Challenges Facing Black Players in the NBA

January 13, 2024
5 mins read


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

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.

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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