The NBA Handshake: Humanity Granted/Deferred (Part 2)

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.

The Handshake not Seen Around the World: NBA Finals and Race

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.