.g., black student-athletes), since they perceive they will have to contend with racial inequality prior to and once in the profession (e.g., Cunningham & Singer; Kamphoff & Gill, 2008). This racist sporting reality, similar to wider US society, illustrates blacks have a long way to go for racial justice.
Michael R. Regan, Jr.
Texas A&M University
Anna Holmes has an excellent post on the great achievement of Gabrielle Douglas, the first African American to win the women’s all-around gymnastics gold medal in the Olympics. (And to win the two particular gold medals she got in this one Olympics.) What an achievement for any 16-year-old, but especially for one who has faced the barriers she has faced.
Holmes demonstrates the extraordinarily naïveté and role in systemic gendered racism of key white commentators, in this case the famous Bob Costas. Costas interviewed Douglas and asserted this:
“You know, it’s a happy measure of how far we’ve come that it doesn’t seem all that remarkable, but still it’s noteworthy, Gabby Douglas is, as it happens, the first African-American to win the women’s all-around in gymnastics. The barriers have long since been down, but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier, based on how one might see oneself.”
As you might expect, this type of white racial framing, in its colorblind Pollyanna-ism, was Holmes’s
In a political and cultural environment in which the patriotism—the very Americanness—of people of color (including the current president…) is often called into question, Costas’s scripted deep thought .. . was at worst dishonest . . .. What leveled barriers … was Mr. Costas referring to? Who, excepting the most Pollyanna-ish or cloistered … would believe the assertion that Gabby Douglas’ challenges were primarily psychic, a statement that can be contradicted by … the undeniable whiteness of being that is high-level American gymnastics?
Other writers echoed this same white racial framing, reverberating Costas’s colorblindism.
Holmes then picks up on the Costas point that our view of ourselves does makes a difference. But, she adds, structural situations often create that problem for people of color:
Douglas’ triumph seems extremely remarkable, both because of the commonality of her situation—the big dreams, the economic hardships, the one-parent household—and its unusualness: A minority in a historically “white” sport. . . . a 2007 diversity study commissioned by USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport in the U.S., said that just 6.61% of the participants in American gymnastics programs were black.
Numerous members of USA Gymnastics, the mostly white coaches and other leaders in the field, often had a negative reaction to this honest report. Many whites there and elsewhere have tended, as they often do, to blame everything but white agents and white decisionmakers for this systemic-racism condition.
Holmes concludes by accenting how powerful the Douglas achievement was, especially for girls and young women around the globe, most of whom are girls and women of color. It will be interesting to see how the mainstream media treat Douglas, and the general white (and other) public too, when this great gymnast and her fine team return to the United States. Holmes concludes with this fine sharp point:
The 16-year-old’s triumph—not to mention her poise, her maturity, her focus, her elegance—will help recalibrate what young females of color believe is within their reach, while also influencing Western ideas and concepts of black womanhood, strength, agency and femininity—which has been historically objectified, sexualized and, it should be noted, feared.
It is way past time for these negative images of black women in the common white racial frame to be attacked for the mythological and racist framing they have always been–and indeed attacked constantly in the mainstream media until they are eliminated in the heads of way too many white (and some other) Americans.
[Written with Brenda Juarez]
Regardless of whether they believe them or not, most people in US society are well aware of the many visceral stereotypes and images surrounding Black males. These negative representations of Black males are readily visible and conveyed to the public through the news, film, music videos, reality television and other programming and forms of media—the black sidekick of a white protagonist, for example, the token black person, the comedic relief, the athlete, the over-sexed ladies’ man, the absentee father, and most damaging, the violent black man as drug-dealing criminal and gangster thug.
These stereotypical one-dimensional characters in film negate the broader and deeper experience of Black life and the lives of Black men in particular. Reaching into people’s homes through the media, these negative images influence personal opinions, ideas and racial attitudes. As Dates and Barlow explain, “Images in the mass media are infused with color-coded positive and negative moralistic features. Once these symbols become familiar and accepted, they fuel misperceptions and perpetuate misunderstandings among the races.” Indeed, negative understandings of Black males are consistently used to justify the racial disparities they experience in exclusionary school discipline practices, underachievement in higher education, and rates of poverty, homicide, unemployment, and over involvement in the criminal system.
Capturing our imagination as a society, film exemplifies how media images provide us with a reality of misrepresentations that guides societal perceptions of Black men. Take the 2001 film Training Day, for example. Denzel Washington’s role as Alonzo Harris provides one of the most enduring and threatening depictions of Black men as violent criminals. The criminality of Washington’s character is underscored by the contrast to the antithesis of his character, Ethan Hawke, who plays the role of good cop, a moral and righteous man.
Will Smith, in successfully becoming one of film’s leading men, has strategically flipped Hollywood’s stereotypical white perceptions of blacks in the media as always violent and criminal. He is often seen starring as a protagonist fighting the good fight rather than the criminal to be apprehended. Although applauded for seeking and earning leading male roles in Hollywood, his often heroic and hyper-masculine characters play into the theme of protecting whiteness and its virtuous subthemes of justice and freedom such as in the films Independence Day and I Am Legend. In fact, in extreme attempts to avoid the villain prototype, Smith frequently plays the role of the “Magic Negro” archetype in the film The Legend of Bagger Vance and Hitch, for example, where his efforts to save and teach whites about what it means to be good facilitates a mystical theme in the minds of white people about the supernatural powers of a few exceptional Blacks, among a people perceived as being closer to nature.
News media has a similar effect on white consciousness as film in popular media. News, written and conveyed by purportedly unbiased and objective reporters, are nevertheless also influenced by negative images of blacks circulating in larger society reflected in popular American film. For instance, the Internet sports blog site Deadspin broke a story in April of 2011 that illustrates how news media representations of black male athletes reinforces the mythology of them as oversexed, aggressive rule-breakers. In this case, the story centers on a private confessional of a young black man that was leaked to the public.
A basketball player at Brigham Young University, a predominately white Christian school, Brandon Davies was suspended for breaking the honor code by having premarital sex. The elements were present that would make for a sensational story: race, religion, sex and sports. The news of his suspension came about in the midst of the NCAA tournament, and the school was heralded in Sports Illustrated as “America’s University” for upholding its values and standards in suspending him due to an honor code violation.
However, the news media, in its stereotypical portrayal of this young man, failed to report an important aspect of the story. As Deadspin noted upon closer examination of the honor code office at BYU, a troubling pattern emerged for athletes of color, especially African American men, going back to 1993. Athletes of color are more likely to be disciplined than white athletes despite their significantly lower numbers on campus and in the sporting arena. This creates the impression that only black men engage in illicit sex or other honor code violations while white men rarely, if ever, violate these standards, which holds a glaring resemblance to the criminal justice system where black males are convicted and locked up at much higher rates than their white male counterparts for similar crimes committed. As this story highlights, this trend is in part a direct result of negative media representations of Black males that strongly influence white perceptions and racial attitudes.
This is not to say that some African Americans don’t participate in their own marginalization, from music videos and reality TV to roles on the big screen. Yet, the parts they are offered leave black actors with limited options. Conventionally white screenwriters, who view the world through the prism of a white lens, write about subject matters that reflect their own narrow experiences living and existing in a highly racialized society.
As a result, the predominately white film industry (from producers to screenwriters to directors), in the market of pleasing their predominately white consumer base, lacks diversity in the depth of their characters. This would explain why most popular shows or cinematic themes of American life reflect the interest of white people with strong white themes and often very little representation of difference with respects to writing and casting. Based on past and current Nielsen ratings, the most popular shows consist of the likes of The Bachelor/Bachelorette, The Big Bang Theory, CSI, Friends, and Seinfeld.
Darron Smith and Brenda Juarez
At one level, we see the difference afforded in victory and defeat. Reflective of the hypermasculine values of sporting culture that affords privileges and latitude to those who win, Dirk gets a pass because he is victorious. Those defeated, whose are subjected to losses, and who otherwise are weaker (on the court, in elections, or on the battlefield) must accept defeat graciously and must accommodate the rules established by society at large. Yet, the moment also reveals the ways that race operates in the context of humanity.
In each and every instance, we see the emotionality of sports. In victory and in loss, emotions are great, and the responses from players (and fans alike) should be understood as a reflection of the power of emotions within sports. Whether Dirk in victory or LeBron (or Westbrook) in defeat, we “witness” the emotions of sports. We understand this and have no problem with it. Yet, its makes us wonder who can be allowed to be human? Who is allowed to be both imperfect and who is allowed to show emotions?
Frantz Fanon, in “The Fact of Blackness,” argues, dirty or not, professionally dressed or not, law-abiding or not, employed or not, African Americans are never able to be fully human within the white imagination. To be black is to remain savage and inhuman; it is to remain dirty, dangerous, destructive, and dysfunctional, all while maintaining a relationship to the “ontology of whiteness,” which is assumed to embody “rationality and universality” (Bhabha 2000, p. 355). More importantly, whiteness constitutes a marking of civilization and humanity, otherwise not available to black bodies. Homi Bhabha highlights how blackness constitutes a suffering of the stains of white supremacy as “a member of the marginalized, the displaced, and the Diasporic.” He writes: “To be amongst those whose very presence is both ‘overlooked’— in the double sense of surveillance and psychic disavowal – and at the same time over-determined – physically projected made stereotypical and symptomatic” (Bhabha 2000, p. 355).
The handshake double standard brings to light Bhabha’s poignant and provocative commentary, in that black NBA players, and their brothers and sisters living outside America’s arenas and inside a post-Jim Crow America, are simultaneously subjected to state-mandated acts of violence – “surveillance and physical disavowal” – and the logics of racism that reduce black bodies, aesthetics, styles, and cultural performances to little more than those seen has savage and otherwise inhuman. As evidenced by both the demonization of the James during this playoffs (and elsewhere) and the rightful understanding afforded to Dirk in this case, race operates in the context of a discourse of humanity:
The black is both savage (cannibal) and yet the most obedient and signified of servants (the bearer of food); he is the embodiment of rampant sexuality and yet innocent as a child; he is mystical, primitive, simple-minded and yet the most worldly and accomplished liar, and manipulator of social forces. In each case, what is being dramatized is a separation – between race, cultures, histories, within histories – a separation between before and after that repeats obsessively and mythical moment of disjunction (Bhabha in Location of Culture, p. 118).
As Bhabha and Fanon remind us, a handshake is never just a customary gesture, it is a ritual act that anchors racialized scripts, clearing a powerful narrative spaces for the reiteration of the white racial frame. It is a micro-practice in granting or denying shared humanity, whose significance cannot be diminished on a day where broad more macro-practices do the same: Oscar Grant’s murderer was released from jail after a single year in prison, the differences between the humanity afforded to Dirk versus LeBron (and others) provides a window into the material consequences of white supremacy in contemporary America.
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.