New Book Highlights the Intersection of Sports and Racism
“Commodified and Criminalized” shows how black athletes’ success becomes evidence of American colorblindness, while their failure is made to remind us of the persistent power of race.
By Paul Heideman
It is almost an axiom of American culture today that sports and politics don’t mix. Despite the militarization of sporting spectacles, the intimate involvement of team owners in the political process, and the use of governmental monies to build stadiums, there is widespread agreement in the sporting world that politics are best checked at the door. Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in the NBA today, exemplified this attitude when he responded to protests of Arizona’s new immigration law by asking, “Am I crazy, or am I the only one that heard [the legislature] say “we just took the United States immigration law and adapted it to our state,” and then in the next breath declaring, “I don’t think teams should get involved in the political stuff.”
Jackson’s combination of using his pulpit as coach of the Lakers to support Arizona’s targeting of undocumented immigrants and then castigating athletes who would use their position to criticize it is typical of sporting culture in the United States today. The new collection “Commodified and Criminalized: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports” investigates how this sort of hypocrisy is allowed to reign. By spotlighting the ways in which the narratives of sporting culture intersect with the structures of American racial domination and capital accumulation, the authors do a valuable service in calling attention to the intensely political relations structuring one of the most important forms of popular culture in the country.
The strongest essays in this collection probe the ways that the careers of various athletes are made to serve as evidence for the classic narratives of American ideology. Black athletes in particular often stand as icons of the journey from rags to riches, with the added emphasis in the post-civil rights era on their ability to succeed in a newly color-blind nation. Anoop Mirpuri’s essay on Kobe Bryant, for example, looks at the ways in which the mass media narrative of Bryant’s superstardom has worked to confirm the ideology of a post-racial nation while at the same time policing racial boundaries by constantly scrutinizing his behavior. Speculations about Bryant’s alleged on-court selfishness, his decision to go pro after high school instead of going to college, and above all his indictment on sexual assault charges in 2003 all ultimately returned to his race as an explanation. While these explanations moved on various levels – from ruminations on Bryant’s supposed alienation from Black culture as a result of his childhood in Italy to more lurid evocations of the figure of the predatory Black rapist – all of them served to write Bryant’s life as the unfolding of his racial destiny. In this way, narratives produced in the sporting world can work to reinforce the self-presentation of American society as a zone of equal opportunity, even as they buttress the structures of white supremacy by holding up race as the most important explanation for the lives and problems of African Americans. An athlete’s success becomes evidence of American colorblindness, while his or her failure is made to remind us of the persistent power of race.
Other essays make similar points. Kyle W. Kusz’s piece on Ghanaian-American soccer player Freddy Adu looks at the intersection of marketing and nationalist mythology. Making his debut in American professional soccer at age 14, Adu was presented as the savior of American soccer. His story of a hardworking immigrant kid making good was promoted relentlessly, in the hopes that this classically American exceptionalist story would resonate with the traditionally soccer-averse American sporting public. Adu did indeed become a sensation, and as media narratives of his life proliferated, his mother came to occupy the foreground. Writers regularly emphasized her sacrifices in working multiple jobs as a single mother to provide a better future for Freddy. As Kusz notes, these narratives came to occupy a cultural pole opposite that of the ‘welfare queen.’ As with Bryant, Adu’s success was presented as evidence for the United States as the land of opportunity, while families who had not managed to prosper in similar situations were subjected to all manner of raciological speculations.
Though pieces like Kusz’s and Mirpuri’s, as well as Samantha King’s excellent essay on the WNBA’s Sheryl Swopes and racialized sexuality, illustrate how detailed readings of sporting discourse can expose the systems of domination that structure the terrain, a number of other essays in the collection are less successful. Many of these suffer from a common defect of academic writing, in which authors spend large amounts of time recounting intricate bodies of theory and describing an event or process, but relatively little time actually showing what the two have to do with one another. Nancy E. Spencer’s piece on tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, for example, spends several pages exploring different theories of racism, particularly commodity racism, and several pages describing the Williams’ sisters’ careers, but never ultimately ties the two together in a sustained way, presenting the reader little reward for working through a dense review of academic literature. Unfortunately, this pattern is repeated in several other essays in the collection.
“Commodified and Criminalized” is thus a mixed offering. Some its essays are so bogged down with situating themselves in relation to various bodies of academic literature that they actually contribute relatively little to understanding their putative objects of investigation. Others, however, are skillful investigations of the institutions that comprise American sport and the ways that they interact with American racial formation. These essays are important for two reasons. First, they expose the ways in which nominally color-blind discourses work to perpetuate racialized understandings of society. Since the denouement of the civil rights movement, and especially since the election of Barack Obama, it has become cultural common sense that there no longer exist racial barriers to success in the United States. This ideology has served to legitimize a whole host of regressive politics, from the destruction of welfare to the rise of mass incarceration to the official silence maintained on endemic Black unemployment. By showing how the narratives of sporting icons buttress this facade by constructing images of success to be juxtaposed with racialized images of failure, the best essays in the collection help map the discursive maneuvers of contemporary racial ideology. Moreover, the example of sport superstars is particularly valuable in exposing this ideology. As the case of Kobe Bryant (and a whole host of other athletes) shows, the two poles of colorblind success and racialized failure are not far distant, and the former can easily collapse into the latter. Though colorblind ideology has been immensely successful in banishing discussions of systemic racism from official politics, “Commodified and Criminalized” illustrates how brittle its veneer actually is.
Second, this collection is to be welcomed for its contribution to the growing trend of academic attention to sports. Sport is, by any measure, one of the most important forms of popular culture in the world today. Millions upon millions participate in the spectacle of athletic competition. Terry Eagleton has written compellingly on the important emotional needs sports serve in a capitalist society, providing space for feelings of solidarity and working class artistry in a world that suppresses both. As such, an understanding of the ways that this utopian moment is transformed into a discourse that reinforces capitalism and white supremacy is of paramount importance. Though it does so unevenly, “Commodified and Criminalized” makes a step towards the attainment of that understanding.
Paul M. Heideman is a Ph D candidate in American Studies at Rutgers-Newark, where he is researching the place of the Russian Revolution in New Negro thought. In the past he has written for Socialist Worker, Science & Society, and Cultural Logic. He blogs intermittently at herrnaphta.wordpress.com
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