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.


  1. Blaque Swan

    Great points.

    I think better examples would be the difference in reactions to Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger’s sexting and sexual assault allegations versus the reaction to Bryant’s rape accusation. Or what’s happening to Troy Davis in Georgia versus Johannes Mehserle’s slap on the wrist. Or the way Josh Hamilton’s been celebrated for overcoming drug abuse, but when his manager Ron Washington admitted past cocaine use, there was discussion of whether he should quit or be fired. Or, how everybody’s okay with Aaron Rodgers’s “championship belt” celebration but knock other athletes because “they should act like they’ve been there before.” Or the way everybody went crazy over Tiger Wood’s sexscapades, and now the Dems are committing suicide by drumming out Anthony Weiner, one of the more progressive members of the party. But David Vitter cheated on his wife with several prostitutes and he’s still serving. It took nearly a year for John Ensign to resign, and he cheated on his wife with a staffer and hired the staffer’s husband as a pay off.

    I mean, there’re just tons more better examples.

  2. David Leonard and C. Richard King Author

    The fact that there are a number of examples, some of which more clearly illustrate the denied humanity, the power of white racial framing, and the double standards doesn’t preclude talking about the NBA finals and “the non/handshake.” The point here isn’t to prove a point with the handshake example — as you point out, there are enough examples/literature that demonstrate these points. The purpose here is to engage the moment, to illustrate how we can see these processes within the (non)handshake and the media discourse. As we have written on several of things you note above — — we certainly agree, but in this instance wanted to reflect on this example

  3. John D. Foster

    @black swan: I don’t understand the issue you take with the example used for this 2-piece analysis; it’s relevant because it occurred so recently and certainly fits the mold of yet another instance of media racial double standard in treatment of athletes. Ultimately the actions of either Nowitski or James become irrelevant and the focus is on how media interpret their actions. Skip Bayless and others criticize Bosh for being soft (“Boshspice”) while not treating Nowitski’s actions the same way. One thing to think of is how the media would’ve reacted differently had the shoe been on the other foot; i.e., if the Heat had won the series and James had run off the court to have some “private time.” I think it’s reasonably safe to assume that the media would’ve criticized him for being a bad sport for not shaking hands after the game with his opponents.

    • Blaque Swan

      Yeah, after some consideration, I think I get the basics of the issue with the non-handshake. We see the humanity of the white player, so we’re okay with his not shaking hands. On the other hand, Lebron isn’t afforded the same humanity? Is that about right?

      The problem, as I see it, still remains: Lebron lost and became a sore loser. Even as I imagine if Kobe, whom I love, had done the same thing, it’s wrong. Lebron himself never made any claims to humanity, saying instead, “I’m a winner.” Had he said something like, “I was too emotional about losing,” he may have been cut some slack. Or rather, if Dirk had said, “I’m a winner and I don’t have to shake hands with losers,” he would’ve been crushed. If nothing else, Skip would’ve called him soft. Jim Rome would’ve “burned” him.

      But there’s another problem with non/handshake example: if you think I’m a hard sell, and I’m on your side, how do you think the mainstream/white media is going to react? Up until the DECISION, just about everybody loved Lebron. That’s how Skip came to be aka, DH, the Diabolical Hater, cause he kept hatin’ on Lebron. But, if Lebron had won and then run off the court for “private time,” maybe he wouldn’t have been as easily let off the hook as Dirk. But he also wouldn’t have been greatly criticized. Even if it were a minority of commentators, and by “minority” here I mean less than half, there would’ve been a strong minority of commentators arguing that after all the criticism, and all the problems, including that 9-game losing streak, it’s fitting that Lebron would become overwhelmed with relief for having finally won the championship.

      Besides, Bosh is kinda soft. But his collapse isn’t why Skip calls him Bosh Spice, and by collapse I’m referring to the fainting in the tunnel, not his general play in the series. In fact, Bosh had a few defenders, at least one of whom made a comparison between his reaction and Dirk’s. Plus, Skip still thinks Dirk is soft. He won’t let anyone forget that Dirk said Jason Terry was there closer.

      So I guess, at the end of the day, Dirk won and Lebron lost. Dirk won and said he was too emotional and need some private time. Lebron lost, acted like a baby, and then said, “I’m a winner.” Probably a line he got from REMEMBER THE TITANS, but it didn’t help his cause. However, if you recall, it did help things for Lebron when he did that commercial with Dwight Howard mocking the non-handshake.

      Don’t get me wrong, I get that it’s something that recently happened that we can point to. I’m just not convinced that the difference in reaction to the non-handshakes is about race. Moreover, even if it is, it’s hard to get around the fact that Dirk had just won and Lebron had just lost. The media just isn’t gonna buy that, and the rest of your case, other evidence notwithstanding, will just fall apart. If you’re committed to using Dirk’s non-handshake, you’re gonna have to leave out Lebron. It’s difficult to deny that Dirk was afforded humanity and therefore excused for bad sportsmanship. That can spark a conversation. But if you throw Lebron in the equation, then it’s just too easy to dismiss the issue altogether.

      I should confess, I have been accused of being too soft on certain white people. The white person in question at the time was Chris Matthews. So if you like, you can chalk up my resistance to the fact that I was pulling for the Mavs; I haven’t like Lebron since before he was drafted (no high school baby should get to call himself “King” anything without having done something first); and, Skip amuses me.

      Still, I’m not sure how much sympathy Dirk would’ve gotten if he had lost the series, headed straight for the locker room, then when asked about it, goes, “I’m a winner.” If nothing else, he would’ve been laughed out the building cause he’s been no winner.

      At the end of the day, y’all wanna agree to disagree? I just don’t think it’s the best example.

  4. John D. Foster

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one, though it seems as if you’ve got an axe to grind with James. As for Bayless, I think Jalen Rose was right to differentiate between his “LeBrick” and other quips with “Posh Spice,” which to me the latter has both sexist and heterosexist undertones.

    • Blaque Swan

      Yeah, I agree with Rose, too.

      I don’t have so much of an ax to grind with LeBron that I agree with all the media coverage. They went to far in criticizing his Decision, especially since they didn’t criticize ESPN for airing it in the first place.

      But come on. Dirk won and admitted to being emotional. He even said he didn’t wanna come out for the trophy presentation cause he was so beside himself. You can’t compare that to anyone who loses, doesn’t shake hands, then acts like what he did was okay. Even the teams who lose in the NCAA tournament shake hands. Boys on the bench crying like babies have to get up and shake hands. So why not LeBron? You can even look up the clip on youtube. He starts untucking his shirt before the clock even runs out. Had he at least said he was too emotional at the time, it would’ve been different.

      Here’s Mike Wilbon’s take on it contemporaneously, and I essentially agree with him:

      • Blaque Swan

        To be clear, I agree that they were both wrong, Dirk and LeBron. The difference I see is that Dirk came across as knowing he should’ve shaken hands and his excuse was more sympathetic. What LeBron said flew in the face of everything children are taught about good sportsmanship.

        Also, I just need some clarification – we’re not confusing the way LeBron is treated now with the way he was treated then, are we? At the time, the criticism wasn’t nearly as bad as it would be now.

  5. David Leonard and C. Richard King Author

    The demonization and commodification, whether now or a few years, back are interconnected by the systematic reduction of James to an object of both consumption and ridicule. The denied humanity is key is constructing him as an object irrespective of the specifics.


  6. Shari Valentine

    David, you make some excellent points about the racial double standard. Sorry to come so late to the discussion. I wrote a blog post here in the wake of the Decision discussing many of these racial overtones and implications in media response and fan response.

    LBJ is really a tricky discussion topic where race is concerned. He often behaves badly. His bad behavior gets supersized by a racially insensitive and inconsistent media. Then, he responds and the cycle continues.

    For me, the clearest example of racism operating in the whole Decision, Heat signing celebration, etc. is the fact that the blame and vitriol for the big celebration last summer and the signing of the 3 stars all falls on the 3 black stars, predominantly LBJ.

    In fact it was the debonair and diabolical white Pat Riley who masterminded the signing, planned the celebration and authorized the payment both to the athletes and for the big ill conceived celebration. In all the vitriol thrown around for the ways in which the signings were done and celebrated, the black athletes get the hate, but Riley gets accolades for smart management.

    Once again, as we see over and over in academic work and racial discussion, as Joe has pointed out in many works, we have the invisible white actor. It is white owners and white managers who wrote the rules and white Pat Riley who milked them to his and his team’s advantage. And, it is the black athletes who suffer the scorn and hate for the way in which it all takes place.

    Dirk was a winner who failed to observe the rituals, LBJ was a loser who failed to observe them. I think those two things are more about personalities than race. The way the press and public view them and discuss them, that is often racially framed and racially expressed. In my Native culture both Dirk and LBJ would be reprimanded for their failure to complete in a good way. But, Dirk is German, LBJ is African American, and they are both judged, though not equally, by a White American standard. What makes a white American standard the only possible correct action?

    Meanwhile, Pat Riley and the white owners of the Heat, count their cash in penthouses far above the fray….

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