Grant Farred, an associate professor of literature, is one of the few Group of 88 members with any connection to athletics. He coached JV soccer at
I’ve been around basketball all my life: my father was a small-college All-American at
That is: until I encountered the Group of 88. In a 2005 playoff series, Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy complained about “phantom calls” against his team’s star center, Yao Ming, a native of
Farred, in his pamphlet-length book, argues that the critical aspect of the story came not in Van Gundy’s claim of an anti-Rockets conspiracy (the focus of virtually all contemporaneous press coverage) but instead in the use of the phrase “phantom calls” to describe what the coach considered unfair officiating against
According to Farred, “the referees’ ‘phantom calls’ unleashed a racial politics that was foreclosed during the rhetorical skirmishes that erupted around the ‘fouled’ Asian body” (p. 27). As a result, “through
Van Gundy, it turns out, had powers no one (least of all, I’m sure, Van Gundy himself) ever could have imagined. “By positioning Yao as the symbolic victim of the American racial phantasmatic and his refusal to name the race or racism, by ‘mediating’ Yao, in Kundera’s sense, Van Gundy makes possible a discussion about the condition of racial politics as it pertains to African-American players in the NBA.” (p. 48) Try using that sentence as an icebreaker at a party.
Why did Van Gundy possess such powers? Farred explains as only Farred can: “The contradictory, contingent nature of racial articulation can be identified in those moments when the figure of discursive initiation (here, Van Gundy) speaks from a disjunctive—or, non-raced—place, as in those racist Phantoms released into public circulations in sites where their presence and articulation are not expected.” (p. 36)
In fact, suggests Farred, Van Gundy’s complaint might come to be viewed as a critical point in the development of globalization. “The ‘phantom calls’ reveal how the migrant Asian subject of globalization is, in the moment of crisis or the experience of direct address, precariously close to the kind of non-belonging with which the raced subject perpetually lives.” (p. 66)
While the NBA might have been able to discipline Van Gundy for his comments, Farred concludes that the
Maybe the referees were right, then, to try to call more fouls on Yao . . .
In one sense, Farred’s musings might be dismissed as little more than an example of academic writing at its most absurd. Farred himself makes no pretense of his political approach to academic life: he trained under the radically anti-Israel scholar Edward Said, and recalled his mentor as “a model for being engaged in political activities outside the university,” a figure who, “while his primary focus was the Palestinian cause . . . was able to extend the struggle for justice far more broadly.”
In another sense, however, Farred’s remarks reveal a mind preconditioned to see racism everywhere, even where it clearly doesn’t exist. This is, after all, a professor who produced a 95-page essay claiming that something that occurs every day in the NBA—a coach complaining about fouls called on his best player—actually showed how the “NBA is once again fraught with the ghostly presence of race, now refracted through the Asian body.” (p. 15)
A few days before the election, Farred published a Herald-Sun op-ed that demonstrated the same level of intellectual quality evident in Phantom Calls. The theme: the “secret racism” (sound familiar?) underlying the lacrosse case.
Farred could not hide his intense dislike for the lacrosse players. He denounced—without citing any evidence—“the lacrosse team’s reputed tendency toward arrogant sexual prowess.” (Imagine the appropriate outrage if a professor had made such a generic claim about, say, his African-American students.) He asserted that the team had a “criminal history.” (Yes, according to the Coleman Committee report: the same “criminal history” of hundreds of other Duke students who had alcohol-related violations.)
But Farred reserved his greatest vitriol for each and every Duke undergraduate who disagreed with his approach to the case:
Mobilized through the proliferation of Blue Devil blue armbands, too visible on campus early in the fall semester, inscribed with the numbers of the three indicted players and the defiant proclamation, “Innocent” (in bold white), Duke University students are now said to be registering to vote in Durham in unprecedented numbers.How dare Duke students, fumed Farred,
Farred lamented that his institution’s undergraduates—the people he teaches twice a week—wanted to exercise “their right to the franchise without any other sense of civic responsibility.” He appears to have overlooked how an estimated 75% of Duke students engage in community service in and around the
To Herald-Sun readers, Farred posed a question that “needs to be answered. What does Duke stand against?”
It’s clear what Farred stands against: due process and the dispassionate evaluation of evidence, free from ideological blinders; and a willingness of faculty members, like the Group of 88, who presupposed the lacrosse players’ guilt to reconsider their actions.
Over the last seven months, anyone following the lacrosse case has witnessed Duke professors, one after another, making public acts and statements that almost appear divorced from reality, all with the goal of intensifying public condemnation of the lacrosse players. It’s little surprise, I suppose, that a professor who would detect the “ghostly presence of race” in a basketball coach complaining about “phantom calls” would also see “secret racism” in Duke students registering to vote to oust an unethical district attorney.
But a major difference exists between the context of Farred’s two crusades. Phantom Calls is currently ranked 277,943 at amazon.com, so isn’t exactly a threat to crack the New York Times bestseller list. “Secret Racism,” on the other hand, represented one of the final pre-election statements by any Duke professor on the lacrosse case. The op-ed sent an unmistakable message to Durham voters: the Duke faculty—at least those of whom care to speak publicly—wanted Mike Nifong to remain in office, so he could continue his procedurally tainted prosecution.
If Farred really wants to uncover the veil of “secret racism,” perhaps he should start a little closer to home, and take a look at the motives of his colleagues in the Group of 88.