Taking His Talents to South Beach: LeBron James’ 2010 Free Agency Decision, the Possessive Investment in Black Bodies and the Resistance to the Agency of Black Athletes
Author’s Note: This essay was 2015 before Colin Kaepernick and before the election of Donald Trump.
1. The Decision
Ben Carrington poses the question “can the black athlete speak,” and writes “Black athletes have re-made sports, but not under conditions and rules of their own choosing” (2010, 177). Black American athletes in America have certainly reflected the black adaptive, creative resistance tradition of taking the cultural practices, language, rules and restrictions of the dominant society to produce their own cultural practices, their own language, and to find a way within the framework of imposed rules to exercise their own freedom of expression. Does the possibility exist for black athletes to create the conditions and the rules that will determine the economic direction of sports in the twenty-first century and return to the days of the black athlete as activist? Since 2010 LeBron James has providing evidence that yes the black athlete can speak in the twenty-first century. The black athlete can never speak in the defiant manner of a Jack Johnson or a Muhammad Ali; because the socio-political conditions which shaped those athletes such as Jim Crow racism no longer exist. The modern black athlete has their own particular brand of anti-black racism to deal and they have to be understood in the context of before Michael Jordan and after Michael Jordan.
After Michael Jordan there have been many who have wished to sit on the basketball throne that Jordan vacated; for a long time Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant seem to be the heir apparent, but there is no doubt now that LeBron James is now Jordan’s true successor. The unpreceded anticipation to James’ 2010 free agency, the public courtship leading up to his decision—from team owners, mayors of major cities, a host of celebrities, to fan bases in Cleveland, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles was clear evidence of this. While other NBA elite players such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant had qualified for free agency, they had never truly exercised it they chose to stay with the teams that originally drafted them. James was the most coveted free agent in 2010, with every team in the NBA wishing to sign him and James granting only six NBA teams’ face- to-face meetings to try to impress him. Rarely had a marquee elite player seriously exercised his free agency rights in this manner. The way in which LeBron James exercised his free agency rights in 2010 and the harsh media and fan reaction to his decision provide furthers evidence yet that America is not in fact a “post-racial” nation as has been suggested since 2008 with the viable presidential candidacy and eventual election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency. The reaction to James’ approach to his free agency reflects the phenomenon of America’s long possessive investment in black bodies.
To understand sports, whether looking into the predominantly white stands to media culture and to the backlash against those who threaten the existence of both a commodifiable and pleasurable black athletic body, it is crucial to think about the dialectics between race and commodification, to think about sports, in all its forms, as a playground where black bodies become the feature and the most lucrative attraction thus elicits the greatest level of animosity when it (he) does not deliver profit, pleasure, and affirmation of dominant narratives and myths, all with a smile. (Leonard and King, 2011, 10).
The need to have black bodies always engaged in providing “profit, pleasure, and affirmation of dominant [racial] narratives” is a manifestation of the possessive investment in black bodies. LeBron James 2010 free agency decision disrupted the possessive investment in his black body because of James’ failure to deliver “profit and pleasure” to a large segment of white fans and because it challenged the narrative of white team owner domination over black players in the NBA. James conducted this disruption in a manner that can only be described as a spectacle. Bourdieu has explained that a transition has taken place “whereby sport as an elite practice reserved for amateurs became sports as a spectacle produced by professionals for consumption by the masses” (Washington and Karen, 2001). In the U.S. in order to make white audiences interesting in being consumers of a sport like basketball, once it became dominated by black bodies that white fans sense of a possessive investment in black bodies had to be cultivated. The NBA recently signed a television contract with ESPN, TNT and ABC which is estimated to be worth $24 billion. Thirty years ago before David Stern became commissioner of the NBA this would have been unimaginable. As John Matthew Smith explains with quotes from Stern:Soon after starting his new position, Stern realized that in order to change the perception of the league, the NBA and its partners had to find a way to manage racial tensions. He believed “that if everything else went right, race would not be an abiding issue to NBA fans, at least as long as it was handled correctly.” That is Stern believed it was possible that skillful marketing could create a “colorblind” relationship between the players and fans, and his comment reflected the kind of codified language that helped “sell” a predominantly black sport to a predominantly white audience (14)
Stern did not just create a “colorblind” relationship between NBA fans and NBA players but that his marketing strategies along with his player disciplinary strategies helped to cultivate NBA fans possessive investment in the black bodies of NBA players. Just as fans feel a sense of ownership in their team, they feel a sense of ownership in the players that play for the team. This is encouraged even more by the NBA being the most star-driven of the four major U.S. sports leagues. This possessive investment in the black bodies of NBA players requires that players present an image of always doing it for the fans and loving the fans. Hence cliché phrases like “the best fans in the world,” I am doing this for Chicago/Dallas/Houston,” are constantly uttered by players. The fans want to believe that the players are as invested in them as they are invested in the players. James 2010 free agency exposed the falsity of the notion of a “colorblind” relationship between NBA fans and players. It made visible white NBA fans possessive investment in black bodies when James chose not to do it for the fans, but to do it for himself.
James decision to go pursue a championship in Miami was not a rejection of any particular fan base, but a decision to pursue his own self-interest. However, the possessive investment in the bodies of black athletes requires that black athletes always put forward the notion that they are doing for the fans, thus James free agency was a disruption of white fans possessive investment in his black body. It is very important for us to recognize that the popularity of a sport like the NBA which is dominated by black bodies, rather than being a sign of racial progress, may in fact be the continuation of racism in a new fashion. This very hypervisible black domination of sports like basketball and the its consumption by white audiences when examined closely does not reveal progress but reliance on old stereotypes and the requirement that blacks continue to present a façade of humility and gratitude, less they be perceived as arrogant and “uppity.” It is also important that false notions of racial progress are challenged so that it can be identified where legitimate anti-racism work in our society needs to take place. In addition, notions of a color-blind or post-racial society can be used to say that no further affirmative and corrective work on race needs to take place in our society, when in fact there is much further work to be done.
Returning to the story of LeBron James’ free agency and how unique it and how James differed from his NBA predecessors and caused a disruption of the white possessive investment in black bodies, let’s take the input of veteran NBA team executive Donnie Walsh. He told ESPN journalist Chris Brossard: It’s something new, but we’re in a new age”…”I don’t remember Michael Jordan ever becoming a free agent. I don’t remember Larry Bird becoming a free agent. I don’t remember Magic Johnson becoming a free agent. It would’ve been the same back then if they had, but that never happened. (“Sources: James leaning toward Heat” 2010).
Walsh, an NBA executive with 30 years’ experience compares James to Hall of Fame championship athletes like Jordan, Bird and Johnson. Although in 2010, James had not won a championship, there was unconditional consensus that James was an elite player like Jordan and Johnson who simply needed the right supporting cast to win an NBA championship. James, like Michael Jordan needed a Scottie Pippen. In the NBA a star player like many classic comic book heroes, always needs the right sidekick; there have been many classic dynamic duos in the NBA, Jordan and Pippen among them. In the 2007-2008 NBA season, player trades brought Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics to join Paul Pierce, the sports media dubbed the trio “the big three.” The trio managed to capture the 2008 NBA championship in their first NBA season together. Perhaps the success of this new NBA model suggested to LeBron James that his own “Pippen” alone would not be enough to win an NBA championship. Two years after the Boston Big Three, James made his now infamous decision which led to the creation of a big three in Miami, consisting of him, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. One of-a-kind elite NBA talents like Jordan, Johnson and a Kobe Bryant are what is needed to win an NBA championship. However, one cannot simply advertise on monster.com or Craig’s List to find an elite NBA talent. Elite NBA talents are like great works of art. They are highly coveted and exist only in limited supply. When it became clear in July 2010 that the most elite talent in basketball LeBron James was available to the right bidder, twenty nine NBA teams were willing to do what was necessary to snatch James from Cleveland.
The Cavaliers, the Cleveland fan base, and Cleveland politicians were willing to do anything they could imagine to retain this star player that had become the economic engine for their city; while Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York has the Empire State building and London has the Tower of London; Cleveland had LeBron James as their major attraction and source of city pride. LeBron James was looking for the “right bidder” and not the highest bidder because under the CBA in existence in 2010, the Cavaliers were the team who could pay James the highest salary, so if money alone was what James was interested in he would not have needed to look for other professional suitors. In the end only six of the 30 NBA teams were given an opportunity to persuade King James that the championship coronation, which had eluded James for seven years, could happen in their city.
The NBA has a monopoly on professional basketball in the U.S., which makes the NBA the only available option for an American who wishes to play basketball in the U.S. In 2003, at the age of eighteen, LeBron James was the number one draft pick in the NBA, selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The league created its own system for awarding draft picks among its 30 teams. The teams are allowed to trade draft picks among themselves and even to trade the draft rights to players, the very night they draft them. However, not only do players who declare themselves eligible for the draft not have a say in which teams select them but they have very little say in how much they will be compensated for their services as rookie players. The salaries of NBA rookie players are predetermined by where they are selected in the draft. Players who are selected in the first round are entitled to larger monetary contracts than players who are selected in the second round. As part of the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) signed with the union of the NBA players, the NBA Players Association, the maximum number of years and salary that a rookie player’s contract can be constructed for are set by the CBA. After their first rookie contract is concluded, if they did not sign an extension before the expiration of their rookie contract, a player becomes a restricted free agent. As a restricted free agent, a player can receive offers from other teams, but their original team has the right to match any written offer from another team, and the player has to stay with his original team if they match the written terms of another team’s contract offer.
LeBron James was drafted at the age of eighteen straight out of high school, the terms of the CBA have now been changed to where United States born players have to wait until one year after their high school graduation to be eligible for the NBA draft. This has led to the phenomenon of “one and done” in which players attend college for one year then declare for the draft. What all this means is that whether a player is drafted at the age of eighteen, nineteen, twenty, that in their prime athletic years they have limited control of where they play, and limited negotiating room in receiving financial compensation for their athletic labor as there is a rookie salary scale, with predetermined salary rates and contract length. In addition, even after they become restricted or unrestricted free agents the NBA has a salary cap that does not allow players to earn their true market value. It certainly can be argued that the 30 principal owners of the 30 existing NBA teams who hold a monopoly on professional basketball in the U.S. engage in collusion to create a system that allows them to obtain players in their prime and to contractually hold on to them for a least five years and pay them a salary that the NBA has decided on, rather than an open and competitive labor market.
Labor economist Lawrence M. Khan notes that “[s]ports owners are a small and interconnected group, which suggest that they have some ability to band together and act as monopsonists in paying players” (2000, 76). Team owners are an elite power group who can engage in collusion and imposing their will in many ways beyond just controlling player’s salaries. The NBA is the only major professional basketball league in the United States. Other than going off to Europe, Russia or China for probably less lucrative and rewarding careers American basketball players do not have much alternative professional options. There are only 30 NBA teams and only about 450 basketball playing jobs available in the NBA; 30 teams, with a maximum of 15 players per team. Once a player is under contract for a team he is obligated to play for that team until his contract expires or he becomes an unrestricted free agent. A player can escape his contract by formally retiring, but then he loses the remaining salary on his contract and would having difficulty playing somewhere as the NBA has a relationship with FIBA the global governing body of basketball. During the 2011 NBA Lockout, Larry Coon explained the challenges for a player under contract to play overseas during the lockout, which would apply even if there were no lockout:
In order to play professionally overseas, FIBA (the organizing body for international basketball) requires a Letter of Clearance from the player’s national organizing body. In the case of players from the United States, that’s USA Basketball. The Letter of Clearance certifies that the player is free to sign a contract — i.e., he has no other contractual obligations that would get in the way. An NBA contract is such a contractual obligation. Lockout or not, it’s still an existing contract. So on the surface, an NBA player who’s under contract would not be allowed to sign in any FIBA league. NBA free agents, on the other hand, can sign wherever they’d like. (Coon, ESPN, 2011).
The clear collusion among NBA owners has been accepted by the majority of U.S. sports journalists and U.S. sports fans. However, the possibility of collusion among NBA players is regarded differently. According to Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, there is evidence to suggest that James, Wade and Bosh colluded. He writes “[t]he seeds were planted in the summer of 2006 after Bosh, James and Wade finished their third seasons” (Windhorst, 2010). He goes on to explain further how for a “week, they were sequestered without family or friends in Sapporo, Japan, in an attempt to build chemistry” for Team USA’s basketball preparations for the then upcoming World Championships. According to Windhorst:
Already close because they came from the same draft class, the Team USA experience strengthened the relationship. Even before the team gathered in Las Vegas to prepare for the World Championships that summer, the three had talked about playing for that team…That same July, the co-op took on another role when all three decided to extend their contracts with their teams. They couldn’t all become unrestricted free agents until 2007 under the rules, so the smart play was for them to extend with the respective teams. (Windhorst, 2010).
In 2003 it was perfectly acceptable for a pre-designed owner system to allow NBA owners to select the team destinations of Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh and sign them to rookie contracts whose terms had already been predetermined prior to them even declaring for the draft. However, it was unacceptable that these three players may have agreed among themselves that they would all come together in 2010 as unrestricted free agents, who could play for the team that they wanted. Although the NBA has never cited or formally declared that the three players or the Miami Heat organization engaged in collusion there is widespread belief that the three players did in fact conspire among themselves to decide their professional destination. There has been strong resentment expressed about the notion that Wade, Bosh and James may have colluded to become teammates on the Miami Heat. The greatest recipient of the expressed resentment was LeBron James. However, then NBA commissioner David Stern stated “[o]ur players, having negotiated for the right to be free agents at some point in their career, are totally within their rights to seek employment with any other team” (Adande, 2010) As for the accusations of the players engaging in collusion Stern downplayed the matter “[t]hey don’t collude, they just sort of talk of how nice it is to be able to play together and they’re allowed to do that” (ibid). Perhaps because at the time Stern knew the NBA would be locking out the players, he did not want talk of collusion among players, since it might lead to talk about collusion among owners. Stern, did however recognize the player’s right to free agency, which many fans did not in the resentment they felt towards Bosh, Wade and James.
The resentment was particularly directed towards James, because he chose to announce his departure via a live ESPN special. Some saw this as a narcissistic spectacle. Since the twentieth century and the arrival of ESPN in 1979 and now technological advances in digital media modern sports has become a “spectacle.” Rules of the games have been changed in basketball, football and other sports to accommodate television viewing. Bourdieu has stated that modern “sports [is] a spectacle produced…for consumption’ (Washington and Karen, 2001). The broadcast of the NFL and NBA draft each year are major spectacles. There seems to be a different level of acceptance as to what team owners and television are allowed to do and what players are allowed to do. It is acceptable for owners and ESPN executives and producers to stage spectacles like the NFL and NBA draft; however it is unacceptable for James to produce a spectacle like “The Decision,” even though ESPN collaborated with him on it and money raised from the broadcast was donated to charity. When LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were drafted in 2003 it was broadcasted on live television. Even the determination of what order the NBA teams will select players is made into a live television special.
So when LeBron James decided in 2010 that he would announce his free agency choice in a live ESPN broadcast, he perhaps saw it as no more different than the manner in which the world learned that he was the number one draft pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers; on live television. James was such a high school phenomenon that his high school games were broadcast on Cleveland television. Even before LeBron James was drafted it was a national news story about which sports apparel company James would sign him to a contract to release his signature sneakers. James had grown accustomed from a very young age to world wanting to “witness” the events of his life. His ESPN special “The Decision” was perhaps another opportunity for him to allow them to bear witness. Unfortunately, James had failed to take into consideration issues of race in America and how they would shape the lens through which the audience, particularly the white audience viewed his tele-spectacle of boldness, brashness and power. They would not perceive themselves as witnessing the triumph of a 25 year old black man who had been born to a poor teenage single mother, who as a child had lived in the projects and in one particular year moved 12 times; in their eyes they were witnessing arrogance, ego and “uppityness.”
Jackie Robinson was lauded for his humility in enduring the racist abuses from fans when he became the first black man to formally join Major League baseball. Athletes like Joe Louis who has been described as “ the first African-American to achieve hero worship that was previously reserved for whites only” (Schwartz, ) and the late tennis player Arthur Ash were also black men who were admired for their perceived humility and non-militant approach to the issue of black racism in America. Black athletes like Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and former Cleveland Browns football player Jim Brown, who behaved in a manner that was seen as defiant and certainly not humble were viewed differently from Robinson, Louis and Ash. The likes of Johnson, Ali and Brown were seen as arrogant and egotistical and perhaps one can say “uppity.” “The Decision” broadcast placed James alongside Johnson, Ali and Brown in receiving public condemnation for being black man unwilling to make providing “profit and pleasure” for white audiences their main priority, thus they were seen as lacking humility.
Perhaps on the heels of Barack Obama’s election as the first black president of the United States, LeBron James believed that we were in a post-racial era, in which race was no longer a factor in public perception and attitudes. The term “post-racial” according to an NPR broadcast “is what Senator Barack Obama [signaled] in his victory speech in South Carolina” on January 26, 2008. (Schorr, 2008). According to NPR, post-racial then became “the latest buzz word in the political lexicon” (ibid). As they explain it:
Post-racial began to come into vogue after Obama won the Iowa caucuses and faired well in the New Hampshire primary…The Economist called it a post-racial triumph and wrote that Obama seemed to embody the hope that America could transcends its divisions. The New Yorker wrote of a post-racial generation and indeed, the battle-scarred veterans of the civil rights conflict of 40 years ago seemed less enchanted with Obama than those who were not yet alive then… (Schorr, 2008).
The backlash to his decision, particularly the racialiazed commentary, especially on social media perhaps, led James to realize as journalist Jonathan Capehart wrote of post-racialism in America “[f]rom its first utterance in 2008 to herald the rise of Barack Obama, the concept was misguided and delusional”. (Capehart, 2014). Later on in a television interview with Soledad O’Brien, James would admit that yes he felt “race” had something to do with the public backlash he was subjected to after “The Decision”, telling O’Brien “I think so at times. It’s always, you know, a race factor.” (Zirin 2010) The notion of color-blind racism is very much applicable to the NBA. Race is the elephant on the NBA court that everyone pretends not to see and “race” is the word that dare not be uttered. Race very much played a role in the public reaction to the free agency decision of LeBron James in 2010, but every reason was offered to explain the hostile public reaction except the possibilities of race and racism as crucial contributing factors. The backlash against James endured until in 2014 when he decided to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers organization. According to journalist Jean McGianni Celestin “ [o]n February 11,  a Detroit Pistons fan verbally assaulted James during the game by shouting obscene comments about his mother in front of his two young sons, who were seated courtside” (2011). McGianni Celestin writes that after James’ new Miami Heat team lost the NBA championships to the Dallas Mavericks “CNBC Sports Business Reporter Darren Rovell reported a Twitter poll that ranked James as the “most disliked athlete ever” just behind Barry Bonds, and ahead of O.J. Simpson and Alex Rodriguez” (ibid). The fact that James could possibly be reviled more that Simpson who has been accused of double homicide can only be explained by the possessive investment in black athletic bodies.
In his classic essay on the “Possessive Investment in Whiteness” (1995) George Lipsitz identifies whiteness “as organizing principle in social and cultural relations” in the United States. In addition, Lipsitz posits that people who identify as white in the United States have historically engaged in “systemic practices of aversion, exploitation, denigration and discrimination” (369) towards people categorized as non-white, especially those categorize as black. Lipsitz tells us that “colonial and early-national legal systems authorized attacks on Native Americans and encouraged the appropriation of their lands. They legitimated racialized chattel slavery…and provided pretexts for exploiting labor, seizing property…(371). For Lipsitz these factors along with others developed white identity in the United States and facilitated, encouraged an allegiance, commitment and sense of ownership to white identity.
A sense of ownership in white identity and a possessive investment in the black body of LeBron James, can explain how the free agency of James went from excitement and anticipation to anger and hate after James selected to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Free agency officially began in the NBA on July 1, 2010 and on Thursday, July 8, 2010 after 9:00 P.M. Eastern Standard time. James announced that he was taking his “talents to South Beach.” A 180 degree turn was made in which all the fan bases who had before been begging him to come and play for their team, especially the Cleveland fan base publicly turned on James, doing such things as burning his jersey in public. The owner he had played for, for seven years, Dan Gilbert would publicly declare him a “coward” and a “traitor.”(Gilbert, 2010). On the website of the local newspaper The Cleveland Plain Dealer, next to an article entitled “Cleveland-Akron fans saddened, sickened and angry at LeBron James’ decision to leave Cavaliers,” a “Note for commenters” was posted, it read:
We understand your anger, but please show that Cleveland has class: no racism, no vulgarity, and leave James’ family out of it. Commenters who cross those lines may have their accounts temporarily or permanently suspended. (Scott, 2010).
Quite clearly the comments being posted online about James had already crossed the line into racism, vulgarity and attacks on James’ family, otherwise, the publication would not have felt the need to ask its readers not to write such comments. In the accompanying article local Cleveland fans reactions are quoted. One fan who watched the ESPN special stated “I thought the whole thing was tasteless, despicable, true trash and historic garbage” (ibid). The same article states that “Cleveland city councilman Zak Reed showed up downtown to tell every microphone aimed his way that LeBron James’ decision was “a slap in the face to every citizen” in the city” (ibid).
As Associated Press article published on ESPN.com describe the fan reaction:
They tore his once-beloved No. 23 jersey off their backs and set them on fire. They threw rocks at a 10-story-tall billboard that features James with his head tossed back, arms pointing skyward….Some fans tried to console Earl Mauldin, who was slumped over the bar hiding his face. “I think it was a slap in the face to this city, who had supported him and been behind him since he was in high school,” said Mauldin, who looked disgusted. “To go on national TV and spit in our face like that is very, very, very wrong.” (ESPN, 2010).
An article written by sports journalist Andrian Wojnarowski, published on Yahoo sports on July 16, 2010, eight days after “The Decision,” exemplifies the kind of post-The Decision demonization and vilification that James was subjected to by the sports media, in addition to attacks via social media and fans publicly burning his jersey. The article is entitled “Inside look at LeBron’s free-agent coup,” Wojnarowski puts forward a theory of James, Wade and Bosh engaging in collusion and attacks James ‘character suggesting that James needed discipline, and guidance executives at Nike tried to provide. Wojnarowski’s seems oblivious to how his paternalistic charges of arrogance and ego are similar to the historical language use to describe James’black male athletic predecessors starting in the early twentieth century with Jack Johnson and continuing on with Muhammad Ali and a host of other contemporary black athletes. Does Wojnarowski think the likes of elite white athletes like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are all humble saints who their team owners have never had to placate? It has long been perceived that black athletes are required to follow a different code of conduct than white athletes. It has also been perceived that the media tends to heavily publicize and critique the missteps of black athletes while glossing over the missteps of white athletes. McGianni Celestin notes that:
James isn’t the first professional athlete to leave the city that drafted him and play for another. NFL quarterbacks John Elway and Eli Manning famously refused to play for the franchises that drafted them – acts arguably more insolent than James’ opting to play elsewhere after fulfilling the seven years of his contract. Brett Favre,, another former NFL quarterback, kept several teams hostage for a 2 ½ -year period over whether or not he was going to play or retire, a divalike performance that was probably the most blatant act of selfishness by a known athlete in quite some time…Yet for Elway, Manning and Favre – all of whom are white – the rules seem to have been different. (McGianni Celestin, 2001).
The rules seem to be different also for white NFL player Ben Roethlisberger who has been accused of rape on more than one occasion. He settled a 2008 lawsuit accusing him of rape and “faced similar allegations from…a 20-year old college student in March 2010” (Bellisie, 2012). However, Roethlisberger has the not been the recipient of widespread condemnation and vilification by the media nor the general public. In comparison to the media coverage of NBA player’s single accusation of rape in 2003, media coverage of Roethlisberger’s multiple accusations of rape have been far less vocal. The difference in coverage is rooted in notions of black pathology and criminality. Roethlisberger’s behavior is seen as an outlier; the transgressions of black athletes are seen as affirmation of notions of black pathology and criminality. Different standards of media criticism are applied to black and white athletes by the predominantly white sports media. This is in direct contradiction to notions of post-racialism and the dominant presence of blacks in football and basketball as evidence of racial progress.
Wojnarowski decides to return all the way to prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics to start building a case filled with innuendo, unnamed sources, to establish James’ villainy of which Wojnarowski will present “The Decision” as the final piece of evidence. Wojnarowski writes:
From Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski to managing director Jerry Colangelo to NBA elders, the issue of James’ immaturity and downright disrespectfulness had become a consuming topic on the march to the Olympics. The course of history could’ve changed dramatically, because there was a real risk that James wouldn’t be brought to Beijing based on fears his monumental talents weren’t worth the daily grind of dealing with him.
Wojnarowski goes on further claiming that “[n]o one could stand James as a 19-year-old in the 2004 Athens Olympics, nor the 2006 World Championships” further in the article he writes of James “[n]o one ever told him to grow up. No one ever challenged him…and everyone had to agree they could no longer let his bossy and belittling act go unchecked.” The author suggests that James was brought in-line when “[b]efore Team USA gathered for the 2007 Tournament of the Americas in Las Vegas, an unmistakable message had been delivered to James through Nike: Unless you change, we’re serious about leaving you home.” This quote from an unnamed source seems hard to believe. Why would Nike ever be willing to go along with any suggestion that the player that they had bestowed a $100 million dollar contract on, just four years before, hoping he would be their successor to Michael Jordan be kept away from a global event such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Since Nike is a major sponsor of Team USA Basketball (which is not funded by the U.S. government, and relies on sponsorship and private donations), it is hard to imagine USA Basketball telling Nike that they intended to exclude Nike’s most significant basketball brand endorser outside of the retired Michael Jordan.
Wojnarowski writes “[the Cleveland Cavaliers] knew LeBron James could sometimes be so unaware of the world outside his own needs, his own yes men. Nearly two years later, the whispers in the back of the bus rolling through Beijing had become the loudest statement in free-agency history. The telephone call to the Cleveland Cavaliers came minutes before the 9 p.m. show, and somehow the news still shocked them.” While Wojnarowski displays knowledge in his article that Miami Heat president Pat Riley was a crucial architect in Wade, Bosh, and James coming together, he seems unwilling to accuse Riley of collusion, although he accuses Riley of having “had informants and spies everywhere” which obviously would have given Riley inside information that other NBA team executives did not have. Riley, in Wojnarowski’s eyes, should be allowed to strategize and ruthlessly pursue what his wants, but LeBron James needs to allow the likes of Dan Gilbert and Nike executives to decide what is best for him. Wojnarowski sees James’ supposed ego as the reason that James never legitimately considered signing with the Chicago Bulls. According to him:
For everything the Bulls tried to sell – from owner Jerry Reinsdorf to GM Gar Forman to coach Tom Thibodeau – there had been one thing that troubled James’ about the Bulls pitch: Derrick Rose never called and tried to recruit him… Chicago officials never directly requested Rose to reach out with a call, and the young point guard felt James could’ve always reached out to him had he wanted to discuss the possibility of playing together. James needed to be courted, needed to be wooed and apparently it surprised him there was a star who wasn’t falling over himself to do that.(2010).
Wojnarowski offers no criticism of Gilbert’s post-departure letter about James, or of the player personnel decisions made by the Cavaliers ownership and management that failed to deliver the right supporting cast to help James win an NBA championship. In addition, the version of events that has been offered by other sports reporters such as Brian Windhorst, seems to contradict Wojnarowski’s premise of James being disliked at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As Tom Ziller puts it “MJ had Pippen, Magic had Kareem and Bird had McHale, while LeBron had Mo Williams” (2013). James exercised his earned free agency rights not get not one, but two great NBA sidekicks which led to him winning two NBA championships with Miami. The resentment against James’ decision is resentment against black ambition.
Black ambition, the exercising of black agency has always been seen as inappropriate and as a deviation from the supposed natural order of things; in which white people are always to be in charge. We can see an extreme example of such racism in 2008, when then candidate Barack Obama was running for the U.S. presidency, Georgia Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland described Obama to reports as “uppity.” When noted political consultant David Gergen, was asked by ABC Television for his understanding of the term “uppity” he responded: “[a]s a native of the south, I can tell you… that’s code for…he ought to stay in his place.’ Everybody gets that who is from a Southern background” (Soraghan, 2008). The anger generated by James’ free agency process and final decision was generated by a notion that James had failed to “stay in his place.” Staying in his place, in this instance does not simply mean that James should have stayed in Cleveland. Staying in his place meant that James should not have received the amount of media attention and widespread public and private genuflecting that he did in 2010. As Oakland Tribune columnist Monte Poole describes it in a June, 2010 column:
We’re 22 days away from the July 1 official opening of the free-agent bazaar, yet otherwise sane adults across America are writing and singing love songs dedicated to LeBron. Billionaires and millionaires are behaving like sobbing, screaming teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert. They’re blowing kisses and flashing professionally whitening teeth in hopes of being noticed.
Folks in Cleveland, where LeBron has spent the first seven years of his career, formed a choir of Northern Ohioans and sang a ballad produced for a TV ad. A billboard went up in downtown Chicago. The Mayor of New York scheduled time to record a TV promo in which he pleaded, “Come on LeBron, write the next chapter in NYC basketball history.” (Poole, 2010).
In the case of Obama it was not simply the case of a black man running for the U.S. presidency that made him seem “uppity” in eyes of those like Georgia Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland. After all, there had been at least two black Americans who had previously run for the presidential nomination; Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson. What made Obama seem “uppity” in Westmoreland eyes and the eyes of others in my estimation was Obama’s viability as a candidate and Obama’s extreme widespread mainstream popularity and the global public adulation that was being heaped on him. In the same manner it was the viability of James’ enormous talent, and the enormity of the level of attention and widespread adulation, and James’ clear enjoyment of the process that made some label him arrogant. In this context I would say that arrogant served as a synonym for “uppity.”
While the city of Chicago may have decided to put up a Billboard in 2010 in the hopes of luring James away from Cleveland, Cleveland had a LeBron James billboard years before James’ free agency began. When LeBron James played for the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2003 to 2010, a 10-story banner of James hung in the city. (the Cleveland “mayor…declared it public art so it could be protected”) (Pluto and Windhorst, 2007). This banner showed a frontal waist up image of James with his hands spread wide in Christ-like fashion, wearing the team jersey with the words Cleveland spread across his chest. You do not really see James’s face, because his head is pulled back as he seems to be looking into the heavens. Above his head the words “WE ARE ALL WITNESSES” is written followed by the Nike swoosh logo. Clearly, there is a biblical subtext to this language and imagery. The act of witnessing and bearing witness is an important element of the New Testament, take this biblical passage: “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16, KJV). In U.S. history we have an entire body of slave narratives all of which require a white person to be a witness asserting that indeed the black author did really write his or her narrative. When Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry was published in 1773, white written testimony was required to validate Wheatley’s authorship. For much of U.S. history black people could not offer testimony in court. James has the word WITNESS tattooed on his leg. In an interview James states of the tattoo it “is for everyone that watches me play. They witness something special. You’re all a witness” (Taddeo, 2009).
Cleveland’s LeBron James mural was the convergence of commerce, church, paganism and American mythology. Who are the “we” and in the “all” who are bearing witness? What matter are these witnesses seeking to establish with their testimony? In the racialized American historical tradition, LeBron James—as a black body—cannot be his own witness. In deciding to announce which team he would be choosing as a free agent to be play for live on cable television, LeBron James was asking all of America to bear witness. About 13 million Americans decided to do so. America saw and did not approve of this act of black ambition and active personal and economic agency.
The massive popularity of certain black athletes with white fans has been viewed as a sign of racial progress. The white public embrace of superstar athletes like Michael Jordan is deceptive, particularly in the case of the NBA, which maintains a strategy of marketing its athletes as everything from ghetto Horatio Alger-like characters to harmless cartoon-like oversized big men such as retired player Shaquille O’Neal and current player Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets, both who have dubbed themselves Superman, O’Neal has the Superman logo tattooed on his body. Celia Lury writes that, “Nike makes extensive use of the marketing technique of personification, in which the properties of a product…are associated with the characteristics of a person” (2004, Loc 2075). She elaborates further “[b]ut the personality implicated in the Nike logo is not always that of a real individual” (ibid). What whites were embracing was not a black human being named Michael Jordan; but a character manufactured collaboratively by the NBA, Nike, Gatorade and the real Michael Jeffrey Jordan himself.
We are now in the epoch of post-racial, “color-blind racism” (Bonilla-Silva, 2006), which utilizes coded language and may we suggest coded imagery to insist that racism should be categorized with covered wagons and the telegraph as relics of our past. Could it be that this very iconography of commodified black athletic bodies is a visual tool to sustain the new racism which is really a new disguise for the old racism? The power of the iconography of the black athlete is rooted in the notion of difference, which presumes that race is not a social construct and that there is a real biological difference between those of white identity and those of black identity. Then these images can be seen as a safe passageway into the modern “Heart of Darkness,” which today is not some imagined African jungle but inner city communities. This is why players with an urban background who offer a narrative of poverty, single-parent upbringing in crime and drug infested neighborhoods are more marketable figures for companies like Nike. Because black athletes have been “othered” and marketed as characters and action figure-like heroes types their right to the kind of agency that LeBron James exercised in 2010, is outside of the narrative that has been constructed for sports spectators and consumers. After all, superman’s primary concern is saving humanity and not himself.
Given the history of black people in America as property and the longtime denial of black people’s rights to own property; particular their own labor, makes this is unwillingness to accept the agency of black athletes is particularly troubling. It is troubling because it would suggest that ultimately there are no acceptable criteria under which black agency, black excellence, achievement and even black humanity can be accepted in American society. Historian Leon F. Litwack tells us that black Americans after the Civil War and Reconstruction were determined to control their own labor.
After the first agricultural season, planters and Freedmen’s Bureau agents noted the persistence with which blacks refused to labor on Saturday for anyone but themselves, preferring to tend their own garden plots or sell or to sell in town some of the produce they had raised. “Five days I’ll work,” a Mississippi field hand insisted, in refusing to sign a new contract…(Liwack, 1979, 434).
Litwack provides us with further insight into how newly freed blacks were determined to exercise their newly acquired agency over their labor:
On the plantations in Louisiana he managed for the absentee owner, Wilmer Shields experienced that now characteristic period of indecision and maneuvering before obtaining any success with the laborers. The almost always exhausting process of negotiating a contract would begin in the early fall and continue into the next year. In mid-September 1866, for example, Shields already despaired of retaining most of the laborers beyond the present crops. Not only did he find the blacks “very fond of change” but “all of our neighbors want them, and some are offering every inducement they can to get them away—promising teams and horses to take them to town every Saturday.’ (Litwack, 1979, 435)
In both passages Litwack discusses “contracts” referring to the agreements that the newly freed slaves would enter into to provide agricultural labor. Let us draw a comparison between the way the Louisiana plantation manager is describing the manner in which other neighboring plantations were trying to lure away the black laborers with the way that in 2010 other NBA teams were trying to lure away LeBron James from the Cleveland Cavaliers. According to an article published in USA Today at the time:
Betty White made a bid on behalf of staying in Cleveland. And now celeb chef Rachel Ray has posted a video on Facebook trying to lure LeBron to New York to play for the Knicks by promising to make him “his very first home-cooked meal in NYC.” Ray has joined fellow famous New Yorkers including Matt Lauer, Mario Batali, Al Sharpton and Mayor Bloomberg, among others, in an effort to bring the King to The Big Apple (Oldenburg, 2010).
The cities which were considered legitimate contenders for LeBron James to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for their team made elaborate celebrity assisted pitches to persuade James to sign with their team “…the [New York] Knicks showed James a video featuring “Sopranos” stars James Gandolfini and Edie Falco reprising their roles as New Jersey’s favorite mafia couple. The Cavs, however, tapped into James’ favorite show “Family Guy” as a way to convince the free agent to re-sign” (Isola, 2010). Perhaps this pursuit of James was a reflection of the “black power” that was imagined to exist in the NBA.
Longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan writes in 2010:
…the fact is the National Basketball Association is the most egalitarian major institution in our society. In fact, the NBA is so infused with black power that it is the only significant American institution I know of where the white man is inherently perceived to be inadequate to the task (Ryan, 2010, 189).
Ryan’s notion that the NBA or any American institution is egalitarian is false. Contemporary American society is infused with income, class and gender inequality as well as other forms of inequality. It would be wholeheartedly impossible for any institution existing in such a society to be egalitarian, not even the NBA which on its face appears to be an athletic meritocracy dominated by Black athletes in contrast to every other industry in the U.S. The dominant presence of black players in the NBA and their hypervisibility as commodified figures cannot be taken as evidence of these athletes having power that is equivalent to the predominantly white male NBA owners . The backlash to James’ 2010 “Decision” and the subsequent NBA lockout by team owners in 2011 in which they renegotiated the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between players and owners in their favor refutes the notion of black power and egalitarianism in the NBA as Ryan is suggesting.
This is a case where Ryan and most likely others are conflating visibility with power. Ryan goes on to site not only the dominance of black players, but the presence of black coaches and general managers to support his contention of the racial egalitarian nature of the NBA. There are two problems with Ryan’s thesis; the first which I have identified is the false conflation of visibility with authority. As it will be argued throughout this essay, players do not actually hold the power in the NBA, the power is held in the hands of the white owners (with the exception of black Michael Jordan who owns the Charlotte Bobcats and East Indian Vivek Ranadive who owns the Sacramento Kings), the NBA commissioner has always been a white man, with David Stern serving as commissioner for 30 years and being recently succeed by white Adam Silver. The outcome of the 2011 NBA lockout in which NBA players were the losers in the final collective bargaining agreement, clearly demonstrates that the ownership minority is far more powerful than the player majority. As sports journalist Howard Beck explained in in the New York Times:
The league wanted an overhaul of its $4-billion-a-year enterprise, and it got it, with a nearly $300 million annual reduction in player salaries and a matrix of new restrictions on contracts and team payrolls. The changes mean a $3 billion gain for the owners over the life of the 10-year deal. (Beck, 2011).
Some identified the actions taken by the owners in 2011 as directly resulting from the actions of LeBron James in 2010. NBA owners wanted to make sure that NBA players in the future would severely be restricted from recreating what James, Wade and Bosh did, exercising their free agency to control where and with whom they would labor.
The second problem with Ryan’s thesis is the notion of “white man[ being] inherently perceived to be inadequate to the task.” If the white man is “inherently” inadequate to task of playing basketball than it stands to reason that the black man must be “inherently,” adequate to task of playing basketball. This speaks to position held by many scholars (Carrington:2010, Leonard and King:2011, Zirin:208,) that the sporting accomplishments of black athletes are often credited to their physically abilities while discounting the cognitive skills utilize by black athletes to compete. Black athletes are labeled “natural” while white athletes are credited for using their intelligence for overcoming their lack of natural talent. LeBron James’ body, his particular physicality is a major contributing factor to his success on the NBA court, but his intelligence his ability to read the game as it is happening has been equally important to his success. It is ironic that in trying to showcase the irrelevance of race, Ryan ends up emphasis the relevance of race.
2. The Birth of a Home Town Hero
While it seem that it was sufficient for the like of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to simple sell sneakers, it seems that this alone is not sufficient for LeBron James. James has been asked to save the city of Cleveland, Ohio. In 1983, then Caviliers owner Ted Stepien sold the Cavaliers to Gordon Gund for $20 million dollars. About 19 years later, Gund would sell the franchise to Dan Gilbert for $375 million because in 2003 the Cavaliers had the number one draft pick in the NBA, which would be LeBron James. James would take the Cavaliers from sporting irrelevancy to sporting significance.
Cavs hadn’t been on national television in more than three years. In the 2006-07 season, more, more than 50 games were on national TV. As the fans cheered and the cameras recorded, more than 300 media members settled into position to document the historic night, just four years after two of the three newspapers that followed the Cavs stopped even covering their road games due to lack of interest…(Pluto and Windhorst, 2007, Loc 87)
Journalist Roberto A. Ferdman writing for the Washington Post states of LeBron James “[w]hile he was a Cavalier, LeBron’s economic impact on the city [of Cleveland] was estimated to be $50 million and $80 million a year” (2014). The city of Cleveland has a similar history to other American urban communities, like Newark, New Jersey and Baltimore, Maryland who have been disastrously impacted by deindustrialization, national and global trends and public policies that took place prior to LeBron James even being born. Gitanja Maharaj writes:
…late-capitalist economic practices…led to deindustrialization and the decline of black urban communities in the post-World War II United States [and] also produced the black basketball star as a commodity and an object of desire for mass consumption… both the “nightmare” of the urban ghetto and the “dream” of a celebrity, professional athlete are manifestations of the economic and cultural workings of late-capitalist America. (1997, 98).
The deindustrialization and urban decline of Cleveland produced the basketball star, global icon, commodity LeBron James that corporate entities Nike, Coca-Cola, Kia, McDonalds and Samsung employ to encourage the consumption of their diverse products. George Lipsitz has written that:
“…dis-investment in America’s cities, factories, and schools since the 1970s disguises the general problems posed to our society by de-industrialization, economic restructuring, and neoconservative attacks on the welfare state as racial problems. It fuels a discourse that demonizes people of color for being victimized by these changes, while hiding the privileges of whiteness by attributing them to family values, fatherhood, and foresight—rather than favoritism. (1995, 379).
It is important to read Lipsitz’s passage alongside Maharaj’s to properly frame and recognized the socio-historical and socio-economic conditions that converged to produce a black sporting body like LeBron James. Born on December 30, 1984 in Akron, Ohio to a 16-year-old mother, Gloria James, he is a legacy of the conservative, neo-liberal policies that were enacted under Ronald Reagan. Cleveland sports columnist Terry Pluto and ESPN Journalist Brian Windhorst write that James “…spent much of his youth in the projects and on the streets. He could tell you of guys from his neighborhood who had been shot, guys in jail…” (2007, Loc 59). The city of Cleveland is representative of the deindustrialization project that has devastated many U.S. cities and particularly negatively impacted black communities, especially in terms of employment, public education and housing.
However, despite the mythology urban communities are not the exclusive places that produce basketball players. In fact, the NBA has many American players who originate from wealthy or middle-class backgrounds, including the sons of former NBA players or athletes from other sports. In addition, there are many international players in the NBA, including the Gasol brothers from Spain, Dirk Nowitzki from Germany, and a host of players from Easter and Western Europe, as well as the African continent. Players from impoverished urban backgrounds have on the face of it proven to be more marketable, with an easily recognizable American rags-to-riches narrative, a form of “black cool” that is imagined to only emerge from black urban communities, especially in light of the fact that Hip-Hop culture has become completely married to the Hollywood produced, conservatively imagined, racialized, locale that is urban America. Proper historical and socio-economic contextualization allows us to see the irony and illogic of characterizing LeBron James 2010 free agency decision to leave Cleveland for Miami as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers put it his open letter to James as a “cowardly betrayal.” Gilbert characterized James as “our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted…” (Gilbert, 2010). It was not LeBron James who abandoned Cleveland and urban America, and countless black men like him whose names are not known because they did not possess elite athletic talent like LeBron James that would have enabled them to escape the dire poverty that they were born into due the United States long history of anti-black racism.
3. The Signifying Black Athlete and the Possessive Investment in Black Bodies
Historian James Oakes describes the condition of New World plantation slavery in the United States in this fashion “…property rights in slaves were a manifestation of the master’s power, the slaves’ powerlessness was symbolized by the fact that they did not legally “own” anything themselves. “…the slave had no legal claim…to the fruits of his or her labor…the slave had no legal capacity to make a contractual arrangement to sell [their]labor power… (1990, 5)
The real decision LeBron James made in 2010 was the decision to exercise the right to sell his labor power. Even though we are more than a century removed from emancipation and a few decades removed from the Civil Rights movement, black entitlement is not fully accepted in America. Even in the case of LeBron James in which he was exercising his free agency rights, which had been collectively bargaining between the NBA and the NBA Players Union, there is an unwillingness to accept black agency. LeBron James is the latest figure in a long history of black American male athletes who have captured the imagination of both white America and black America. Jack Johnson, Muhamad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Mike Tyson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Russell and Joe Louis and Jesse Owens are among LeBron’s black American sporting forefathers. In contemporary terms LeBron James should be seen as the basketball progeny of Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson. Michael Jordan created the marketing blueprint for LeBron James and all subsequent modern black athletes from Tiger Woods to Kobe Bryant in not only becoming brand endorsers but becoming brands themselves. Jordan might be singularly responsible for the global hypervisibility of black male athletes in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
While Jordan assisted in providing “profit and pleasure” he did not use his visibility to support or participate in any political action. William C. Rhoden writes of Michael Jordan “[h]ad he said “jump,” had he said “protest,” most athletes would have jumped; most would have protested. Instead Jordan said, “Be like Mike.” (2006, 199). Rhoden writes further of Jordan “[f]reed by the Civil Rights movement to be neutral, he’s lightly shrugged off the historical mission of black athletes to push for progress and power” (ibid). Jordan possessed a great deal of visibility, which he never attempted to convert into political authority, nor to attempt to swing the dynamics of owners and players further into the player’s favor. Thus an aspect of the Jordan blueprint is visibility without authority, a form of apolitical-ness.
Jordan was the first black athlete to have so many multiple endorsement deals and be accepted by mainstream America; O.J. Simpson is perhaps Jordan’s most immediate predecessor in that category. According to Rhoden “Jordan surpassed O.J. Simpson as the world’s most marketable black man, becoming a major marketing tool and proof that a dark-skinned African American could be embraced as a pitchman for all” (2006, 201). The links between Simpson and Jordan in their mainstream acceptance was their unwillingness to offer criticism of social problems, particularly those dealing with race. Both men became golf enthusiast. The American golf country club is one of America’s most enduring places of spatial, gender and class segregation. The Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the Masters tournament did not admit its first African-American member until 1990, and in 2012 admitted black conservative Republican and former U.S. Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice as one of its first two female members (Bumiller, 2012). Simpson and Jordan’s devotion to golf and admittance into U.S. golf clubs, cannot be read as simply the two men engaging in a recreational pastime. Their participation in golf as two mainstream black American athletes, the adopting of this white elite cultural practice, must be read as their allegiance to and acceptance of the American racial status quo. Jordan has not experienced the unprecedented fall from grace that Simpson experienced, he was far more successful than Simpson as an endorser, and remains as a valuable commodified figure today.
Jordan is however, the first be so extensively commodified, serving as pitchmen for a range of products and having his physical identifiers such as his clean shaven head and the silhouette of his body in flight to score a basket become globally recognizable signs. Celia Lury tells us that brands have “become one of the key cultural forces of our time” (2004, Loc 2). During Michael Jordan’s basketball playing career the Gatorade Company created an advertising campaign around him which used the tagline “Be Like Mike.” This seemingly innocent tagline had a deeper socio-cultural meaning than has perhaps not been fully understood. The notion of being like Mike allowed whites to project themselves unto Michael Jordan’s black athletic body and even develop a sense of ownership in Jordan’s body. This modern sporting phenomenon is an aspect of the possessive investment in black bodies, in which Jordan’s body became a site of “profit and pleasure” for a range of constituents. Not all modern black athletes have been willing to consistently allow their black bodies to serve as sites of “profit and pleasure” the script of the possessive investment in black athletic bodies has disrupted by more than one athlete. Oftentimes, it has been one singular moment in which this disruption happened. For Muhamad Ali one could say that his moment was his refusal to go fight in the Vietnam war, once he uttered the words “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong” (Zirin, 2008, 144) he became vilified throughout the United States. In July, 2010 when LeBron James uttered the words “…in this fall I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat” live on ESPN he too was subject to vilification by a large, predominantly white segment of the American public.
We can come to understand why this vilification happens when engage in critical historical examination of the lives and times of major African-American male athletes through the lens of history and “cultural semiotics” (Martin Alcoff, 2008). Linda Martin Alcoff describes cultural semiotics as “a sign system that works on objects of all sorts, bodies as well as other kinds, to interject meanings and values and to map relationships, beyond any conscious intent or even conscious awareness” (2008, Loc 66). Black athletes and their bodies, beginning specifically with Jack Johnson have been serving as racialized signs in the U.S. Kornelia Tancheva offers a theory of signification that is useful to this argument. Tancheva utilizing Charles “Pierce’s concept of infinite semiosis, (2005, 532) writes:
[No]…sign elements [are] fixed, and each interpretant can become a represetamen of another represented or even a different represented, which in turn becomes a new representamen and so on ad infinitum…a fluctuation of meaning, a constantly changing and hence relative signification that does not operate within fixed boundaries…(2005, 532).
Tancheva states that the “instability of signification is particularly evident in cultural signs…(532). Elaborating further Tancheva writes that “Pierce’s model of infinite semiosis [insists] that a sign stands for something only because someone interprets it as a sign…(533). The black athlete in America is a dynamic, mutating, racialized cultural sign which only historical analysis and contextualization can make stable enough for proper interpretation. In analyzing LeBron James we must take into account the various groups who are interpreting the sign that is LeBron James, while recognizing that this sign is neither static nor singular. A distinction must be made between the “white gaze,” the “black gaze” and the multiplicity of gazes of the NBA’s global audience. Rhoden contends that NBA has taken “…black style and showmanship…[and left] behind all of the more “inconvenient” features of blackness in America.” He contends that the NBA has made “race visible and invisible simultaneously” through having “blacks act neutral, but perform spectacularly. Like Mike (2006, 204-5). We can label this the Jordan blueprint which has been adopted by a host of athletes including Tiger Woods and LeBron James; this act of being race neutral and spectacular. The recent remarkable fall of Tiger Woods, in which Woods was the darkened subject of a Vanity Fair cover, a lá O.J. Simpson and the backlash to James’ “Decision” how easily race can transcend from being supposedly invisible to visible.
The Jordan Blueprint
The Jordan brand became a cultural force of the mid-1980s and early 1990s and continues to be a powerful brand today, twelve years after Jordan’s retirement from basketball.
Jordan Brand is the name of a Nike subsidiary and on the Jordan Brand website we are invited to “Meet the family handpicked by MJ to carry the torch, The Family of flight” which consists of a collection of athletes such as basketball players Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook and Joe Johnson. The family also includes athletes in other sports such as baseball player Derek Jeter, white NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin and women’s basketball player Maya Moore. However, it is clear that the Jordan Brand is basketball focused, with far more basketball players in this fictional branding family. LeBron James is not part of Jordan’s family of flight. James wears the number 23 in honor of Jordan and grew up idolizing Jordan, however, just as Jordan was dubbed “Air Jordan” LeBron James has been dubbed “King James” and the court can only have one king. Jordan’s critique of James’s decision to join the Miami Heat and Jordan’s declaration in 2013 that in a choice between Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, he would chose Bryant; suggest that perhaps Jordan is not completely at ease with basketball having a new king ( “MJ: Give me Kobe over LeBron” ESPN, 2013).
LeBron James did not need Michael Jordan’s permission to take Jordan’s branding blueprint to construct his marketing career. LeBron is signed to Nike and in 2012 sale of his signature shoes reached “$300 million in the U.S.” alone (Badenhausen, 2014). LeBron does not need to be part of Jordan’s fictional family of flight, because it is quite clear he most likely will be the patriarch of his own branding family. While LeBron James has publicly admits to idolizing Michael Jordan growing up and looking to Jordan as early role model, he has not made strong mention of now retired basketball player Allen Iverson as influence on him. I would submit that James is a cultural marriage of Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson. Like James, Iverson was a number one draft pick, he was selected first in 1996, and seven years before LeBron James would enter the NBA. New In 2006, New York Times journalist Liz Robbins described Iverson’s impact and influence on the NBA, in this manner:
…N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern attempted to polish his product by cracking down on do-rags, T-shirts and big jewelry last year…Allen Iverson had the kind of image that the league did not want to see…Iverson, the All-Star guard with the cornrows and tattoos, went from being the kid with a crossover to an international hip-hop icon, to a Philadelphia idol, to a player who scorned practice and his coach…(Robbins, 2006)
Of the many things that can be said of Michael Jordan, that he became a Hip-Hop icon is not one of them, Michael Jordan was celebrated by Hip-Hop culture, embraced by black youth and urban black communities; but Jordan himself was not a product of Hip-Hop culture in the fashion of Allen Iverson. One could say that while Hip-Hop youth may have aspired to “be like Mike,” they felt that they were already like Allen Iverson, and Iverson was like them. Iverson’s popularity was predicated on the notion of him being an authentic Hip-Hop entity. As scholar Mark Anthony Neal tells us “[b]lackness in hip-hop has been recast in terms of a transcultural and transnational identity mediated through sound, material culture, and the visual as well as through personal performance”(2011, 22). Neal goes on to identify blackness which has now been fused with Hip-Hop as “a signifier that inculcates ideas in particular about gender, race, identity, and urbanity at the site of the body” (ibid). It is in this context of “performance” and “urbanity” that we are identifying Allen Iverson, and LeBron James as Hip-Hop products.
Jordan emerged from a middle-class, two parent household, “urbanity” and Hip-Hop is always framed around the ‘absent black father,’ and black single-motherhood. Iverson and James are the sons of teenage single mothers. Jordan did not favor tattoos or ostentatious jewelry, two things that have been designated as signifiers of ‘urbanity’ and Hip-Hop culture. One could say that Jordan’s acceptance by mainstream America was partly founded on Jordan being far from Hip-Hop. Jordan offered a respectable, middle-class and safe brand of black masculinity. While Iverson offered the “bad Negro” (Richardson, 2007) brand of masculinity that the likes of Jack Johnson and Jim Brown had represented in the 20th century. Iverson and James both emerged from economically depressed communities, Hampton, Virginia for Iverson and Akron, Ohio for James. James walks a tightrope between perceived Hip-Hop authenticity of Iverson and the mainstream marketing acceptability of Michael Jordan.
Sports columnist Harvey Araton described the post-Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls championship period in the NBA as the “Synthetic Jordan Era” (2006). Araton argues that this era in basketball was marked by “…young emerging stars [with] a sole shoe company-driven agenda to be like Mike.” He labels the basketball players of that era, of which he identifies Allen Iverson as a leading figure as “unwitting byproducts of the most prolific campaign the sports industry had seen…” the marketing of brand Jordan (2006). Rather than becoming a synthetic Jordan, or a synthetic Iverson, LeBron James has managed to seamlessly synthesize Jordan’s branding blueprint with Iverson’s presumed Hip-Hop verite.
The focus of historians and other scholars’ examination of the black athlete in the United States in modern times has been integration. That is, the exclusion of black athletes from joining white athletes to compete as equals in the boxing ring, on the tennis court, the baseball field or the football field. Today in 2015, long past Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball in 1947, 75 percent of NBA players are black and 92 percent of National Football League (NFL) players are black. One might assume that the participation and presence of black athletes in U.S. professional sports has been universally accepted and that there is no resistance to the black presence in and domination of sports such as football and basketball. However, there is white resentment and resistance to the overwhelming presence of black athletes in American sports. As has been previously explained the black presence in major league sports is both visible and invisible and requires careful management for its white consumers.
The mandate of former NBA Commissioner David Stern had when he assumed his position in 1984 was to find a way to make the NBA palatable to white audiences. As journalist Charles P. Pierce writes “[t]he argument that the NBA was “too black” to market itself was seriously made by serious people in an age when an organized backlash against the achievements of the civil rights movement was asserting itself…” (2014). After 30 years as commissioner Stern has retired, the league just signed a new television broadcasting deal with ESPN and TNT, estimated to be worth $24 billion dollars; so we can agree that by the economic metric Stern succeeded in making black bodies palatable to a white audience. What is this magic formula that Stern used to make Black players palatable to white spectators?
Stern’s management and marketing strategies tapped into the white desire to control black bodies, to enjoy the spectacle of black bodies as entertainments, particularly if white audiences could be convinced that black athletes were happy and grateful to for the privileged of entertaining their white superiors. As George Yancy writes the “Black body[ is] an entity that is to be feared, disciplined, and relegated to those marginalized, imprisoned, and segregated spaces that restrict Black bodies from “disturbing” the tranquility of white life, white comfort, white embodiment, and white being” (2008, Loc 137). Much has been written about how enslaved black people in the United States and black people during the Jim Crow era deftly and strategically used the performance and pretext of joviality to quell and manage white anxiety. As Liwitwick writes:
“…the education acquired by each slave was remarkably uniform, consisting largely of lessons in survival and accommodation—the uses of humility, the virtues of ignorance, the arts of evasion, the subtleties of verbal intonation, the techniques by which feelings and emotions were masked, and the occasions that demanded the flattering of white egos and the placating of white fears (Litwick, 1979, XI).
Stern could not have accomplished this successful selling of black athletes if the majority of black NBA players were not willing to cooperate with him in “performing” for white audiences and allowing the commodification of their black bodies. Not every black NBA player has been willing to follow the script provided by David Stern during his 30 year tenure as the commissioner of the NBA. Among the most notable player who was unwilling to perform in the manner that David Stern wanted was Allen Iverson. It is widely believed that Stern instituted a dress code for NBA players, requiring them to wear business attire at NBA events including when they are sitting on the bench for a game they are not playing in. Allen Iverson’s penchant for 1990s Hip-Hop attire, gold chains, his hair styled in cornrows brought too much unapologetic blackness to the NBA.
LeBron James in the twenty-first century being is held accountable by white America for his “unforgivable blackness,” just as Jack Johnson was held accountable for his “unforgivable blackness,” from 1908 to 1915 when he reigned as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. It still remains unacceptable to both be the best and be black. Although America has given up hope of finding a “Great White Hope” that can become a dominant superstar in the NBA, white discomfort with black achievement and the black presence is still active within the large white NBA fan base.
Of the four U.S. sports league the NBA is the most star-driven; fans do not simply attend a game to see the Los Angeles Lakers or the Cleveland Lakers but to see the superstars of those teams Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Knowing this the NBA prices tickets accordingly, it will cost a fan more too see a Brooklyn Nets home game if they are playing against LeBron James and the Cavaliers, then if the Nets are facing the Orlando Magic a team that does not currently have a marquee superstar. A star player does not simply create revenue for his team but for the entire league; more fans will attend a game in which the home team is facing a star opponent. Studies show that ratings for NBA games correspond to the presence of a star athlete. Ironically, enough the backlash and anger created by LeBron James decision to leave Cleveland to play for Miami, brought increased interest in the league and dramatically increased television viewership.
The NBA one of the United States most significant globalized “cultural enterprises” (Mahara, 1997) offers us a particular display of the white possessive investment in black bodies; specifically the bodies of black male basketball players.
This process has been duplicated with other black sporting bodies besides Jordan. LeBron James has not only inherited Michael Jordan’s position as the best basketball player in the world, and Nike’s best athletic shoe salesman, but also Jordan’s status as the most hypervisible black athletic body in the world. Though in the sports of basketball and football black men have supplemented white men and a black man now currently occupies the White House; black men have not yet joined the “power elite” of the United States (Mills, 1956). C. Wright Mills defined the powerful as “those who are able to realize their will, even if others resist it” (1956, 9). Black athletes in the sport of basketball have not been able to fully realize their will when faced with the resistance of team owners and a white public that fears and resents black ambition and agency. The results of the 2011 NBA lockout clearly indicate it is NBA owners who are most able to exercise their will in the face of player resistance. In an article published in the Christian Science Monitor the day after James’ “The Decision” aired had this to say:
Appropriate enough that someone whose nickname includes the word “King” should pull off such a coup. Worked out among friends at a “summit” earlier this summer, the James free-agency move – aired live as ESPN‘s “The Decision” segment Thursday night – in one stroke shifted the NBA’s power structure …
“It is not until you parse the words that you realize what’s going on, and honestly, what is going on is impressive,” wrote ESPN.com’s Mark Kreidler last month. “It is a transfer of power from owner to player – and on the players’ side, a union within a union. [It] absolutely suggests that a tiny handful of elite players could conspire – that’s the familiar use of the word, not the legal – to determine the future direction of the league. Wow. That’s your modern-era power grab.” (Jonsson, 2010)
At the heart of the possessive investment in black bodies, is a powerful sense of ownership over black bodies. The spectacle of drafting black bodies in which a white fan’s favorite team gets to select from a pool of mostly black bodies to find the desired likely black body to help their team win is familiar and comfortable. In the case of the NBA draft the select players who are expected to go high in the draft are invited to the draft where the sit at individual tables with family members and friends to wait to hear their name being called. Once their names are called there is the repeated ritual of hugs with family and friends, going up on the stage to receive a baseball cap with their new team’s NBA logo and handshakes with the NBA commissioner. Afterwards, there is always a camera waiting to have the draftee express his gratitude for being drafted and the pledging of his loyalty to his new team and NBA city. This a spectacle in which black bodies are affirming their commitment to providing profit and pleasure while affirming particular racial narratives. Biographical information is provided about the young men in the draft pool and it is often about the hardships they have had to endure, particularly the absence of fathers.
I have previously submit that the need to have black bodies always engaged in providing “profit, pleasure, and affirmation of dominant [racial] narratives” is a manifestation of the possessive investment in black bodies. I have identified LeBron James 2010 free agency decision as an instance which disrupted the possessive investment in his black bodies because of James’ failure to deliver “profit and pleasure.” It also challenged the narrative of white team owner domination over black players in the NBA. As Litwick has suggested in his description of the labor negotiations that took place between plantation owners and the freedmen after emancipation and the characterization of blacks as “saucy,” “impudent” and “presuming.” (1979, 257). The discomfort with black agency and black control of black labor is rooted in slavery and emancipation. George Yancy contends that in North America: “[t]he black body is a historical project and as such is capable of taking up new historical meanings…”
What the black body of Jack Johnson meant in the 1910s is different than what the black body of Michael Jordan meant in the 1980s. In a similar fashion what the black body of O.J. Simpson meant in the 1970s was different than what the black body of O.J. Simpson meant in 1994 after he was accused of murdering his former wife, the white Nicole Brown Simpson. Yancy describes the black body as being “subject to cultural configuration and reconfiguration” (2008, Loc 284), and in the case of O.J. Simpson we actually observed this occurring. O.J. Simpson’s black body had been quite acceptable to whites, appearing in car rental commercials and in the Hollywood films post his football career. In June 1994 Time Magazine published a story on Simpson with the headline “American Tragedy,” the publication deliberately used photo manipulation to make Simpson appear darker; a fact that was made clear when Newsweek Magazine used the same photo without the enhancements. Time Magazine reconfigured Simpson’s image; to then place upon him the historical myth of the black man as beast, monster and threat to white society.
The black body of LeBron James has had many meanings. As a high school basketball Phenom his represented economic opportunity to college coaches, friends and associates. To Nike and Adidas who both aggressively competed to sign James to an endorsement deal before he was even drafted by an NBA team, James’ body means profit. LeBron James ‘body is a global commodity.
Herman Gray proclaims that:
Black heterosexual masculinity is figured in the popular imagination as the basis of masculine hero worship in the case of rappers; as naturalized and commodified bodies in the case of athletes; as symbol of menace and threat in the case of black gang members; and as noble warriors in the case of Afrocentric nationalists and Fruit of Islam ( 1995, 402).
Black athletes function in the popular American imagination as all of these things; as heroes, as naturalized and commodified bodies, as menaces and threats and sometimes as noble warriors. In true Hollywood-like Shakespearean fashion different NBA players are cast as different characters to play out the intersecting American melodrama of race, class and gender. The NBA has purposefully built its contemporary popularity on this approach. David Halberstam has documented how a multitude of events, from technological innovations, economic trends all converged to help popularize and construct the modern globalized NBA, particularly the creation of ESPN in 1979. He tells us that “…by the eighties America exported not its machine products or its cars but its culture…” (1999, 130). Halberstam elaborates:
As Nike and other companies featured individual players such as Michael Jordan as stars, and as the league and the network [ESPN] became coconspirators in the promotion of stars, a major new direction, barely understood at the time, was being chartered for the league. It was part of a larger new phenomenon taking place in sports, and in society in general, but most nakedly and obviously in basketball…Individual players were now being promoted rather than teams…the cult of personality, was now…becoming mandatory as the sport sought to broaden its fan base. Its advocates, owners, and sponsors no longer saw themselves competing against rival teams or even rival sports. Now they were competing against…against rock stars, movie stars… (1999, 132).
Historian John Mathew Smith chronicled how the NBA in the 1970s and 80s marketed and profited from the manufacturing of a rivalry white Boston Celtic player Larry Bird and black Los Angeles Laker player Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The whiteness of Bird along with his mid-western roots and imagined “humbleness” was juxtaposed against Johnson and the largely Lakers players and “Showtime” flashy team style. Mathew Smith tells us:
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the NBA was a “showplace for American racial tension.” Most of the players on the court were black, while the owners, coaches, general managers, referees, broadcasters, writers, and fans were mostly white. These racial tensions were most visible when the Celtics, the whitest team of the 1980s, played against the predominantly black Los Angeles Lakers…Some…viewed Bird, the only white superstar of the time as an even greater hero because he played in Boston, a city with a history of deep racial conflict between a large population of conservative whites and a relatively small black population (2011, 2-3).
The introduction of superstars is what fueled the global success of the NBA. The modern NBA relies on the Hip-Hop infused hyper black masculinity, a floating signifier of urban cool that is offered to white spectators to consume. This particular essentialized brand of black masculinity that the NBA has sought to co-opt is not without its risks. The NBA is largely dependent on black male athletic talent and the non-white fascination with and fears of black male bodies; and creates marketing strategies that continuously encourage the possessive investment in black athletic bodies. However, on more than one occasion the NBA’s black bodies have gone beyond the boundaries that the NBA’s white fans fine acceptable and the NBA has had to find ways to disciplined its black bodies and convinced its white consumers that these black bodies are safe once again for whites to consume.
LeBron’s 2014 decision to leave the Miami Heat and return to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, which he announced in a Sports Illustrated essay rather than a television special; shows his own understanding of the need to placate white consumers. After “The Decision” in 2010 James popularity took a hit, with his commercial endorsement visibility somewhat diminishing. His recasting as an NBA villain increased interest in the NBA in 2010, with television viewership increasing, particularly of games James played in. James will no longer publicly mentioned race as a cause of the public backlash of 2010, adhering to the Jordan blueprint in that manner. James’s endorsement portfolio since his returning to Cleveland has increased. Currently, we have a commercial airing in which LeBron James appears seemingly at home having a breakfast of Fruity Pebbles cereal. Because of what appears to be noise from his children playing James cannot enjoy his cereal in peace. James leaves the house to take refuge in his white Kia sedan parked in the front yard of his residence. James with his Nike sneakers on and his wedding band clearly visible finds peace and quiet inside the Kia. The commercial is not officially a fruity pebbles commercial, it is a commercial for the Kia sedan which is billed as “Fit for a King.” However, this is cross marketing at its highest, the Fruity Pebbles are there by design. James has a signature line of sneakers from Nike, which are called Fruity Pebbles, presumably inspired by James’ love of the breakfast cereal. The domesticity of the commercial is clearly part of the effort to rebrand James after his casting as a villain after the airing of “The Decision.” In this manner James is returning to the Jordan blueprint. However, James donning of a hooded sweatshirt along with several other Miami Heat players in a photograph in a tribute to Trayvon Martin and his subsequent wearing of an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt, during warm-ups of an NBA game, (in which Prince William was in attendance no less), which video shows are the last words of Eric Garner, who died as a result of a police chokehold in New York City, suggest that James does not strictly plan to adhere to the Jordan blueprint of race and political neutrality.
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…late-capitalist economic practices…led to deindustrialization and the decline of black urban communities in the post-World War II United States [and] also produced the black basketball star as a commodity and an object of desire for mass consumption… (Gitanja Maharaj:1997, 98).
The Coca-Cola owned sports drink brand Powerade’s 2015 advertising campaign centers around the duel taglines “Just a Kid” and “We are All Just a Kid from Somewhere.” The ads feature a range of professional athletes. Among the athletes featured are; football player Jimmy Graham, “just a kid from Goldsboro,” hockey player Steve Stamkos, “just a kid from Ontario,” and baseball player David Ortiz, as “just a kid from Santo Domingo.” NBA player Derrick Rose is featured in a television commercial which began airing in February. The Rose commercial is entitled “Rose from concrete,” and bills him as “just a kid from Chicago.”
The majority of the athletes featured in the commercials play for American professional sports leagues. The campaign plays upon the notion of the “American Dream,” the mythical belief that in the United States, anyone can start from humble beginnings and attain wealth and possibly fame. The Rose commercial also plays upon the core false narratives and stereotypes that have come to be linked with African-American NBA players. Among them:
- the players mainly emerge from poor black urban communities (i.e. LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, and Carmelo Anthony from Baltimore, Maryland, the now retired Allen Iverson from Hampton, Virginia)
- the majority are the products of ‘broken homes’ made up of single mothers and absent fathers
- through sheer talent, hard work and personal resolve alone they overcome poverty
The 60-second Rose Powerade commercial uses the voice of the late rapper Tupac Shakur reciting a stanza from Shakur’s poem “The Rose that grew from the concrete.” The commercial opens with a young actor portraying young Derrick Rose in his bedroom in Chicago. Young Derrick will symbolically journey on his bicycle from the impoverished South Side of Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, fueled by Powerade, to NBA stardom. The choice of Tupac Shakur’s “Rose that grew from concrete,” of course is a play on Derrick’s last name. The choice of Shakur is also connected to the Hip-Hop cultural cachet attached to Shakur, who died at the age of 25. Shakur is now a cultural icon, who represents rebellion, black cool, and a particular brand of black hyper-masculinity. The commercial uses the last stanza of the recorded version of Shakur’s poem:
You see you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete
had damaged petals. On the contrary, we would all celebrate its
tenacity. We would all love it’s will to reach the sun.
Well, we are the rose – this is the concrete – and these are
my damaged petals. Don’t ask me why, thank God nigga, ask me how!
The commercial omits the line “thank God nigga.” A shorter version of this poem appears in Shakur’s posthumous collection of poetry, entitled The Rose that grew From Concrete, published in 1999. The version of the poem that appears in the book consists of eight lines and does not include the stanza that Shakur is heard reciting in the commercial. The book offers a photocopy of Shakur’s handwritten version of the poem, in it Shakur identifies the poem, as “Autobiographical.”
A biography of Derrick Rose is what the Powerade commercial purports to offer. Derrick Rose was born in 1988, Shakur was born in 1971 and died in 1996. Rose was eight years old when Shakur died. The commercial attempts to construct a link between Shakur, who has been deceased for nearly 20 years and the 27-year-old Rose. In the video documenting the making of the commercial Rose states, “I loved Pac for what he stood for, he stood for something more than music, he knew where he was at in this life, he knew where he wanted to go.” Rose never shares what exactly he believes Shakur stood for. It is clear that the association with Shakur is something that is desired by Rose. The fictionalized biography of Rose that the commercial offers, is really a corporate construct of black masculinity. It is a false narrative which depends on an essentialized, simplistic concept of black manhood in urban America.
The corporate co-option of Hip-Hop is highly visible in sports related marketing. Hip-Hop music has emerged from the South Bronx of the 1970s to become a global commodity of the 21st century, utilized by Madison Ave advertising firms to hawk everything from hamburgers to automobiles. The Rose Powerade commercial was crafted by the Portland, Oregon based, global advertising agency, Wieden + Kennedy. The agency has offices in New York and Brazil as well as other major cities. On the Wieden + Kennedy website, the agency describes the idea behind the Rose ad as, “[no] matter where athletes get their start, or what obstacles they face in life, through hard work and determination, they can advance from the very bottom to the very top.”
While Madison Ave, like the NBA, once shunned Hip-Hop, it has now engaged in a corporate embrace of Hip-Hop music and many of its cultural elements. Sociologist Celia Lury writes that “Nike makes extensive use of the marketing technique of personification, in which the properties of a product…are associated with the characteristics of a person” (2004, Loc 2075). It can be argued that companies such as Nike, Adidas and in this case Powerade, are making use of the now common marketing technique of Hip-Hop personification. In this process the identified elements of Hip-Hop culture—blackness, urbanity, youth, authenticity, hyper-masculinity—that are imagined to be embodied in the black athlete are transferred from the athlete to the product being advertised. The Rose Powerade commercial attempts to use this technique of Hip-Hop personification, however, Rose may not necessarily be perceived to embody all these Hip-Hop related elements. Shakur also serves the purpose in the commercial of helping to enhance Rose’s Hip-Hop authenticity.
The comercial offers a “single story” (Adichie: 2013), narrative of the contemporary black male experience in urban America. This single story approach to the black male urban experience features an archetypal black male athletic hero. This archetypal black male athletic hero’s story always begins in an urban impoverished black metropolis. In the case of Derrick Rose, it is the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Englewood. Through the gift of this archetypal black male athletic hero’s talent, his work ethic, his resistance to the temptations of the ‘Hood,’ gangs and drug dealing, he is able to escape the urban ghetto. It is not government social programs that allow his escape from poverty and his dire community. According to the scripted advertising narrative, it is solely through the athlete’s own tenacity and effort that he rises from the ghetto. The Rose Powerade commercial follows the script quite closely, depicting Rose as the archetypal black athletic hero, rising from Chicago’s impoverished South Side. In addition to his own tenacity, young Rose, starts out with a bottle of Powerade which is stored in his backpack as he rides on his bicycle through a neighborhood of which the viewer is provided with multiple visual cues of its decay.
The commercial opens with the young Rose in his small bedroom which has a twin bed with no headboard or footboard. Clothes are strewn about. He walks into the kitchen, where a woman, presumably his mother, is taking care of a basket full of laundry. We never see this woman’s face. There is no father present. Young Rose places a bottle of Powerade in his backpack and he departs on his bicycle. No neighborhood friends join Rose on this journey through the South Side of Chicago. The neighborhood scenery presented is that of the type of urban decay which is often depicted in Rap videos and films set in the inner city. Rose rides on streets with cracked asphalt, we see broken fences and garbage strewn about. Young Rose stops in the middle of the street and looks back at his impoverished neighborhood, and then he continues his solitary journey towards fame and fortune.
In the next visual, young Rose finds himself standing outside of the United Center Arena, the home arena of Chicago Bulls, the team for which Rose plays. He starts walking towards the arena. The scene dissolves into the adult Derek Rose, who is now inside the arena walking unto court. Rose is wearing a jacket, with the Adidas logo on his upper sleeve. His own Derrick Rose logo which incorporates the letter D placed in the center on an outline of a rose is on the front of his jacket. According to Forbes magazine “Each leaf of the rose on the…logo represents Rose in a unique way. The three leaves, or rose pedals, represent each of his older brothers. The No. 1 in the middle not only signifies his jersey number, but also his mother.” The Rose logo was crafted by Adidas and appears on Rose’s signature Adidas shoe collection. The logo design and the Powerade commercial aim for authenticity and intimacy by purporting to offer the consumer not just a product, but a personal piece of Derrick Rose.
In 2011, Rose was named the league MVP, the youngest ever, and his team the Chicago Bulls made it to the NBA Eastern Conference finals where they faced LeBron James and the Miami Heat. In 2012, Adidas signed Derrick Rose to a 13-year, $185 million endorsement deal. In Rose, Adidas thought they had found the superstar athlete who could helped them steal some market share from Nike. Rose’s appeal was not merely his athletic talent and performance on the basketball court, but also his back story. Rose’s story of being from the South Side of Chicago, neighborhood of Englewood, which has been described as being “one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods,” and being raised by a single mother, also made him appealing. Adidas certainly hoped that Rose could do for them what a former Chicago Bulls player, Michael Jordan, had done for Nike, in terms of increasing the sales of Adidas sneakers.
With his endorsement deals with companies such as Adidas, Giordana’s pizza chain and the Coca-Cola owned Powerade, Derrick Rose has become a “commodity and an object…for mass consumption,” (Maharaj: 1997). Rose has sustained a range of devastating injuries over the last three years. These injuries have stymied Rose’s career. Rose has missed more games than he has played, in the last three years. A successful ingredient to the marketability of NBA athletes from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant and to LeBron James, has been winning. Each of these three players has won at least two NBA championships. Since 2011, Rose and the Chicago Bulls, have not even made it to the Eastern Conference finals. Rose is a full participant in the process of making him into a commodity, as evidenced by the creation of his own logo, which is not just meant to sell more sneakers, but in the larger context to build and further promote the Derrick Rose brand.
The Powerade commercial is unable to completely suppress Shakur’s intended meaning from his words and voice. Shakur’s poetic intentions subtly shadows the commercial. We hear Shakur’s voice reciting:
You see you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete
had damaged petals. On the contrary, we would all celebrate its
tenacity. We would all love it’s will to reach the sun.
Well, we are the rose – this is the concrete – and these are
my damaged petals. Don’t ask me why,… ask me how!
The commercial promotes a narrative of personal responsibility, where institutionalized racism, deindustrialization, mass incarceration and welfare reform, poor public schools, all of which form and impact neighborhoods like Englewood, Chicago, are ignored. Shakur’s poem is about how he and other young black men responded to the conditions of urban poverty and racism by turning to gangs, drug dealing, and in Shakur’s case rapping. Rather than being celebrated for finding some means of surviving under these harsh economic and social conditions, these young men are instead labeled as thugs. Shakur famously had the words Thug Life tattooed on his abdomen. The “concrete” can be interpreted as a metaphor for crime-ridden, poor, urban communities like Englewood, Chicago. The “roses” can be interpreted as a symbol of the youths who inhabit these neighborhoods. The “damaged petals” could be perceived as the likely psychological scars that the youth of these neighborhoods have obtained from suffering from years of economic and violent trauma and generational poverty.
The Rose Powerade commercial offers a corporate fairy tale, in which, athletes at least, can escape places like Englewood, Chicago and their blight, through personal effort alone. As the advertising agency states “[n]o matter where athletes get their start, or what obstacles they face in life, through hard work and determination, they can advance from the very bottom to the very top.” It is very telling that in the commercial, Rose rides out of the neighborhood alone. While he may have escaped the violence and poverty of Englewood, Chicago, thousands of other black youth remain in that neighborhood, without extraordinary athletic ability to serve as their ticket out.
Lury, Celia. Brands: The logos of the global economy. London: Routledge, 2004. Kindle
Maharaj, Gitanjali. “Talking Trash: Late Capitalism, Black (Re) Productivity, and Professional Basketball.” Social Text No. 50 (Spring 1997): 97-110. http://www.jstor.org/stable/466817. Accessed January 4, 2015.
1. a person who is competing for the same object or goal as another, or who tries to equal or outdo another; competitor.
2. a person or thing that is in a position to dispute another’s preeminence or superiority.
‘Beauty? To me it is a word without sense because I do not know where its meaning comes from nor where it leads to.” Beauty was a mystery even to painter Pablo Picasso.
Contemporary concepts of beauty are inherently racialized and are the product of centuries of European colonialism. Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer in a 2010 book wrote “[y]ou are not born with a race in the same way you are born with fingers and eyes and hair. Fingers and eyes and hair are natural creations,…race is a social fabrication.” According to them prior to “the sixteenth century, race as we know it today, did not exist.” (pg.51). They characterize the development of the racial social fabrication project in the United States in this manner, “[w]hiteness and blackness were invented as antipodes within the context of English, and later American slavery”( pg.95).
Today in the twenty-first century we are still using racial concepts invented in the sixteenth century to categorize and place value on human beings. In our ongoing racial drama white women have been cast as the beautiful, desirable, respectable heroines, while black women have been cast as the ugly, least desirable, and unworthy of respect step-sisters. White women are the norm, the beauty standard to which all other women are compared. We can see how racialized, Eurocentric concepts of beauty and femininity influence the differences in the public perception and media portrayal of tennis players Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Williams and Sharapova are “antipodes,” who represent two vastly different aesthetics. The white, blond and slim Maria Sharapova has won four majors and is currently ranked the number two player in the world. However, she has been unable to legitimately dispute Serena Williams preeminence as the greatest female tennis player right now, and perhaps of all-time. Serena Williams, black with a muscular and curvaceous body, holds a 14-2 record against Sharapova. For nine years Serena has defeated Sharapova in quarterfinals, semi-finals, Olympic and grand slam matches with outrageous score lines, 6-1, 6-2, in the 2007 Australian Open final and 6-0, 6-1 in the 2012 Olympic gold medal match. Where a rivalry truly exists between the two women is off-the court, in the competition for marketing dollars.
Serena the number one-ranked player, is undeniably the best female player in tennis right now, although she has not earned endorsement revenue in the manner of her male counterpart for the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) title, Roger Federer, or other athletes who are or have been the best in their field like Tiger Woods or LeBron James. This is because she is both black and a woman. While Roger Federer is white, the other two athletes are black and male. According to Forbes:
“Federer has the most impressive endorsement portfolio in sports, with 10 sponsors that collectively pay him more than $40 million annually, including long-term deals with Nike, Rolex, Wilson and Credit Suisse.”
While being the best in one’s field is good enough for male athletes, for female athletes the market also requires that they also be “attractive” and “desirable.” In fact, for the female athlete, being attractive can trump the need to excel. Witness the case of hurdler Lolo Jones who has more endorsement deals that her primarily African-American track-and-field competitors and U.S. Olympic teammates, in two consecutive Olympics Jones has failed to bring home the gold, or even the bronze. Jones who is of “French, African-American, Native American and Norwegian descent,” is fair-complexioned with blonde hair. She offers her sponsors an acceptable Eurocentric appearance, which they can be comfortable with. Whiteness or the approximation of whiteness is a lucrative commodity in the sports and entertainment world.
Cameron Russell, a model who has worked for Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren and who has been featured in the pages of Vogue, and worked the fashion runways of the likes of Chanel, Prada and Versace, recently stated.
“The real way that I became a model is that I won a genetic lottery, and I am the recipient of a legacy. What do I mean by legacy? Well, for the past few centuries we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry that we’re biologically programmed to admire, but also as tall, slender figures, and femininity and white skin. And this is a legacy that was built for me, and it’s a legacy that I’ve been cashing in on.”
This is also a legacy that the likes of Sharapova and race car driver Danica Patrick have also been cashing in on, whiteness, attractiveness and willingness to use sexuality as a marketing total, has created a steady revenue stream for both women.
In a 2012, Fortune article entitled, “Sex, muscles, basketball: How do you sell an athletic woman?” Shelley DuBois wrote:
“Today, more than 3 million high school girls play sports. Women now comprise nearly 40% of all interscholastic and intercollegiate sport participation. Yet they see many more male athlete role models than professional athletic women on television and in ads. It all comes down to marketability; Americans won’t forget you if a company can sell you. But four decades since Title IX and 16 years since the launch of the WNBA, organizations are still figuring out how to attract consumers by marketing female pro athletes, especially those who might not conform to traditional notions of femininity.”
Sharapova in her 12-year professional career has won each of the four majors once. For her very first, the 2004 Wimbledon title she defeated Serena in the final. The 2004 Wimbledon victory transformed Sharapova into the sports marketing world’s golden girl. ESPN tennis writer Greg Garber described it this way:
“Sharapova, …became the biggest thing in tennis with a victory in early July at Wimbledon (over Serena Williams, no less),… She is a marketing dream, combining Anna Kournikova’s off-court game with Williams’ power and mental toughness between the lines.”
Anna Kournikova, a former Russian blond tennis player, who at one time,
White, and male sports journalist Will Swanton, writing in The Australian newspaper provided his assessment of the true reasons behind the recent public feud between Sharapova and Serena on the eve of the Wimbledon Championships.
“The truth is a fascinating psychological study. Williams dislikes Sharapova because no matter how many matches and titles the world No 1 wins, she can never be what she also pines to be: the most beautiful and glamorous figure in the sport. Sharapova loathes Williams because even though the Russian is the richest and one of the most alluring sportswomen in the world, the face of Porsche and Evian and the focus of countless magazine covers, she would swap it all to be the greatest female player who ever lived.”
Now it is important to note that Swanton is a white male, after all, white males were the primary architects of the social fabrication of race, and in our white patriarchal system where they continue to be overrepresented in positions of power in every field in the public and private sector, white males continue to frame and define our understanding of the world. Swanton subjects Serena to to his white male gaze and finds her lacking. Just this Saturday when the white French tennis player Marion Bartoli won the Wimbledon ladies championship, Sports Illustrated reported that John Inverdale, a white male radio journalist made the following comment during his broadcast;
“John Inverdale asked listeners on BBC Radio, “Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker? You’ll never be a [Maria] Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight.”
When told of the comments Bartoli remarked
“It doesn’t matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry.But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.”
We have not come a long way in terms of the criteria we use to analyze women in the public arena and in how women’s professional accomplishments are discussed. When a man achieves something notable there is never any concern or discussion about whether or not he is a “looker.” Men are given the privilege of being judged and appraised on their ability and achievements. People continue to perceive ‘looks’ as an acceptable criteria on which to judge a woman, no matter how extraordinary her professional accomplishments.
If Mr. Swanton is to be believed Serena is not the “most beautiful and glamorous,” woman in the sport of tennis. He is expressing a personal opinion likely shared by many others; that Serena has the talent and the greatness but, Sharapova has the beauty. Search the internet for any news story on Serena Williams, whether it is about her winning a championship or committing an on-court faux-pas, many of the readers comments will carry the same themes and language. Many will use words like “monkey,” to describe Williams suggesting also that perhaps she is a “man,” or on steroids. If the news story includes Sharapova there are sure to be comments lauding Sharapava’s attractiveness in comparison to Williams. Swanton feels comfortable making his assertion, and assuming that everyone will agree with him that Maria Sharapova is the “most beautiful and glamorous” woman in the sport of tennis because Sharapova exactly matches the Eurocentric model of beauty that is consistently venerated by Hollywood films, advertisers and magazines in his country Australia, in Europe, the U.S. and other regions.
The story of Maria vs. Serena exists in a wide socio-historical context, but journalists and sports writers have failed to analyze the imagined rivalry in its proper context. When the professional rivalry between male tennis players Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer is discussed there is no mention of their looks or of them pining to be the “most handsome and glamorous” man in their sport. A male athlete’s marketability is based on his ability to make male sports spectators desire to emulate his achievements “be like Mike,” while a female athlete’s marketability is based on her ability to make male sports spectators desire her.
Serena has won 16 grand slam titles and earned $20 million more than Sharapova in total career prize money. However, when it comes to endorsement money Sharapova is the Queen. According to Forbes Magazine’s 2013 annual list of the highest paid athletes in the world Maria Sharapova is the 22nd highest earning athlete in the world, while Serena is ranked 68th. In fact, only three female athletes made the list, all tennis players, Sharapova, Williams and Li Na. Li Na ranks “ranks 85th overall with earnings of $18.2 million,” according to Forbes. The income disparity comes in endorsement money, while Serena earned $2 million dollars more than Maria in 2012 prize money, Maria earned $11 million dollars more than Serena in endorsement money.
One can easily argue that the world of women’s tennis is filled with attractive Eastern European blondes (Daniella Hantuchova, Maria Kirelenko) who are not earning tens of millions of dollars in endorsement money like the Russian-born Sharapova. For example, Victoria Azarenka, the number three ranked player in the world, who won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013, and earned 7.9 million in prize money in 2012, was not even included in the Forbes list of highest-earning athletes. She is signed to Nike, just like Williams and Sharapova. Azarenka also has endorsement deals with American Express and Citizen watches. While Azarenka is young, blond and has won grand slams like Sharapova, she has not significantly engaged in marketing her sexuality and validating “traditional notions of femininity’ in the manner of Sharapova. Azarenka and Sharapova are both outfitted for the tennis court by Nike, for the 2012 Australian Open Nike dressed Azarenka in shorts while Sharapova was attired in a traditional tennis dress. Sharapova posed for the 2006 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and is appearing on the June 2013 of Esquire Latin America adorned in a bikini. She has been very willing to play the sex symbol role that has been created for her.
Having athletes act-out the racial anxieties and desires of society is not a recent phenomenon. Journalist and sports historian David Zirin writes that when:
“[Jack] Johnson became the first heavyweight boxing champion with black skin in 1908, his victory created a serious crisis in the conventional wisdom about race. The media whipped up a frenzy around the need for “a great white hope” (a phrase coined by author Jack London) to restore order to the boxing world-and the world in general. Former champion Jim Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement and said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” (pg. 42).
Jeffries ended up being defeated by Johnson. The search for an athlete who could be the “great white hope”continued. Seven decades after the Johnson-Jeffries fight, there emerged a basketball white hope in the form of Larry Bird, matched with a black rival named Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Bird of Indiana State and Johnson of Michigan State played against each other in the 1979 NCAA college basketball championship game, a game deemed the highest-rated televised college basketball game ever. Bird and Johnson would go on to became storied rivals as professional players in the NBA, in the 1980s. Sportswriter Andy Katz writes:
“…the Lakers and Celtics battled for NBA supremacy throughout the 1980s. Bird represented Boston, a blue-collar city. Magic’s GQ persona was the right fit in Hollywood. It didn’t hurt that Bird was white, playing in Boston, a city with a history of racial intolerance. It certainly helped that Magic was in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the nation.”
Just as Johnson stood in the boxing arena embodying black hopes and Jeffries stood there with him in 1908 as the “Great White Hope” embodying white desires and white anxiety, in 2004 Williams stood on Wimbledon’s center court embodying black hopes, while Sharapova stood opposing her on the other side of the court, as the Nouveaux “great white hope.” Sharapova emerged victorious that day, calming white anxiety and fulfilling white hopes. However, this is not to suggest that Sharapova herself plays tennis to affirm any kind of racial superiority, she is a fierce competitor who is playing for her own reward.
Serena’s father Richard Williams claims it was watching the winner of a tennis tournament receive a large prize check on television that inspired him to train his daughters Venus and Serena to be tennis players. He most likely was not naive enough to believe that when his daughters arrived in the predominantly white tennis world, as two dark-complexioned black girls from Compton, California, with braided hair adorned with beads that they were going to be solely judged by the contents of their character and the quality of their backhands. Race is an inescapable, integral, oppressive part of his daughters triumphant, yet to conclude story? Everyone has a legacy, some get a legacy they get to cash in on and others inherit a legacy that they have to overcome.
“In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” -Tony Montana (Scarface)
WAGS (Wives and Girlfriends) is an acronym coined by the British tabloids to refer to the wives and girlfriends of British soccer players. WAGS has now been expanded to refer to the wives and girlfriends of male athletes in all major sports. Viewing the featured images of athlete’s significant others in British tabloids, Vogue Magazine which put together “WAGs “R” Us: A Style Guide to World Cup Soccer Wives and Girlfriends,” this recent listing by the New York Daily News “The hottest WAGs of the World Cup” and a website’s list of “The 11 Most Desired Wags of Mexican Soccer,” leads you to believe that every soccer player is either married to a Sports Illustrated model, Victoria’s Secret model, playboy playmate, or pop singer, actress who coincidentally is 99% likely to be white. Of the over 50 soccer player’s wives and girlfriends that the Daily News showcased, only four appear to be black. Of the 12 women selected by Vogue only two were non-white; Japanese player Misako Honda’s wife Keisuke Honda and Inter Milan player Mario Ballotelli’s girlfriend Fanny Neguesha who is of African descent. According to a 2012 article in the British newspaper The Guardian “25% of premiership players are black or from ethnic minorities.” There are significant numbers of black players or players of African ancestry playing in the soccer clubs of Europe. Here in the United States 78% of NBA players are African-American and about 68% of NFL players are black, now even if only half of these players were married to or dating a black women, that is a significant pool of black WAGS for the media to showcase. However, one rarely sees the black wives of professional athletes showcased in the non-black media, with few exceptions. Actress Gabrielle Union who is engaged to Miami Heat Player Dwayne Wade is among the few exceptions.
These WAG lists tend to remind me of the Robert Palmer music video “Addicted to Love,” from the mid-1980s, where make-up and clothing was utilized to make the multiple women standing behind Palmer resemble clones of each other. The WAG lists and the Palmer video both reduce women to one-dimensional sexual objects; whose sole purpose is to be desirable and appealing to men. These lists also serve to support the notion that there is a singular form of acceptable female beauty; white and thin. After Tiger Woods had his public adultery scandal, Elin Nordgren after divorcing Woods was featured on the cover of People Magazine. I wondered if Elin had not been an attractive Swedish blonde would she have been on the cover of People Magazine, no matter how high-profile her now ex-husband was. What if Woods wife had been Thai like his mother or African-American like his father and his serial adultery was revealed in the same fashion would his Thai or black wife have been a People Magazine cover story?
Historically, societies everywhere have always tried to direct women’s aspirations towards marriage and snagging some version of prince charming. If Joan of Arc had visions of marrying the guy who would save France; rather than ambitiously saving France herself, she would not have been burned at the stake. From fairy tales like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty to modern Hollywood films like Pretty Woman, the myth of the happy ever has been packaged and sold to girls and women; all you need to do is find Mr. Right/ Prince Charming and all will be right with the world. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman had to be beautiful in order to be blessed with the attention of Prince Charming or in the case of Ms. Roberts character the attention of a millionaire. These WAG lists are modern versions of fairy tales, instead of prince’s of the realm, we have star quarterbacks, midfielders and point guards and instead of sleeping beauties we have fashion models, Playboy models and reality stars.
A beautiful woman is the ultimate trophy for a man who has achieved what society defines as success; rock star ( see Tommy Lee), NFL quarterback (see Tom Brady and Giselle), billionaire (see Francois-Henri Pinault and Selma Hayek) or movie star (see George Clooney). Interestingly enough Clooney after dating countless models is set to marry a multilingual human rights lawyer. We have been conditioned to believe that beauty is a woman’s greatest asset; this is why Kim Kardishian and her predecessors like Zsa Zsa Gabor were able to become famous for being famous. Modeling is one of the few professions were women out-earned men by a wide margin. Giselle the supermodel wife of Tom Brady has been estimated to make as much as $42 million dollars a year.
As an avid tennis fan, I can be guaranteed that whenever I am watching the Wimbledon tennis championship and Andy Murray is playing that I will be provided with multiple camera shots of his very attractive girlfriend Kim Sears. If the New England Patriots are playing, Tom Brady’s wife Giselle will definitely earn some camera time. The NFL just drafted its first openly gay player Michael Sam; I look forward to the start of the NFL season to see if during St. Louis Rams games to see if Sam’s boyfriend Vito Cammisano will be getting as much camera time as Giselle.
Secondly, if I may paraphrase George Orwell, All WAGS are equal, but some WAGS are more equal than others, it is clearer that there is a specific racial and aesthetic preference when it comes to the wives and girlfriends of professional athletes that the media showcases. During the World Cup, profiles of the wives of the players on the West African teams were conspicuously absent. When I searched the the internet for images of the wives of African soccer players I was able to find multiple African-based websites that profiled these women such as kamerstories.com . However, outside of such African websites or black blogs one rarely gets to see black wives and romantic partners of professional black athletes. We get to see the romantic partners of African-American, Afro-European and Afro-Latino men only when those women are white or of some other non-black ethnicity.
I am disturbed by the media driven phenomenon of WAGS, first and foremost it objectifies women. Historian Maria Aparecida da Silva states “In a sexist society, women are seen as an object of consumption. And consumer goods confer status and power to whoever acquires them,” . The WAG phenomenon reduces women to objects whose sole value lies in their physical attributes. In order for those physical attributes to be considered valuable they have to meet the strict qualifications that have been set for female beauty; whiteness or near whiteness, thinness, long straight and hyper traditional femininity. It is very telling that so many publications can find editorial space to feature athletes girlfriends but cannot find editorial space to feature female athletes.
Just as magazines and television programs love to showcase the material possessions of wealthy athletes, high end cars, jewelry and mansions; so to they showcase the women these athletes are dating. The women become objects just like the cars; after all just like Tony Montana preached in the film Scarface, once you have the money and power, you get the women. The dangers of cultivating a culture in which women are seen merely as objects, was brought to our attention in the extreme case of Elliot Rodgers, the California college student who went on a killing spree stating “All of those beautiful girls I’ve desired so much in my life, but can never have because they despise and loathe me, I will destroy.”
All forms of objectification of women have negative consequences in our societies, mass murder is obviously not the typical response. What is common is the negative impact on the self-esteem of girls and women. It teaches men that women are objects that they are entitled to and failure to acquire a beautiful woman is failure as a man. It is part of the whole consumption, celebrity driven culture that constantly tells us that the bar for our professional and personal lives should be like the lives of professional athletes, movie stars, pop stars and wealthy CEOs. This is something that is unattainable for 99% percent of the human population. People who receive and absorb this message spend their money to acquire products and to undergo surgical procedures to try to achieve this impossible goal.
I know that I am not one right shade of L’oreal lipstick or nose job away from looking like Giselle and furthermore I have no desire to do so and no woman should waste her time on such a quixotic pursuit.
On December 13, 2013 the black “IT” girl of the millennium Beyoncé released a surprise visual album entitled Beyoncé, consisting of 14 new songs and 17 videos exclusively on iTunes causing an instantaneous digital frenzy and creating a record for digital album sales. Tulane University professor and MSNBC talk-show host Melissa Harris-Perry, declared that the album was Beyoncé’s “feminist manifesto.”
What parades as progress in the culture industry, as the incessantly new which it offers up, remains the disguise for an eternal sameness; everywhere the changes mask a skeleton which has changed just as little as the profit motive itself since the time it first gained its predominance over culture. –Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry
The album to Harris-Perry and others is not merely a feminist manifesto, but first and foremost, a black feminist manifesto. The Beyoncé album includes an excerpt from a TedxEuston lecture entitled “We should all be feminists,” given by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the song “Flawless.” The other 13 songs on the album are pretty much about sex. As the Rolling Stone review describes it;
She hits nasty highs all through the album, from the squishy slow jam “Rocket” (“Let me sit this ass on you” – now there’s an opening line) to the Frank Ocean duet “Superpower.” In the fractured Timbaland production “Partition,” she and Jay get kind of rough in the back of the limousine. She has to warn the chauffeur, “Driver roll up the partition please/I don’t need you seeing ‘Yonce on her knees.” But the car doesn’t even get to the club before, as Beyoncé puts it, “He Monica Lewinsky’d all over my gown.”
This album is hardly any kind of manifesto. It is a seductive, slick package of the pop culture industry; it purports to be groundbreaking, imaginative and daring while merely regurgitating the false idea of sexuality as a legitimate avenue to female empowerment. Rapper Lil’ Kim was making lyrical nods to fellatio in 1996 on her debut album Hard Core (“I used to be scared of the dick, Now I throw lips to the shit, Handle it like a real bitch”), but no one thought to anoint her album a feminist manifesto. The inclusion of Adichie’s words on a single song is insufficient to render Beyoncé’s hypersexualized album a feminist project.
Beyoncé along with 25 others is given writing and producing credits on the album. Sia Furler and Caroline Polacheck, two non-black women, are the only female contributors. Furler and Polacheck each contribute one song. Among the cadre of songwriters/producers, are a bevy of well-known male Hip-Hop and R&B producers, Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, Aubrey “Drake” Graham, Frank Ocean, and Pharrell Williams. Janet Jackson’s former Super Bowl duet partner, pop artist Justin Timberlake is also a creative contributor. Anyone who has any familiarity with the public profiles and work of these men would never accuse of them of creating a feminist manifesto. Beyoncé is offering a particular brand of feminism, one which instead of contesting the stereotypes of women as sex and beauty objects, accepts, exaggerates and plays to the stereotype. It is hard to see how this album whose primary subject matter is sex, which is mainly constructed by 23 non-feminist males can be a feminist manifesto as Harris-Perry as claims.
One wonders how much Harris-Perry and others are projecting their own feminists ambitions unto Beyoncé without having engaged in critical analysis of Beyoncé’s own words on the subject of feminism. Does Beyoncé identify herself as a feminist? This is what she told British Vogue in April 2013. “That word can be very extreme … But I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman. … I do believe in equality and that we have a way to go and it’s something that’s pushed aside and something that we have been conditioned to accept. … But I’m happily married. I love my husband.”
Beyoncé’s hesitant labeling of herself as a “modern-day feminist,” is qualified by declaring that she is both happily married and loves her husband. Susan J. Douglas, author of Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done writes, “…[o]ne of the reasons so many women say “I’m not a feminist but…” (and then put forward a feminist position), is that in addition to being stereotyped as man-hating Amazons, feminists have also been cast as anti-family and anti-motherhood.” Beyoncé seems to believe that being married and loving one’s husband is incompatible with being a feminist. Perhaps, Beyoncé should listen more carefully to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s full lecture, where she derides the notion that “feminists are women who cannot find husbands.”
Beyoncé’s feminist supporters feel that those who critique the legitimacy of Beyoncé’s brand of feminism do so because they have outdated and conservative notions about how a feminist should behave. Nicole Froio writing in a Ms. magazine blog is of the opinion that “Beyoncé’s path to self-knowledge has been met with a puzzling amount of hatred: In the eyes of some, she’s the “wrong kind of feminist” because she wears thongs on magazine covers, dances suggestively and claims her sexuality on stage, pampers her husband, wears high heels and tells men to “put a ring on it.” But, as Adichie says and Beyoncé obviously agrees, feminism is personal.” Froio is wrong feminism is not simply a matter of the personal and she has mischaracterize Adichie’s position. Adichie’s entire talk is about how micro, personal action alone cannot fix the problem of sexism and gender equality, stating “[i]t’s easy for us to say, “Oh, but women can just say ‘no’ to all of this.” But the reality is more difficult and more complex. We are all social beings. We internalize ideas from our socialization.” One woman’s choice of fashion attire or how she chooses to express her sexuality will not alter how children are socialized to accept sexist and outdated notions of what it means to be a woman or man in contemporary society.
Froio and others fail to notice that the increase sexualization in Beyoncé’s music and image coincided with her marriage to rapper Jay-Z, her duet partner on the new album and previous records; as naughty as the on the record/off the record sex Beyoncé is having is, it is state and church certified sex. She is not challenging any Judeo-Christian, heterosexual concepts of female sexuality. Beyoncé is managing to perform a neat trick of projecting herself as a lady in the streets, who may be a freak behind closed doors. A new twist on the Madonna/Whore complex. Celebrity journalist Amethyst Tate writing in The International Business Journal embraces the notion of Beyoncé as a modern day feminist, writing:
Beyoncé is truly a feminist, who has simply expanded the idea of who a feminist can be. Beyoncé is every woman. She is bold, she is confident, and she is openly proud of simultaneously being a career woman and a wife. And to boot, she is projecting the idea that, as women, we don’t have to hide our sexuality, that we can flaunt it in a tasteful manner. She is also promoting the ideal that women don’t have to choose a career or family. What she’s saying, in short, is that we, too, can have it all.
The problem is not that Beyoncé is being rejected for being the wrong kind of feminist, but that she is being embraced for being a marketable feminism image, rather than for any substantive action or ideas that she is contributing to the feminist movement.
Beyoncé is absolutely not every woman and it is ridiculous to suggest that she represents every woman. She is an elite, privileged woman, her economic reality is the fantasy of the majority of women in the world today. The truth of the matter is that women cannot have it all as Tate suggests. I am not certain that we have a universal definition of what having it all means, nor whether the pursuit of “all,” whatever it may be is a desirable or attainable goal. Beyoncé perhaps can have it all because she is enormously wealthy, she is married to an enormously wealthy man and she resides in a Western industrialist country, instead of a non-Western developing or under-developing country where many women labor in factories to provide the consumer products and luxury goods that the the citizenry of the Western industrialized world demand. The majority of the women in the world cannot even dream of “rockin’ chinchilla coats,” “getting the house off the coast,” and “rockin them VVS stones,” that Beyoncé sings about in “Ring the Alarm,” on her 2006 B-Day album.
Why has Beyoncé been drafted as some kind of pop culture black feminist icon and not some other black female musical artists? Grammy-award winning singer Tracy Chapman is an accomplished songwriter with socially conscious lyrics, but she is a lesbian, with an androgynous appearance, who never bothers to wear lipstick. Erykah Badu is also an excellent songwriter whose songs possess far more gravitas than Beyoncé’s pop offerings; however she is a never married woman with three children fathered by three different men. Therefore, Badu fails the ‘respectability test.’ Janalle Monáe is an attractive woman, an exciting live entertainer and a serious singer/songwriter, who is also a spokesperson for Cover Girl cosmetics. Monáe insists on wearing what she calls her “uniform” a black and white tuxedo outfit. She deliberately refuses to use her sexuality as a marketing tool.
Janaelle Monáe in a May, 2013 Essence magazine cover story, told the publication “People don’t ask Jay-Z to take his shirt off when he rhymes,” “Showing my skin is not what makes me sexy.” “I like skirts and dresses just like everyone else, but I had a message I needed to put out there. It was up to me to show people and young girls there was another way.” Chapman, Badu and Monáe have not had the tremendous mainstream commercial success that Beyoncé has had and they likely never will. These three women in their music ponder problems like poverty, inequality and racism. To Beyoncé’s question; Who run the world? these ladies might presumably respond, ‘white men, didn’t cha know.’
Beyoncé is not a singer-songwriter in the tradition of a Nina Simone or a Carole King. She cannot read or write music, nor can she play an instrument. Just about all the music in her catalog uses samples, with the exception of songs penned by the likes of famed songwriter Diane Warren. Sampling borrows music from previous records and adds new lyrics. While there have been many questions raised about Beyoncé as a songwriter, with many whispers that she is attaching her name to songs written by others. Chapman, Badu and Monáe’s legitimacy as songwriters has never been questioned. The evidence does not seem to suggest that Beyoncé is making significant lyrical contribution to her albums, despite her having won an ASCAP songwriter of the year award. Daniel D’Addario writes in Salon;
When Beyoncé “was writing” Destiny’s Child songs, she did so with help: There is not a single song on any of the group’s four albums that Beyoncé wrote herself. She, more and more as the group’s run went on, was involved in writing, but a more typical Destiny’s Child song was their single “Lose My Breath,” with seven credited writers. On the group’s final album, several songs were credited to all three singers in the group. And songwriting credits are often arbitrary — Beyoncé was disqualified before three much less notable writers from an Academy Award nomination for the “Dreamgirls” song “Listen,” which she co-wrote.”
The Los Angeles Times remarked on Beyoncé ‘s disqualification for a songwriting Oscar; “Is this just one of those cases of where the singer insisted upon having her name added to credits as part of her performance deal?”
A 2009 New York Daily News article hinted, “…Beyoncé’s songwriting credits have been publicly questioned several times. In 2006, for example, she declared she wrote the breakup anthem “Irreplaceable” “for [her] girls” – causing singer/songwriter Ne-Yo to angrily announce that he penned all the lyrics for the song, then got minimal help from Beyoncé on the melody. But even that may have been generous: Rumors swirled that B’s composer credit was added only as a courtesy.” It is hard to believe that a woman who probably is not writing her own songs could have penned a musical feminist manifesto.
Monáe and Badu performed together on the song Q.U.E.E.N. written by Monáe, in it Monáe raps: I asked a question like this
Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal.
She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel.
So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?
They keep us underground working hard for the greedy,
But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy.
My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
Gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City.
In interview with Elle magazine Monáe explains what inspires her to write these kinds of lyrics;
“I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and grew up in the language of the oppressed and the oppressor. I just felt that it was time to talk about that. It made me want to continue to unite people with music and bring awareness to the working class, the have-nots, and those who are discriminated against. “… I consider myself to be part of the other just by being a woman and being black. There’s still certain stereotypes that I have to fight off, and there’s still a certain struggle that we all individually have to go through.”
Beyoncé is an entertainer, while there is a long tradition of black entertainers who have also chosen to be political and social activists, not every celebrity has the necessary political knowledge, intellectual maturity and skills to function in such a role. There is often a political and economic price to pay for such a sacrifice. This is an issue that is not just about race, the Country music group the Dixie Chicks, made up of white southern women paid a heavy price for publicly criticizing former President George W. Bush about the Iraq War. Radio stations stopped playing their music and they received death threats. It is understandable if someone is not willing to pay the high price of being an entertain who expresses political opinions and engages in political activity.
We should note that there is a difference between philanthropic/charitable activities and actual political activism. People often conflate the two, but they are not the same. Being part of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign to get children and youth to eat healthy and exercise is charity work. Although, doing that while promoting the sugary soft drink Pepsi seems hypocritical. However, challenging city and state governments to reinstate physical education programs in public schools (particularly in urban public schools), and build athletic facilities would be political activism. Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z suggestion that his mere “presence is charity,” is incorrect. Neither his presence nor his wife’s presence is charity or activism. Their hosting of an Obama fundraiser or standing silently at a Trayvon Martin rally will ultimately have no impact on city, state or federal policy. Neither will the release of the Beyoncé album have any significant impact on gender equality or the status of black women in America.
Beyoncé is not known for giving cerebral interviews and she hardly engages in discussing social problems. She has however, offered opinions on gender inequality something that fits in with her ‘girl power’ image. “You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”
I agree with Beyoncé that “equality is a myth,” but not with what she imagines is the source of gender inequality nor the simple solution to resolving it. In the case of black women who have always been in the labor force, functioning as breadwinners for their families by working as domestics, cooks and washerwomen; their monetary earnings led to accusations of emasculating black men not equality( see Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on black Matriarchy). Perhaps that is why the super successful Beyoncé, who earns tens of millions of dollars annually is careful to characterize herself as “Mrs. Carter,” less she be accused of emasculating Jay-Z. The inequality of women to men in our society is rooted in the fundamental belief that women and their labor are of lesser value; that women are less capable and that the domestic sphere is women’s natural habitat. While income equality plays a role in female oppression, it is simplistic to believe that the realization of gender equality is a matter of financial parity.
Beyoncé’s statement suggests that gender oppression is something that takes place only within the confines of a woman’s intimate relationship, and that is where the matter of inequality should be legislated and resolved. However, gender inequality is ingrained into all our institutions, the body politic, our houses of worship, educational institutions and more. Take the case of the black church in America where the majority of the congregation are black women and they are the ones who provide the tithes that keep the church operational, but it is black men who are at the helm of the pulpit. In October, 2013 Pastor Marvin Winans reportedly refused to offer a public blessing to the son of a single mother congregant in his The Perfecting Church in Detroit, the reason given that Pastor Winans has a policy of not publicly blessing the children of unwed mothers.
There seems to always be a black “It girl,” of the moment, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill or Halle Berry whose appearance on mainstream magazine covers, in mainstream films and red carpets convinces many; that finally black women have arrived and are being appreciated and celebrated. However, every “It” black girl’s moment passes, some sadly like Whitney and some in unexpected ways like Janet Jackson’s whose 2004 Super Bowl ‘wardrobe malfunction,’ seems to have permanently derailed her career. None of these women have opened the floodgates for other black women in show business. Beyoncé’s former Destiny’s Child group members post-Destiny’s Child careers are non-existent in comparison to Beyoncé. Even during slavery Phyllis Wheatley became a published poet. There seems to always be room for a few “exceptional” black woman at the top, but the gates never open to allow a large pool of other talented and qualified black women to enter. You have your highly visible tokens, while institutional and structural velvet ropes remained firmly in place.
Black feminists cannot engage in wholesale acceptance of Beyoncé’s success without recognizing and being willing to critique how that success is a product of and authorized by a white patriarchal power system. Harris-Perry among others praise Beyoncé ‘s genius in ‘independently’ releasing an album outside of the corporate recording industry. The album was first released on Itunes, which is owned by Apple a multinational corporation that has its products being assembled in China (not a utopia of human and labor rights) by Chinese men and women in factories. The album has now been released in disc format, and is being distributed by Columbia Records (a subsidiary of SONY), while Target declined to stock it, it is being sold at Wal-Mart, the giant corporation which is able to sell goods at low prices due to the low-wage labor of men and many women in the developing world.
The midnight digital release of the album was not a creative strategy, or an anti-music establishment strategy, but a marketing strategy. Beyoncé’s last album “4” was not as successful as her previous album. The primary purpose of Beyoncé’s music is to maintain the value of what has been described as her “carefully curated brand” which allows her to sell her fragrances, her clothing line and the products she endorses like Pepsi and L’Oreal cosmetics. Beyoncé proclaims herself to be an “independent woman.” I would suggest that we do not actually know who is the Wizard behind the Beyoncé pop culture illusion that is hypnotizing the world. The public support of highly visible women will always be beneficial to the feminism movement. Feminism however, is not a product or a brand it does not need celebrity endorsers.
So Town & Country Magazine just published its list “of the most notably eligible men in the universe right now.” Being that this magazine is Town and Country, one should not expect to see any profiles of working-class blue collar guys. The list is an outstanding celebration of elitism, privilege, whiteness and inequality. Perhaps the editors of Town & Country should have been more specific in delineating which universe they were speaking of; its clear their universe consists only of Paris, London, Manhattan, Miami and Beverly Hills. The list includes only three non-white individuals, four Kennedy offspring’s, European princes, an earl, and other sons of privilege. Asia which has 60 percent of the World’s population, only has one representative on the list. Although, the magazine seems confused about him writing “Brushing up on the history of his homeland may be difficult: Is it Burma or Myanmar? Rangoon or Yangon?” Africa the second most populous continent, sort of has one representative in actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is the British born son of Nigerian parents.
The bachelors range in age from seven-month old Prince George Alexander of Britain to fifty-year old actor Johnny Depp. While the inclusion of Prince George is all the proof needed that this list should be thought of as a joke, the glaring racism and sexism of the list however, demands serious critique and analysis. Almost all the men on the list are the sons of celebrities and wealthy families. Two of the three black males on the list include Theo Spielbierg, the adopted son of film director Steven Spielbierg and Corey Robinson the eighteen year-old son of retired NBA player David Robinson. The inclusion of three black males and Ivan Pun the “oxford-educated son of Burmese property developer Serge Pun,” was intended perhaps to shield the magazine from the very accusations of exclusion, that this essay is making.
By ‘bachelor’ the magazine simply means unmarried male, there is no clarification of who is gay or straight, and some profiles admit that the bachelor’s have a significant other. Let us go ahead and assume that there are no seven-month old little girls right now who can either read Town &Country Magazine or who are already on the lookout for a future husband. So why the inclusion of seven-month old Prince George and some teenage males who are likely not looking to settle down at 18 and 19 years old?
The dream of white American elites has always been to recreate the British aristocracy stateside. Many an American WASP heiress has gone off to London to snag a British baron, earl or duke. The plucky Yankee Wallis Simpson managed to snag the Prince of Wales himself. Princes of Wales have been the Holy Grail in the white American romantic imagination. Now that Kate has snagged William, seven month old George the latest Prince of Wales, has to become the new prize. Setting aside the possibly pedophiliac connotations of the magazine’s inclusion of George, his inclusion does have a purpose. Its purpose is to reinforce the old idea that the ultimate ambition of women should be to snag a husband, not to dream of being CEOs, presidents, doctors and lawyers, police officers, or professors when they grow up, but to be wives and mothers, and if lucky duchesses and princesses; and it is apparently never too early to get started.
The term trophy wife is often used, but there also exists the idea of the trophy husband, a trophy husband is white, rich, royal or aristocratic and hopefully handsome. Intelligence and character are not necessary to make a man a trophy husband. This list reaffirms that the only prize a woman should keep her eye on is a potential husband. People magazine publishes its annual list of the most beautiful women in the world and Maxim magazine publishes the Hot 100 list, a list of women, mainly models and actresses it considers desirable, both lists are just as problematic as the bachelor list in terms of offering a narrow Eurocentric concept of what is beautiful and in demarcating who is worthy to be loved and desired.
The answer is not to institute a diversity program to make sure these kinds of lists are geographically and ethnically inclusive, but to abandon these kinds of lists altogether; that seek to quantify human value in terms of wealth and presumed physical attractiveness. They reduce men to matrimonial trophies and women to desperate damsels waiting for their billionaire/duke/princes to come. Town & Country‘s eligible bachelor list is an ethnocentric exercise in WASP cultural masturbation and pure sexism. There is a universal human need for love and companionship, love does not have to necessarily take place within the traditional context of heterosexual marriage. If the great fairy tale of Charles and Diana taught us anything it is that Happily Ever After, only happens in books and movies. Some gals may be dreaming of snagging a white prince like Harry, and some may be dreaming of a nice Filipino, Haitian, Jamaican, Ghanaian, Chinese, Jewish, Lebanese, Mexican guy/gal.
I am not the woman,
who once ruled,
I am not the woman,
who led others to freedom
on the Underground Railroad.
I am not the woman,
whom they crowned
I am not the Woman,
whose beauty they are marketing
like art nouveau & Coca-Cola
I am not the Woman
a capitalist tool,
hammering at your champions
Seducing & castrating the brothers
Sending them to their corporate lynching
I am not the Woman
to be marginalized by Iconism.
To be infantalized by ghettocentrism.
To be dreadlocked by Afrocentrism.
I am not the woman,
to sing others hymns
and praise others Gods.
I am not the woman
to be defined/defamed,
under a Madonna-whore complex.
I am not:
A Bootylicious/Bad Bitch/Bottom Bitch/Top Bitch/Island Bitch
Baby Mama/Basketball Wife.
Matriarch/Jezebel/Respectable Lady/Welfare Queen.
I am not the Woman
to hide the secrets of the Diaspora
in my throat
under my skirts
up my rectum.
I did not arrive here
on the Banana Boat/Quota Boat.
I am not sitting here
Black-eyed peas, pig feet, plantains
a dozen illegitimate children.
When you discover
the woman I am,
it will be as if you have,
drunk the Wine of Astonishment.
That man thinks
he is cool
that the breeze
from his lashes fluttering
is what keeps my nipples erect.
That man thinks
he is an ordained musician
that the shake of my hips
is a response to his drum beat
the snapping of my fingers
tapping of my toes,
raising of my arms,
is heed to the gospel
of his tongued-fiddled violin
and his ivory tickle.
That man acts
like he was sired by
and delivered from Cleopatra’s womb.
He thinks he is Moses
having parted many black thighs
with the raising of his rod.
That man wears his black skin
like 24-Carat gold
as he flashes his white teeth
his brown eyes mimic jewels.
He colonizes American jeans
on African hips
and converts Italian suits
into ghetto-fabulous statements
slipping easily from baseball-cap, top-hat, Kangol
as day slips into night.
That man proclaims
he is a linguist & student of philosophy
fluent in Brooklyneese
and the Queen’s English.
He quotes all the Greats
like Malcolm & Mandela
Du Bois & Fanon
Che & Mao
Barry White & Babyface.
That man shouts
from a gypsy cab
“I Love You!”
and passes love notes
in the collection plate.
That man is Cool
that man is Mine.
Why was there no plan for
My hand not betrothed,
My path not paved?
The future is not mine to see
Despite all, love I still crave
Bride price cannot be promised
I make haste and do not arrive
The elders demand homage
Dreams have been endowed, and thrive
The withdrawal is rhetoric
Cleopatra, Sheba buried with the crown
I am becoming historic
My brow creased with a frown
Bareheaded, barefoot and prancing
I am devising while dancing.
On Happy Days
my hair is not nappy
I have more than I owe
and tomorrow I know
I will be building pyramids
On sad days,
that my place in Heaven is rented
and the currency demanded
is not the yen or dollar,
But my essence.
This will be
the prologue to my death
unless I find the missing fabrics
Of my soul
and weave them into a quilt
of my own design.
This poem appears in the anthology Quiet Storm: Voices of Young Black Poets (Hyperion Books 1999).