The NBA and Blackness: Control and Commodification
“The NBA can’t dress no grown man.”This statement, made in allusion to the NBA dress code in a recent interview with Complex Magazine, is one that embodies the man who’s widely recognized as one of the most iconic players that have passed through the league: 11x NBA All-Star, former league MVP with the Philadelphia 76ers, and recent Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Allen Iverson. Off the court, “A.I.”, or “The Answer”, was equally as iconic, as he carries an immeasurable cultural significance, a cultural significance that we can still find traces of in today’s NBA, two decades after he entered the league, and a cultural significance that cannot be discussed disjoint of race.
In 2014, a study of NBA viewership in the 2012–2013 NBA season concluded that the league’s viewer demographic is about 45% black and 40% white. This small 5% difference might come as a surprise considering the NBA is largely considered to be a “black” league, but things get more interesting when placed next to the Nielsen statistics from the 2013–2014 season that show that black viewers spend, on average, 2.9 times more minutes (844 to 290) watching NBA basketball than white viewers. This means that although a similar amount of white and black viewers tune in to NBA games, the interest level of the white viewer has a much shorter lifespan. Why could this be?
There are two popular explanations for this phenomenon: the disappearance of the white-American NBA star player and the previously-mentioned image of the NBA as a “black” league. However, saying there are not enough white players (in a league where the players are predominantly black) implies that the league is “too black”. Therefore, at their core, these two explanations are one and the same: there is a disconnect between the white audience and the black league and that disconnect is correlated with racial differences and the image of the NBA. While the birth of the NBA’s image as a black league cannot be boiled down to a single man, there is one man many identity as a central figure to all of this: Allen Iverson.
Allen Iverson: The Sum of White Fear
If you asked any basketball historian to name three of the most iconic Allen Iverson moments, the three moments would undoubtedly be: 1) him going 1-on-1 against Michael Jordan and crossing him up in his rookie season (1997); 2) him stepping over Lakers guard (now Head Coach of the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers) Tyronn Lue in the 2001 NBA Finals; and 3) his famous “We talkin’ ‘bout practice” monologue.
But what do these three moments have in common? Each of them reveals a side of Allen Iverson that was instrumental in him becoming the cultural icon that he is now. The flaming confidence that allowed him to go toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan, the brash swagger he displayed stepping over Tyronn Lue, and the unapologetic attitude behind his practice rant is all what made Allen Iverson so popular amongst those who identify with him, and they are all what made him, at the same time, so controversial.
Saying that Allen Iverson was controversial during his time in the NBA would be an understatement, and controversy was attached to Iverson before he was even drafted in 1996, thanks to a 1993 altercation (Iverson was 17 at the time) at a bowling alley between Iverson’s friends and a group of white students. That incident, which has since been turned into a documentary film, allegedly stemmed from racist remarks made by the group of white students, but although video footage showed both parties throwing punches, only Iverson and his friends were prosecuted, with Iverson being sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Iverson would make his way to the NBA, though, and it would be there where he became even more polarizing, particularly off of the hardwood, due to who he was — himself, a black male — and what he represented: the “cultural fear of the black male body” (Gatz et al., 2002, p. 100), or what is oft-referred to as the “black male threat” (Raney & Bryant, 2006). The fact that Iverson entered the league with a criminal record, adorned his bling, tattoos, and cornrows (which has a cultural significance of its own), brashly displayed his swagger, and was unapologetic about being himself and being black, did not ease the minds of white viewers. While Allen Iverson’s effect on Black America was one of empowerment, his effect on White America was one of fear, a fear that would soon manifest itself in another player: Ron Artest.
Ron Artest: The Manifestation of White Fear
A large part of how we remember Allen Iverson was the result of his personality. The same can be said for former Indiana Pacer, 2004 Defensive Player of the Year, and 2010 NBA champion with the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers, Ron Artest, whose reputation precedes him, as he is forever tied to the ugliest incident in NBA and American professional sports history, a night that has since only been referred to as: the “Malice at the Palace.”
On November 19, 2004, almost exactly twelve years ago, as of writing this, the Indiana Pacers played the defending champion Detroit Pistons at the The Palace of Auburn Hills stadium in Detroit. With the Pacers less than sixty seconds away from a convincing win, Ron Artest fouled Pistons’ center Ben Wallace, who immediately retaliated by shoving Artest. Both teams rushed to separate them, with little success. Artest proceeded to lie down on the scorer’s table and the situation seemed to calm for a moment, until a Pistons’ fan in the crowd threw a drink at Artest, triggering Artest to burst into the stands to chase the fan down. Pacer-teammate Stephen Jackson followed suit and a brawl broke out in the stands between the fans and players, as fans continued to throw food and drinks at the Pacer players, even as they were leaving the court after the referees called the game. Ron Artest would be suspended for the remainder of the season, which totalled to 73 regular season and 13 playoff games, the longest suspension in NBA history. Eight other players were also suspended a varying amount of games.
All the negative connotations we see attached to Richard Sherman today — “out of control”, “cocky”, and “thug” (Tompkins, 2016, p. 292) — were all first attached to Iverson over a decade ago. Yet, while it all served to perpetuate the notion of the black male threat, there was always an irrational element to it that critics could point to. That changed with Ron Artest. The irrational fear that White America had for everything Allen Iverson was and represented was made rational on that infamous night, a night that did irreparable damage to the league’s unstable image.
Where Ron Artest and Allen Iverson Intersect: The Dress Code
On October 15, 2005, about two weeks before the 2005–2006 season, and less than a year after the “Malice at the Palace”, then-commissioner David Stern introduced a mandatory dress code, making it the first American-professional sports league to do so. This dress code banned players from wearing chains and bling over their clothes, as well as sleeveless shirts, t-shirts, and shorts, when arriving at and departing from games.
While some argued this business casual dress code was reasonable and congruent with the “professional” side of being a professional athlete, many, particularly many of the NBA’s black players, believed that the introduction of the dress code was an attempt at damage control in response to the realization of the black male threat, as a result of the “Malice at the Palace”, and many also viewed it as an attack on hip-hop culture and the trend of self-expression that was ushered in and empowered by Allen Iverson.
The NBA and Blackness: Commodification and Control
Edward Bernays, who is often referred to as the “father of public relations”, once said in his famous book, Propaganda, that “in certain cases we can [a]ffect some change in public opinion with a fair degree of accuracy by operating a certain mechanism” (Bernays, 1928, p. 47). There was a large contingent that believed that David Stern’s dress code was that mechanism, a mechanism trying to “control every approach to the public mind in such a manner that the public receives the desired impression, often without being conscious of it” (Bernays, 1928, p. 69), and a mechanism they hoped would “de-racialize and revitalize the league” (Schneider-Mayerson, 2010, p. 231).
The argument was that this attempt to “control black male bodies” (Leonard, 2012, p. 12), and blackness in general, diluted the black male threat (Raney & Bryant, 2006, p. 528), furthering the commodification of black athletes and turning them into “passive object[s]” (Gatz et al., 2002, p. 100), and that “by promoting the image of clean-cut African Americans […], the NBA banish[ed] not only the negative traits that whites associated with ‘blackness’ but any mention of ‘race’ itself” (Schneider-Mayerson, 2010, p. 230). It appeared like the NBA was making progress in the puzzle that was “harness[ing] the ‘black aesthetic’ that whites found appealing while rendering ‘blackness’ invisible” (Schneider-Mayerson, 2010, p. 229).
This brings us back to the white viewer’s relationship with the black players of the league, a relationship that extends far beyond sports, as “the Black male remains the most problematic racial subject in the White imaginary” (Hughes, 2004, p. 164). While the league may claim that the lifeblood of the NBA is the awe-inspiring athleticism (a word that has its own surrounding racial codes) of the players, and that is not entirely untrue, what also is not entirely untrue is that the NBA was also “managed with a specific, if often tacit, goal of making Black men safe for (White) consumers in the interest of profit” (Hughes, 2004, p. 164). But those days are in the past.
A Decade Later: The New NBA
It’s mid-February in 2015 during the NBA’s annual All-Star Weekend festivities, this year split between New York and Brooklyn, and LeBron James, the face of the league, walks out onto a stage of New York’s Hammerstein Theater, microphone in hand, and introduces the packed crowd to the NBA’s first ever “NBA All-Star All-Style” Fashion Show. It’s something that would’ve seemed impossible a decade ago, but inevitable to any close follower of the NBA in the last half-decade. What a difference a decade makes.
The NBA, at its core, has not changed all that much, however. It is still “a primary circulator of images of African American men for mass audiences” (Hughes, 2004. p. 163) and it is still “a ‘black game’ in a white nation” (Schneider-Mayerson, 2010, p. 231), but it is no longer trying to disassociate itself with blackness; in fact, it has fully embraced it.
Tune in to a nationally-televised game and the experience will begin like this: a song by a famous hip-hop artist or rapper — it was The Roots in the NBA Finals earlier this year, and so far this season it’s been Anderson Paak — plays while we’re shown a highlight package featuring the two teams. The song fades out as we’re shown an aerial shot of the arena, and then the broadcasters greet us as we’re shown live video from the back of the arena where one of the NBA’s biggest and brightest stars are arriving. A lower-third graphic is flashed on the screen with the player’s recent statistics, but the analysis of his statistics is quickly put aside as the discussion moves to his bold outfit choice, an outfit choice so “out there” that Allen Iverson would say: “Good gracious. I ain’t ever see nothing like it. I’m sitting at home like they used to bother me about what I was wearing and these guys come in here…(Shakes head)].”
This is the new NBA. It’s a league where hip-hop culture is a part of the experience through and through. It’s a league where the self-expressive boldness of outfit choices can only be surpassed by the boldness of player hairdos. It’s a league where black players take the runway for fashion shows that air before dunk contests emceed by black comedians, punctuated with reactions from black celebrities in the crowd, and commercials in between it all ranging from True Religion Jeans starring Russell Westbrook to State Farm Insurance commercials featuring Chris Paul (and his made-up twin brother Cliff Paul). It’s a league where self-expression is unimpeded and unscarce. And while this new NBA is the result of many, there is one whom much of this would not be possible without. The answer, once again, is Allen Iverson.
This post was also published here.
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