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By David J. Leonard | With thanks to NewBlackMan

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Deron Williams made it official, signing a contract with Besiktas, a top tier team in Turkey.  While not the first NBA player to sign a contract as a result of the lockout, he is clearly the most high profile (superstar) to do so thus far.  Others may follow suit, with Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay and Stephen Curry all noting interest in the prospects of playing overseas.  Having already written on the larger implications here, in terms of both the lockout and the globalization of basketball, what is striking is how Williams’ decision to sign overseas and the possibilities from other superstars has provoked a backlash from fans and media commentators alike.  

Not surprisingly the patriotism and loyalty of players has been questioned, as his been their commitment to the American fans.  Similarly, players have been criticized for being greedy, whose sole motivation is to “get paid” (the fact that players were locked out by the owners often gets OBSCURED – ignored – within these discussions).  Yet, what has been most striking is the systematic questioning about these players willingness to play overseas.  Recycling longstanding arguments about athletes as pampered, over indulged, and spoiled, a charge that has commonplace against black athletes, these commentators both question the willingness of these players to play in non-NBA conditions all while questioning their mental toughness.  

For example, Berry Tramel, in “NBA players' threat to go overseas is weak,” seems to question the seriousness of threat, asking if, “The players want us to believe they'll sign on to play in venues and under conditions wholly inferior to the NBA standard? In case no one has noticed, the NBA is lavish living. First-class travel. First-class accommodations. First-class officiating. First-class training staffs.” Similarly, David Whitley, with “NBA stars would get rude awakening playing overseas” further emphasizes how the NBA lifestyle that players are accustomed to, would not be available to them in Europe or China.   “It would also give players a taste of how 90 percent of the hoop world lives. It isn’t finger-lickin’ good. There aren’t a lot of charter flights, much less extra-wide leather seats or five-star meals.”  In “NBA lockout causing European exodus?”

Umar Ali, while acknowledging the possibility of NBA players going overseas, focused on the horrid conditions there and the spoiled nature of the players themselves.

Though the accommodations pale in comparison to what the average player receives while playing in the NBA - five-star hotel rooms, luxury vehicle transports and catered food compared to second rate rooms on the road, cramped buses and whatever is provided for sustenance - there is still enough to sway players to consider making the transition.

Ali seems to be alone with the majority of the commentaries depicting today’s players as high maintenance divas who would not accept the conditions overseas.  Skip Bayless, on “First and Ten,” scoffed at the prospect of the NBA stars playing in China or Europe longer than a week “because they will not like it.  They will not like the conditions; they will not like the travel; they will not like the food, the TV they aren’t able to watch.” His “debate” adversary, Dan Graziano, not surprisingly agreed, adding “The lifestyle these guys lead over here . . . if they think that will follow them to Europe or Asia . . . it will be a very short period of time before they realize they were mistaken.”

At one level, these comments are laughable given globalization.  Sports Center is available via Satellite in many counties as is much of American entertainment television.  Similarly, American food and products familiar to Americans are commonplace throughout the world.  Be real, this ain’t Survivor. There also a certain irony in the claims that these players couldn’t survive overseas given the long tradition of black artists fleeing to Europe in search of a more welcoming audience and broader community.

 Yet, the argument also takes on a more elitist, class-based and nationalist tone, given the stated argument that the rest of the word cannot offer the luxury found in the United States.  They might not know about the 5-star hotels found in China, Turkey, and countless other potential destinations.  In fact, there are millionaires throughout the world (there may even be Americans living elsewhere – shocking, I know) who live the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

What is striking here is how white racial framing and myopic American nationalism wrapped in exceptionalism guides the conversation. It reflects the longstanding idea that civilization begins and ends at the American shore not only erasing globalization but also the beauty and richness of cultures and nations throughout the globe.

Yet, these comments are just about a myopic and xenophobic understanding of the rest of the world.  It is equally a statement about the black athlete.  The NBA’s primarily black players are reduced to overindulged and pampered babies incapable of working and living in a different location.  The assumed luxuries and privileges are constructed as commonplace and expected by the NBA baller, thereby reducing the modern black athlete to being both-of-touch and exceptionally spoiled.  It is indicative of a narrative frame that constructs contemporary black-athletes as spoiled brats. In other words, the criticism aren’t simply that today’s NBA players require a millionaire lifestyle, but worse that these players both expect and demand a lifestyle that they are not grateful for having as a result of their basketball careers.      

Writing about the 1995 labor stoppage in Basketball Jones, Kenneth Shropshire described “the dominant public reaction” in distinctly racialized terms. In his estimation, public scorn for the players reflected a belief that they “should be grateful for what you have” (2000, p. 83).  “America loves their Black entertainers when they behave properly and stay in their place,” writes Todd Boyd in the same collection.  “When the players realize their value, their significance to the game, and try to capitalize on this, they are held in the highest contempt” (2000, p. 65).     

William Rhoden, in Forty Million Dollar Slaves, further articulates the racial nature of this narrative: “This is a crucial problem with black athletes, the notion that they should be grateful for the things that they’ve rightfully earned, that they should come hat-in-hand in gratitude for the money and power that they themselves generate.  It’s this sense of gratitude and subservience . . .” (2006, p. 189).  What becomes evident here is that the increased leverage from the players, in their ability to convert their talents and popularity outside the United States into economic gains is becoming the basis for the commonplace narrative that paints the NBA’s primarily black players as greedy, ungrateful, pampered, spoiled, and incapable of existing without America.   


David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard blogs @ No Tsuris.

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