Sunday, December 05, 2010

Sporting Analysis

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.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

KC, have you considered submitting an article to this Sport in Society publication?

skwilli said...

I unfortunately stopped caring about the NBA when Latrell Sprewell lamented "How am I going to raise my 2 families on $12M/year?" I long for the days of Debusschere, Bradley, Frazier, Monroe and Reed! Class acts, all of them.

Anonymous said...

Is McDonald a Communist?

Ellis said...

I have a difficult time in buying into anything you say when you can not see the obvious links between the age-limit policy and dress code.

Is there any other industry where a person who has the ability to produce been banned simply on the basis of age? There is a long list of names of young athletes bypassing college who made an immediate impact on their professional teams.

The age restriction was put in place not because the kids couldn't compete, but because league executives believed that putting these boys into college for a year would help them mature.

To somehow insinuate that the rule was implemented based on ones ability to compete is either naive or willfully ignoring the elephant in the room. Old white money is afraid of young black money.

Anonymous said...

I can think of several quickly, soldier, bartender, bus driver, taxi driver, senator, president, stripper, voter, etc.. etc.

I guess old white money has it out for young black money in these venues as well..

The real elephant in the room is that race baiting pays big time.

DM

KC Johnson said...

To the 12.53:

Your comment is a bit perplexing, especially in its last line: "Old white money is afraid of young black money." Correct me if I am wrong, but not all the owners in the NBA are either "old" or "white." And, especially given the league's international push in recent years, not all the people affected by the age restriction are black. Moreover, even by the somewhat perplexing approach of the comment, this "old white money" can't be too afraid of "young black money," since the policy allows players--black and white--to enter the NBA with one year of college experience. Perhaps you consider 18-year-olds "young" and 19-year-olds "old." But somehow I doubt most people would share this rather unusual interpretation.

As to the competitive point, it's quite clear that some high school-only draftees (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant) proved more than ready for the NBA. But a far greater percentage did not, or did not do so immediately. A policy like the age-restriction policy, which takes some of the risk out of the draft process in a sport that essentially has no minor leagues beyond the NCAA, and therefore is a good for business for the owners, is hardly a surprising one.

It doesn't surprise me, of course, that Prof. McDonald, who sees everything through the prism of race, class, and gender, ignores any contradictory evidence. But I am a bit disappointed that at least one DIW commenter seemingly has adopted the same approach.

Anonymous said...

Assuming for the moment that all team owners are old and white (a false assumption, but let's go with it): It seems to me that all this old, white money is constantly creating new young, black multi-millionaires. "Not that there's anything wrong with that," but I am certainly perplexed by the bizarre assertion that owners "fear" what they in fact do every day, every year.

Ellis (cont...) said...

1) The players don't play defense/work hard- funny because over the past 10 years average points per game have dropped while offensive friendly rules have risen.

2) The players are lazy- See the infamous AI "Practice" interview. An interesting concept that has always existed within professional sports. The NFL tried a campaign to show the work the players put in Monday-Saturday, it did not test well with fans.

3) They play dirtier/more thuggish- The Malice in the Palace was the "see I told you so" moment for this. But ask many players who went against Karl Malone or Charles Barkley, and you'll understand how dirty the game actually was.

One of the ways the NBA went out to fight against these perceptions was greater emphasis on international marketing. In addition to the top foreign players being competitive with the domestic, they were also far better received by those who spend the most on tickets/shoes/merchandise, middle America.

The Old White/Young Black comparison is not an issue of persons, but an issue of structures. The NBA has been fighting a losing battle to keep its Old White money fans by phasing out the Young Black money players. The age limit foolishly attempts to grant the illusions of maturity (as if going to school for 1 year and not paying attention in classes makes you more of an adult). The dress code was designed to remove the "thuggish" image of the league.

I understand the need for the league implement these rules, I’m just not foolish enough to say that they aren't playing into the Old White money fears. There are far better ways both the issue of maturity and perception could have been addressed. Stop looking at the tree and see the forest.

KC Johnson said...

To the 5.28:

I'm not sure who you're arguing against: I never raised points (1), (2), or (3). I agree with you on (1b), (2), and (3); regarding (1a), it seems to me there are other explanations for the decline in scoring than improved defense.

As to rationale for the dress-code policy, again, I'm not sure you you are arguing against. To quote from the post: "It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to determine why the NBA adopted its policy. It needed to appease its largely white fan base."

As to race and the structural issue: the NHL has almost no black players. African-Americans are a fairly small percentage of MLB players. It's not my sense that the owners in either of those leagues are any more eager to give their players huge salaries than are the NBA owners to give huge salaries to--in McDonald's language--"young black bodies."

Ellis (cont...) said...

Im going to ask once again to post the first part of my reply so that my assertions are not misrepresented or thought to be out of context.

Please be a honorable host to a site that, while I may not agree with, is pivotal in the discussion in the aftermath of the Duke Lax case.

KC Johnson said...

To the 8.32:

It's unclear to me what you are asking. I have cleared all of your comments, as they were submitted.

Ellis (2of2) said...

1) The players don't play defense/work hard- funny because over the past 10 years average points per game have dropped while offensive friendly rules have risen.

2) The players are lazy- See the infamous AI "Practice" interview. An interesting concept that has always existed within professional sports. The NFL tried a campaign to show the work the players put in Monday-Saturday, it did not test well with fans.

3) They play dirtier/more thuggish- The Malice in the Palace was the "see I told you so" moment for this. But ask many players who went against Karl Malone or Charles Barkley, and you'll understand how dirty the game actually was.

One of the ways the NBA went out to fight against these perceptions was greater emphasis on international marketing. In addition to the top foreign players being competitive with the domestic, they were also far better received by those who spend the most on tickets/shoes/merchandise, middle America.

The Old White/Young Black comparison is not an issue of persons, but an issue of structures. The NBA has been fighting a losing battle to keep its Old White money fans by phasing out the Young Black money players. The age limit foolishly attempts to grant the illusions of maturity (as if going to school for 1 year and not paying attention in classes makes you more of an adult). The dress code was designed to remove the "thuggish" image of the league.

I understand the need for the league implement these rules, I’m just not foolish enough to say that they aren't playing into the Old White money fears. There are far better ways both the issue of maturity and perception could have been addressed. Stop looking at the tree and see the forest.

KC Johnson said...

To the 5.52:

As requested, I cleared your comment, although it is identical to the earlier comment to which I had already responded.

Ellis (1of2) said...

Hmmm, well heres the first part, not sure why you it doesn't show up for you.



KC, first let me say do not expect every reader of your blog to be in agreement with you. I follow this blog specifically because while I disagree with many of your posts, it has challenged me to fill in any dissonance in my perception of the Duke LAX case.

In line with that, this is your site and you are free to do what you wish, however your statement about commenters stands on shaky ground when every comment must be approved by you. If you wish to make a statement on what "one commenter" has said, you have to assure your readers that all comments, regardless of their affiliation, will be posted. Otherwise, who is to tell if it is just 1 or the 1 that you let in.

Secondly, please point to where I said the owners are afraid of young black money. The owners are far more concerned about their bottom line than who they let into the league. But the owners are accountable to the people who consume their product, that is the Old White money I refer to.

Finally, I've been thinking about how I would address the responses without having to write a paper. Quite simply it is not possible. The history of sport, race, the NBA, hip-hop and mainstream culture are long, storied and connected in a such a way that I don't have the time or energy to cover them in this forum. But I will give a brief synopsis that I think will clear up my earlier young/old statement.

The post Jordan era of the NBA has been shown to be its least profitable time. This is largely due to Stern’s decision to align its marketing campaign with Allen Iverson and other rising stars who listened more to Public Enemy and NWA than Michael Jackson. It was a scary sight for middle America to see these young black man, tattoos and all, in their face and invading their living room.

This era also brought about a lot of notions which the NBA has tried to rectify, yet people continue to hold as absolute truths.

KC Johnson said...

To the 9.13:

Many thanks for your comment.

As to the comments policy of the blog, you can find it on the sidebar; the pertinent section regarding your concern is item (1): "Comments are moderated, but with the lightest of touches, to exclude only off-topic comments or obviously racist or similar remarks."

I certainly don't expect every reader of the blog to agree with me--indeed, virtually every comments thread consists of readers disagreeing with me. I do hope, perhaps naively, that most readers of the blog are capable of a more sophisticated level of analysis than is Prof. McDonald.

Thank you for clarifying that your mention of "Old White money" referred not to the owners but to NBA consumers. I apologize for my confusion. I admit I've never seen NBA ticket-holders referred to as "Old White money" before. Yuppies, yes. Large percentages of businessmen, yes. But it's not my sense that--with the possible exception of golf--most pro sports consumers are "Old White money."

As to the post-Jordan era: I would agree it's been less profitable for the league than the period from 1980-2000. But it's certainly been more profitable than the pre-1980 period. As to the post-2000 period, I don't have roster stats handy, but it's not my sense that the percentage of African-American players was noticeably higher between 2000-2009 than from 1991-2000 (indeed, given the influx of European players, the percentage might even be a tad lower). It is clear, of course, that there were more high-profile instances of dubious behavior during this period--a pattern perhaps beginning with the Sprewell incident in the late 1990s and culminating with the Artest episode. Perhaps "Middle America" would have been more sympathetic to white players choking their coach, or running into the stands throwing punches at the fans, but I doubt it.

razvan said...

I am curious on why every single post has someone commening: "Is *focus of the post* a Communist?"