Race and the Evolution of Basketball

How does race intersect with the evolution of basketball, and what role does it play in modern day basketball and influence the construction of social and cultural ideals for the athletes? For the eight months of the year that the basketball season prevails in American sports culture, basketball players are particularly visible. They play a popular sport on a highly visible and widely watched stage, and become actors not only in crowded, well-lit arenas around the nation, but become key actors in building popular culture and social attitude through their presence in advertisements, billboards, commercials, and the like. Through their position and experiences within the ever-popular game, basketball players become a representation of athletic and physical prowess, coordination, skill, fitness, and masculinity; moreover, the pervasive presence of black players in the game’s history as well as in modern day basketball also communicate racial meaning in terms of play, behavior, circumstance, and social perception.

​The sport of basketball, like most other things, was racially segregated at one point in its history; the game and its separation between white and black players were a representation and perpetuation of the United States’ regressive and discriminatory history. However, the development and evolution of the game ultimately grew alongside and in tandem with elements of the civil rights movement. “It concerns the emerging link between basketball and blackness, both in terms of cultural style and political import” (Goudsouzian 61). That, coupled with figures of black success and extreme proficiency in the sport, allowed the sport to evolve into an entity linking athleticism, black identity, cultural identity and overlap, and changing attitudes towards segregation and racism. “Itintersects with the achievements of the civil rights movement, the impulses toward racial brotherhood, and African American self-pride… manhood and character” (Goudsouzian 61). To this end, basketball evolved into a beacon of hope for the black community and a seemingly positive representation of what a black man could be and could achieve. The popularity of sports in general is bred from national pride, and the growing presence of black individuals in the popular sport of basketball helps include the black community in the nationalism associated with sports and country. However, in conjunction with this newfound ability for black males to achieve a degree of success in a previously white built and white dominated sport, racism still prevails –throughout basketball’s development and history and through to modern cultural realities and attitudes concerning the sport.

​Despite the fact that the majority of members of the NBA are black –as well as the significant percentage of black players in basketball at all levels of the sport –the fact remains that racism is still present in terms of both pay and social attitude. According to one study, “black NBA players earn significantly less than white players by about 20%. In addition, ceteris paribus, home attendance is a positive function of white representation on the team” (Kahn, andSherer 59). To that end, while the highest-paid players of the NBA do consist of a number of black basketball players –determined by factors such as popularity, marketability, and skill –generally speaking, black players are paid significantly less than white players. Furthermore, there exits a culture of “customer discrimination” in which attendance for home games is positively associated with white representation on a given team rather than for black players or the team as a whole. In this regard, racism is still rampant, if muted, within United States culture and society.

​Another aspect of basketball concerns the role of the sport and the athletes that comprise it in constructing social and cultural views regarding masculinity, sexuality, physical fitness, attractiveness, and goods. Companies pervasively hire athletes to “endorse their products and services, while masculinity and femininity are represented by athleticism, hard work and sweat, normative ideas of attractiveness, and fit bodies” (Brooks, and Blackman 441). In these terms, basketball and the athletes that perform within the industry speak to the heavy sports culture that exists within the United States in relation to the perceived value of athleticism, physical fitness and skill. In this way, basketball as an industry plays a significant role in constructing ideals of masculinity, sexuality, fitness, and the value of particular images, skills, and abilities. Furthermore, corporations monopolize the popularity of basketball players and incorporate them in their development and construction of marketing specific brands, looks, and goods.

​To sum up, basketball as a sport represents a generally positive avenue for black males to achieve perceived success within a white dominated community. Historically speaking, blackness and basketball intersect in a mutually beneficial relationship in which the sport grew with the integration of black members. However, the idea that racism does not exist in basketball because of the significant black presence within the sport is dangerous and reductive insomuch that it is a restricting and inaccurate perception to think that black presence in basketball automatically indicates a lack of racism and racial injustices. On another note, basketball plays a significant role in perpetuating the sports culture of the United States, but also acts as an industry that builds many social and cultural ideals, as well as a means to drive a market industry perpetuated by the advertisement and sale of both goods and ideas.

Works Cited

Brooks, Scott N., and Dexter Blackman. “African Americans and the History of Sport –New Perspectives.” Journal of African American History.96.4 (2011): 441-465. Print.

Goudsouzian, Aram. “Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.” American Studies. 47.3/4 (2006): 61-85. Print.

Kahn, Lawrence M., and Peter D. Sherer. “Racial Differences in Professional Basketball Players’ Compensation.” Journal of Labor Economics. 6.1 (1988): 40-61. Print.


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1 Response to Race and the Evolution of Basketball

  1. Sarah McCullough says:

    These are some solid sources for answering the question you pose. I’d like to push you a bit on your framing of basketball as a positive avenue for black men. While in some senses there is nothing wrong with this analysis, other scholars have argued that the intense focus on sports/basketball as a “way out” of systems of racism and poverty precludes other means of making change. One of these means would be dedicating the self to other careers and academic means of improvement. If basketball becomes the major way through which black men are supposed to improve themselves, this can overshadow other paths such as school. Secondly, as you so astutely point out, racism continues to exist in basketball. Should we promote this path if it merely reproduces the same systems of oppression found throughout society? You have some great sources here and are headed in a good direction. I look forward to seeing how this progresses!

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