Black Boys Playing Ball: Race and Masculinity in American Basketball

Since its invention in the late 19th century, basketball has become one of the most popular sports in the world today. It is one of the most widely known and watched televised sports especially in the United States where many of the country’s most famous players are African American, and have been for decades. As of 2011, the entire NBA league was composed of over ¾ African American players (“NBA Racial,” 2011). This phenomenon is interesting to analyze because it stems from a society where African Americans have been historically oppressed by segregation, racism, and a lack of equal rights. Meanwhile, basketball has served as a path through which black male sports icons have gained worldwide fame. Although basketball can help many African Americans promote their masculinity, gain social recognition, and establish the sense of belonging in American society, media serves as a double –edged sword that helps African Americans promote their achievements and meanwhile constructs racism and stereotypes that are harmful for African American community.

Despite its racially segregated origins, the sport of basketball has become synonymous with African American masculine identity in today’s popular culture. Like many other sports in America, the sport of basketball was racially segregated at one point in its history. The “separate but equal” policy and segregation between white and black leagues served as a perpetuation of the United States’ history of legalized discrimination. Even today, according to one study by Kahn and Sherer, “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, and Sherer 59). Even though a handful of famous basketball players are predominately African American, they are overall paid much less than white players in the United States. In addition, professional basketball games can be expensive to buy tickets for and attend, and home attendance can often be dominated by a white audience or audience of a certain income.

Moreover, American advertising also perpetuates basketball’s role as a positive outlet for African American masculinity, in a world where key black male athletes are idolized for their bodies and physical prowess. Athletic prowess is valued very highly in American culture, in part because success in sports reflects American identity. Furthermore, athletic prowess and strong physicality represents strength, masculinity, high level of muscle control and reflex, and in many ways the ideal male body type. As Brooks and Blackman point out, many companies pervasively hire athletes to “endorse their products and services” for this reason, and masculinity in sports is often “represented by athleticism, hard work and sweat, normative ideas of attractiveness, and fit bodies” (Brooks, and Blackman 441). One such example of this body idolization is a 2007 Nike advertising campaign that uses basketball player LeBron James as its central figure. The ad is minimal and consists of only a solid black background with LeBron’s image, from his chest up, displayed wearing his Cleveland jersey with his arms spread out wide. At the top of the advertisement is a short excerpt of text that boldly reads: “We are all witnesses.” These elements, while seemingly simple and minimalistic, are a dramatic representation of the American sports culture that influences this advertising. It focuses on LeBron’s physicality and muscular body, specifically his chest and arms, which speaks to the perceived value of athletic prowess. This kind of image-building technique in advertising can be misleading, especially because LeBron James is not recognized with any awards or achievements and has not actually won any NBA championships. But LeBron’s status as a high-profile African American male in basketball, backed by excellent advertising and representation, ensures that he can build his image in the basketball world and hone a reputation that his reality has yet to live up to. The advertisement’s replication online, in print and especially on large billboards instills a larger-than-life, almost godlike reverence in the viewer for LeBron. This kind of reverence is often given to the most successful athletes in our country, and also underscores how the world’s most famous basketball players are perceived as more than human, and how the common man should bow down to and be grateful to witness then. The simplicity and effectiveness of this advertising campaign, put forth by a major corporation such as Nike, is testament to the idea of idolization of these African American basketball player figures.

Moreover, basketball, perhaps, can help African Americans gain recognition and the sense of belonging in American society. It can easily be said that the development and evolution of the game ultimately grew in tandem with elements of the American civil rights movement: “It concerns the emerging link between basketball and blackness, both in terms of cultural style and political import” (Goudsouzian 61). Basketball gained popularity and quickly became an integral part of black culture in the United States. That fact, coupled with figures of black success who were especially proficient in the sport, allowed basketball to evolve into a cultural entity that linked athleticism, black identity, American cultural identity and overlap, and on the surface seemed to indicate changing attitudes towards segregation and racism. For many, basketball became a symbol of African American men who gained success and fame in their country from their prowess in the sport in a society that was otherwise highly oppressive. The sport of basketball “intersects 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 did become a beacon of hope for many people in the black community, because it was read as a positive representation of what a black man could achieve and be recognized for in this country. It also allowed young male athletes to be recruited after the civil rights movement created new legalized opportunities for them. Coupled with the national pride that can be found in the popularity of many sports, there was an additional layer of racial pride that grew from the increasing number of black men in the gradually more popular sport of basketball, a phenomenon that helped the black community feel that they were able to belong and contribute to sports-related nationalism.

While many African Americans deem that basketball as a social tool that helps them gain recognition and achieve upward social mobility due to their achievements in basketball, racism still exists and can be perceived throughout the history of basketball, well into modern cultural attitudes regarding the sport. Although a large percentage of American basketball players are African American, the owners of many of the American professional basketball teams are predominately white or at least not people from minority races. While the highest-paid players of the NBA are also predominately African American, their high salaries can be attributed to ability, popularity, representation and marketability among other factors. Generally speaking, the average black player in the NBA is even today still paid less than the average white player. Anthony Kwame Harrison points out that this is not an uncommon phenomenon; even as far back as 1979, “sociologist Harry Edwards…explained that the high visibility of Black athletes in a handful of popular sports had obscured” the racism present in popular sports and leisure activities (Harrison 315). This “racial specialty” Harrison talks about in sports dictates which sports it is “socially acceptable” for African Americans to participate in, and basketball is one of them. When the basketball league is predominated by African Americans, it does not mean the disappearance of racism and the achievement of racial equality. In fact, it is another form of racism by associating one particular ethnic group with a particular career. In effect, it is possibly leading to a new form of stereotype.

Idolizing African American basketball players may potentially be harmful for African American community. Some argue that basketball offers attainable goals for young black boys who want to use their athletic talents to become like their famous black basketball player role models. There is a defined historical relationship between the black community and the sport of basketball, dating back to before the civil rights movement when the teams were still segregated, and this history makes it that much more likely for African Americans to socially accept the sport as part of their history and identity. However, scholars like Michael Messner would argue that the media portrayal of sports icons isn’t always a positive, role model-like representation. “The sports pages are peppered with stories of the latest athlete’s DUI, drug test failure, arrest for possession of illegal firearms, assault, rape, or domestic partner violence. These stories hold the potential to disrupt the ideological association of male athletes as glorified icons of hegemonic masculinity” (Messner 117). The hegemony—or dominating presence—of the sports icons’ masculinity therefore becomes threatened in American media. In addition, the desire to become a basketball player could potentially replace the desire in young African American men to otherwise go to college, start a business, or pursue another kind of career.

Moreover, sometimes the media treatment is not always consistent or fair towards African American basketball players. With basketball players such as Magic Johnson, the media has fixated on their indiscretions such as contracting HIV by choosing to focus on certain aspects of their behavior. “Studies of media treatment of big-name male athletes who have contracted HIV have been especially useful in illuminating the intersections of gender with race and sexual orientation. For instance, McKay…reflected critically on the ways that the media responded to basketball star Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson’s revelation that he was HIV-positive by projecting Johnson’s sexual promiscuity on to ‘wanton women.’ Dworkin and Wachs’s…comparison of mass media treatment of three stories of HIV-positive male athletes showed the ways that social class, race, and sexual orientation came in to play in the media’s very different framings of these three stories” (Messner 118). According to Messner, the media responded to Magic Johnson’s HIV-positive diagnosis by implying or playing up the fact that he was sleeping with “wanton women” and being very sexually promiscuous. He implies that there is a difference in Magic Johnson’s treatment in the media because he is African American, and coverage would have been different if he was another race.  There have been historically racist images and stereotypes of African American men present in our culture that portray them as deviant, sexually promiscuous, and at their worst, even rapists. One example of this in the sport of football is OJ Simpson, a black football player accused of murder whose infamous trial and acquittal in 1994 served as a racially divisive issue between blacks and whites in America. The studies of sports journalism’s response to Magic Johnson contracting HIV, as well as OJ Simpson’s trial, demonstrate that there is a racial difference in how Magic Johnson was portrayed at the time, because experts believe that is not how a white basketball player would be treated in the media.

In conclusion, the historical oppression of African Americans along with the civil rights movement make the high status of African American males in the sport of basketball that much more important to watch. Basketball has served a function on the African American community, acting as a rallying point for masculinity, teamwork, cultural identity and pride. Even so, there is historical segregation and racism even today, with a discrepancy between wages and a lack of black representation among team owners. Furthermore, advertising idolizes and exploits the black male body as a peak of physical fitness and strength, to the point where it is almost fetishized as a kind of godlike ideal. Though some may argue that the iconoclastic status of black basketball players is good, black men in sports can also have an inconsistent portrayal in the media, where they are often demonized as substance abusers, sexual deviants, or violent partners in domestic disputes.

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.

Harrison, Anthony Kwame. “Black Skiing, Everyday Racism, and the Racial Spatiality of

Whiteness.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues. 37.4 (2013): 315-339. 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.

Messner, Michael. “Reflections on Communication and Sport: On Men and Masculinities.”

Communication & Sport. 1.1/2 (2012): 113-124. Print.

“Study: 2011 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card.” June 16, 2011.

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