The lacrosse case featured some . . . unusual . . . sports-related commentary from members of the Group of 88. Karla Holloway produced an essay for Scholar and Feminist Online denouncing the women’s lacrosse team for publicly supporting their falsely accused men’s colleagues. Grant Farred penned a book advancing the preposterous argument that Houston Rockets center Yao Ming constituted “the most profound threat to American empire.”
It turns out that this sort of bizarre perspective on athletics isn’t confined to the Group of 88; like-minded colleagues at other institutions offer similar views. Indeed, the journal Sport in Society is filled with Group of 88-style, race/class/gender analysis of sports-related questions.
Take, for instance, the work of Miami (Ohio) professor Mary McDonald, who describes herself as among the critical sport scholars” who use tools from such fields as women’s studies, ethnic studies, and cultural studies to produce scholarship “concerned with issues of inequality and social justice.” McDonald’s roster of courses includes “Introduction to the History of Activism”; “Critical Perspectives of the Body”; and “Women, Gender Relations & Sport.”
In the August edition of SiS, McDonald (with one of her graduate students) penned an article entitled, “Dressed for success? The NBA's dress code, the workings of whiteness and corporate culture.” The article purports to analyze the 2005 decision by NBA commissioner David Stern to implement a dress-code policy for the league’s players. The move came after a string of bad publicity for the league, most notably an ugly event in Detroit in which former Indiana Pacer Ron Artest went into the stands and brawled with fans.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to determine why the NBA adopted its policy. It needed to appease its largely white fan base. Or, in McDonald’s academic jargon: “the dress code helps position the white-dominated ownership structure and its white fan base as necessary arbitrators of ‘appropriate’ moral behaviour.” And given that most employers have the authority to institute dress codes over their employees, McDonald has to concede that the dress code might fall under the heading of “seemingly trivial practices and policies,” even if, she breathlessly notes, “has its own Wikipedia page.”
McDonald explains that despite focusing on a seemingly banal policy, her essay will explicate the alternate meanings, “the broader pedagogical functions at work through the introduction of this policy, that is—to explore the dominant meanings the initiation of this policy conveys and attempts to teach.” And what do these broader pedagogical functions reveal? “Far from a simple policy that requires a particular style of dress we read the NBA dress code critically, demonstrating its relationship to racialized, classed and gendered meanings and attempts at capital accumulation.” Of course.
McDonald’s essay combines academic jargon with a desire to analyze anything and everything through the prism of race, class, and gender. The dress code, she maintains, shows how “the social construction of race legitimates a system of privileges that accrue to bodies racialized as white . . . This perspective additionally acknowledges whiteness both within and beyond the case of the dress code.” McDonald laments that “the dress code represents an example of the NBA's continuing attempts at surveillance and control of its predominately African-American playing force, in this case by promoting conventional styles of dress and expression at the expense of hip-hop styles”—while also representing “an attempt to normalize white middle-class ideologies to legitimate the accumulation of capital.”
Her article’s goal, McDonald continues (impenetrably), is to provide “alternative interpretations linking an everyday cultural practice such as the dress code to normalizing strategies within contemporary neo-liberal capitalist mandates. Stated differently, in recontextualizing the dress code this paper maps out and makes visible the complex processes which both venerate and demonize the athleticism and entertainment value of black masculine bodies, and simultaneously deny the salience of political, social and economic processes that produce discourses of a commercialized white normativity,” all the while seeking “to promote new understandings in the quest for social justice.”
Alas, McDonald laments, the league’s installation of the dress code “additionally directs attention away from the actions and material advantages of white bodies while further perpetuating: ‘a cycle of stigmatization, assimilation and subordination’.”
In this respect, while “seemingly innocent,” the dress code “actually serves as a mechanism which combines with other forms of white cultural capital to safeguard the political and economic interests of whites and the dominant social class,” and so “the dress code can thus be understood as a type of whitewash” even as the NBA’s “black bodies serve as hot commodities in the global marketplace.”
McDonald repeatedly argues that the dress code wanted to distance the NBA and its players from hip-hop culture. During this period, however, the NBA promoted hip-hop artist Jay-Z, who even owned a small share of New Jersey Nets.
How to explain this apparent contradiction in her argument? McDonald notes that “music such as his not only reinforces the racial status quo via essentialistic imagery but additionally helps promote dominant gender ideologies.” In this way, “elements of hip-hop are ideologically aligned with dominant gender relations and images of hypersexuality which are also remade through elite professional sport which continues to promote masculine hegemony.” Indeed, “read from within the context of contemporary capitalist marketing strategies, like those employed by the NBA and promoted in the corporate media, the aesthetic signifiers of hip-hop are increasingly celebrated apart from the very material conditions of inequality that some forms of hip-hop seek to critique.” In other words: hip-hop is an admirable, genuine expression of black culture—except when it’s not.
Even as she admits hip-hop’s sexism and homophobia, however, McDonald can’t quite bring herself to criticize the music. While she concedes that “rap and hip-hop lyrics contain misogynistic and violent overtones,” the real problems are the “censorship campaigns such as those in the 1990s lead by Tipper Gore(!)” (who also ignored the dangers posed by “the US prison-industrial complex”) and other critics who lack a “sophisticated understanding of the corporate and political interests involved in promoting one-dimensional images of street life.” In any event, McDonald muses, “sexism and homophobia . . . are also widely prevalent in almost every other musical form.”
(McDonald regularly employs an “everyone-else-does-it” arguing style. At another point in the essay, she offers the following non-sequitur: she suggests that dress codes as a whole don’t really matter, since “Jeffrey Skillings and Ken Ley regularly wore business suits as they oversaw the corruption promoted by energy corporation Enron, while thousands of Enron employees and shareholders lost thousands of dollars, life savings and pensions upon Enron's collapse.”)
McDonald frames the debate over the dress code—or at least what debate existed—as part “of broader patterns of white racist preoccupation with the allegedly threatening and inferior character of black masculinity, preoccupations that can be traced back to slavery and reconstruction, and which have been frequently used by whites to legitimate the political status quo in relation to black cultural and political inequity.” And the debate goes well beyond the NBA: “the presumption of white superiority continues to fuel and justify racist treatment including the contemporary dismantling of social welfare programs.” As McDonald links the NBA’s policy to programs for society’s neediest, it’s worth remembering that she’s writing about a league in which the average player’s salary is $3.4 million.
The linkage to welfare policy isn’t the only time in which McDonald’s arguments raise questions about whether she exists in an alternate universe. In the late 1970s, the NBA seemed to be on the ropes, in large part because of widespread drug use among the league’s players (a majority of whom were African-American). The NBA’s unsurprising, common-sense response? The league instituted a drug-testing policy, and also launched a marketing campaign portraying the players positively, as embodiments of the American Dream. What should the NBA have done instead, implies McDonald? “[C]onfronting stereotypical notions of blackness promoted to maintain white cultural and political advantages.”
Or take this passage:
The imposition of the dress code can thus be understood as yet the latest attempt at a peculiar form of “diversity management” designed to both manage, but ultimately profit from, stereotypical images of urban black masculinity as immature, uncontrollable, greedy and egotistical Other attempts to control similar connotations include the imposition of a first year player salary cap which limits compensation to rookies and the instigation of an age restriction limiting the league to players aged 19 years or older.
Whatever the merits of the dress-code policy (and, as I noted above, the policy seemed like a no-brainer), any linkage between it and the first-year salary cap or the age-limitation policy seems tenuous at best and non-existent at worst. The first-year salary cap was pretty strictly a financial decision and an issue of older vs. younger players; while the age limit policy was primarily a competition question. Neither policy had much (if anything) to do with the image dilemma that motivated the dress code.
Or take McDonald’s criticism of Commissioner David Stern’s decision to suspend Ron Artest for the season after the Detroit brawl. The commissioner’s response, she contends, “fails to address structural and ideological inequities” between blacks and whites in American society.
After a week in which the NCAA issued the astonishing ruling that a star player’s father demanding bribes to send him to a particular university isn’t grounds for ruling the player ineligible, there’s certainly a need for in-depth, scholarly analysis of sport and society. Alas, the chances of receiving this type of analysis from the contemporary academy are, to put it charitably, remote.
Hat tip: D.B.