Part of what makes professional basketball appealing, for kids who love to play as well as fans, is the idea that a person can come from humble beginnings and become a star. The players on the court, the narrative goes, are ones who rose to fame as a result of incredible dedication and extraordinary talent. Basketball, then, is a way out of poverty, a true equal opportunity sport that affirms what we think America is all about.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz crunched the numbers to find out if the equal opportunity story was true. Analyzing the economic background of NBA players, he found that growing up in a wealthy neighborhood (the top 40% of household incomes) is a “major, positive predictor” for success in professional basketball. Black players are also less likely than the general black male population to have been born to a young or single mother. So, class privilege is an advantage for pro ball players, just like it is elsewhere in our economy.
The richest Black men, then, are most likely to end up in the NBA, followed by those in the bottom 20% of neighborhoods by income. Middle class black men may, like many middle class white men, see college as a more secure route to a successful future. Research shows that poor black men often see sports as a more realistic route out of poverty than college (and they may not be wrong). This also helps explain why Jews dominated professional basketball in the first half of the 1900s.
LeBron James was right, then, when he said, “I’m LeBron James. From Akron, Ohio. From the inner city. I am not even supposed to be here.” The final phrase disrupts our mythology about professional basketball: that being poor isn’t an obstacle if one has talent and drive. But, as Stephens-Davidowitz reminds us, “[a]nyone from a difficult environment, no matter his athletic prowess, has the odds stacked against him.”
Kids growing up in dense, urban environments often turn to basketball as their sport of choice. This is partly because it fits, in a physical sense. All things being equal, a basketball court takes up a lot less room than a football or soccer field. For the economically disadvantaged, it’s also relatively cheap to play. If you have a court available, you only need a pair of shoes and a ball. For this reason, whatever population finds itself in this type of environment tends to take up basketball.
That’s why the sport was dominated by Jews in the first half of the 1900s. Just like many African-Americans today, at that time many immigrant Jewish families found themselves isolated in inner cities. Basketball seemed like a way out. “It was absolutely a way out of the ghetto,” explained retired ball player Dave Dabrow. Basketball scholarships were one of the few ways low income urban Jews could afford college.
Today we refer to stereotypes about Black men to explain why they dominate basketball, but this is an after-the-fact justification. At the time, very different characteristics — stereotypes associated with Jews — were used to explain why they dominated professional teams. Paul Gallico, sports editor of the NY Daily News in the 1930s, explained that “the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness.” All stereotypes about Jews. Moreover, he argued, Jews were rather short and so had “God-given better balance and speed.” Yep. There was a time when we thought being short was an advantage in the sport of basketball.
Never underestimate the power of institutions and how much things can change.
On October 28th, Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin left the National Football League citing emotional distress as a result of abuse at the hands of his teammate Richie Incognito. Incognito admits to having sent Martin racist, homophobic, and threatening text messages and voicemails but argues that rather than hazing or bullying, this was merely an instance of miscommunication between the two men.
While a great deal of media attention has questioned the behavior of Richie Incognito, a disproportionate amount of attention has also been given to Martin’s choice to report the abuse. Why has Martin’s choice to report the abuse received so much attention? What has been the main theme of those critiquing Martin’s choice? And, what does this discussion mean for our national discourse on bullying and hazing? The answers to these questions, I argue, are all linked to masculinity.
The media talks about Martin’s choice to report because his decision violated accepted cultural norms of masculinity. Some may call these norms, more colloquially, the “bro code,” “guy code,” or “man code.” Whatever we choose to call it, there are accepted ways in which men and boys are expected to conduct ourselves and our relationships to other men. Martin stands accused, especially within the athletic community, of having broken the code.
In this case Martin’s masculinity is under attack on two fronts. First, it is under attack because he failed Incognito’s “test” of his manhood. Second, he is under attack because his solution to Incognito’s bullying violated guy code. According to the code, real men solve their problems with one another through violence.
Sports Illustratedreported that many NFL personnel consider Martin to be a coward or a wimp for reporting the abuse. One NFL informant was even quoted saying “I think Jonathan Martin is a weak person. If Incognito did offend him racially, that’s something you have to handle as a man.” Others said it would have been preferable for Martin to “go down swinging” or to “fight.” Even NPR ran a piece in which a regular guest argued:
Martin should have taken that dude outside and put his lights out. I do not – I absolutely do not believe in a society where we run to the principal’s office every time these petty tyrants make a threat… Only power dispatches bullies… Jonathan Martin is a grown man and you can’t bully a grown man.
To be fair, in that same NPR piece, another interviewee stated that “not everybody resorts to violence in response to bullying and I applaud him for that.”
Nevertheless, by reporting the abuse rather than physically confronting Incognito, Jonathan Martin has been publicly stripped of his “mancard.”
But, so what? Why should we care about how grown men address bullying? We should care because just as Jonathan Martin is being told to “man up,” so are young boys all over the country when they are bullied. Boys are told that when they cannot physically confront a bully they are inadequate and unworthy. They are taught to remain silent in the face of insurmountable violence because speaking out is a sign of weakness, or worse, femininity. Too many boys are left with nowhere to turn when bullying makes trauma a daily experience. In this sort of environment can we really be surprised that boys are committing suicide, developing depression, and lashing out violently at incredibly high rates?
The Redskins have been in the news lately – on the front page of the Times, for example — and not for their prowess on the gridiron. It’s their name. Many native Americans find it offensive, understandably so. “Redskins” was not a name they chose. It was a label invented by the European-Americans who took their land and slaughtered them in numbers that today would be considered genocide.
President Obama offered the most tepid hint of criticism of the name. He did not say they should change their name. He said that if he owned the team, he would “think about” changing the name. But that was enough for non-Indians to dismiss the idea as yet one more instance of “political correctness.”
Defenders of the name also argue that the name is not intended to be offensive, and besides, a survey shows that most Americans are not bothered by it. I would guess that most Americans also have no problem with the Cleveland Indians logo, another sports emblem that real Indians find offensive.
In response the National Congress of American Indians offers these possibilities. The Cleveland cap is the real thing. The other two are imagined variations on the same theme.
The pro-Redskins arguments could also apply here. The New York Jews and San Francisco Chinamen and their logos are not intended to offend, and a survey would probably find a majority of Americans untroubled by these names and logos. And those who do object are just victims of “the tyranny of political correctness.” This last phrase comes from a tweet by Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, an African American. His response seems to make all the more relevant the suggestion of years ago by the American Indian Movement’s Russell Means: “Why don’t they call them The Washington Niggers?”
Ann K. noticed something funny about the products sold at Novelty Trophies. The ones available for the adults involved were split into two categories: Coach and Team Mom.
To be fair, they had a female coach option, but there was nothing for Team Dads. This is consistent with the norm in society that women are allowed to be masculine (be knowledgeable about sports), but men are not allowed to be feminine (caretake a team). Notice also the artificial genderdimorphism: her tiny body compared to his.
Just another everyday, mundane, rather boring example of the constant reminders of who men and women are supposed to be.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
A recent Guinness ad has been getting a lot of kudos and I want to join in the praise. It involves a set of guys who get together to play a pick-up game of wheelchair basketball and then join each other at a bar to celebrate the game. Lots of people have mentioned that it’s nice to see (1) a lack of objectification of women as a form of male bonding and (2) a nice representation of people with disabilities. Both of those things are great in my book.
But here’s another thing I really liked: their retreat to the bar and their formation once they got there. They sat in a circle.
Why is this neat? Because scholars have found that male and female friendships tendto bedifferent. Male friendships tend to be more “shoulder-to-shoulder” than “face-to-face.” Men are more likely to get together and do stuff: they watch football together, go out and play pool, have poker nights, etc. Women are more likely to spend time just talking, confessing, disclosing, and being supportive of each other’s feelings.
The benefits of friendship are strongly related to self-disclosure. And so men’s friendships — if they don’t involve actual intimacy — often don’t offer the same boost to physical and well-being as women’s friendships. The fact that these guys sit down together at a bar, in a circle, in order to engage in some face-to-face time after their shoulder-to-shoulder time… well, that’s really nice to me.
Thanks to Rebecca H. for submitting the commercial!
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
by Lisa Wade & Gwen Sharp, Jun 7, 2013, at 12:00 pm
Originally posted in 2012; re-posted because tomorrow is the 145th Belmont Stakes, the 3rd and final leg of the Triple Crown in thoroughbred horse racing. This is the dark side of the sport.
In humans you never see someone snap their leg off running in the Olympics. But you see it in horse racing.
These words, spoken by the equine medical director for the California Racing Board, summarize the truly terrifying absurdity that is horse racing today. A team of investigative reporters at the New York Times has found that over 1,200 horses die at race tracks every year in the U.S. Many of them die immediately after a race, euthanized after their bodies literally crumble underneath them. Their legs break, unable to withstand the forces that the horses exert upon their bodies. People in the industry call it, euphemistically, a “break down.” It occurs 1 out of every 200 times a horse starts a race.
All of these horses are being ridden by a jockey who is pitched off when the horse falls. Moving at upwards of 50 miles an hour, and in the midst of many other horses running at top speed, jockeys are often seriously injured and sometimes killed. Currently there are over 50 permanently disabled jockeys receiving financial assistance from their professional trade association. Jacky Johnson, for example, was paralyzed from the neck down after his horse, Phire Power, broke its leg during a race. He will need a respirator for the rest of his life; Phire Power was euthanized on the track.
Why is this happening?
Because we are making it so.
First, race horses are bred in order to run as fast as possible. Short legs and thick bones slow a horse down, while longer, more delicate legs give them longer strides. Breeders, then, have an incentive to build horses who are both faster and more fragile.
Second, owners may be putting these horses on the track too young. Horses typically start getting raced at 2 to 3 years old, very young for an animal with a lifespan of 30 years. Some argue that the bodies of young horses are not ready to handle the physical demands of racing. This 2-year-old horse, Teller All Gone, broke its leg during a race; it is about to be euthanized:
The owners dumped his body at a junkyard:
Third, there is the drug problem. Many trainers illegally give their horses performance-enhancing drugs. Many of them are experimental and are not yet or cannot be tested for. These include “chemicals that bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood doping agents, stimulants and cancer drugs.”
Built for speed and not safety, on the track too young, and amped up on steroids and other performance-enhancers, these horses are pushed to their limits. Just this week Doug O’Neill, the trainer of I’ll Have Another, the horse set to win this year’s Triple Crown, was fined after his horse tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.
Even more problematic than the doping is the legal practice of giving horses pain-relieving drugs, including cocaine. These mask the pain signals that would otherwise tell a horse to slow down or be careful on the track and also increase that chances that the track veterinarian will miss an injury when clearing the horse to race. The NYT reports that “[a]s many as 90 percent of horses that break down had pre-existing injuries” and they argue pain-masking drugs “pose the greatest risk to horse and rider.” The Louisiana Racing Commission call it “a recipe for disaster.”
The drugs detailed below are what were given to Coronado Heights in the week before he collapsed and was euthanized on the track:
Horse racing is subject to regulation, but these vary by state and are typically very poorly enforced, bringing us to the fourth reason why we see so much tragedy on race tracks. The punishment for violations is insignificant, sometimes only a warning:
Trainers in New Mexico who overmedicate horses with Flunixin get a free pass on their first violation, a $200 fine on the second and a $400 fine on the third, records show… [the state also] wipes away Flunixin violations every 12 months… To varying degrees, the picture is similar nationwide. Trainers often face little punishment for drug violations, and on the rare occasions when they are suspended, they are allowed to turn their stables over to an assistant.
When it comes down to it, many owners and trainers are willing to risk a horse’s life for the chance at the prize money and the less likely a horse is to win, the less they’re worth to the owner, so the harder they’re willing to push it.
The economic incentive to run horses till they die may seem to apply to the highest stakes racing but, in fact, it’s at the lowest end that we see the most disregard for the safety of horses and their jockeys. In the backyards of those casinos where racetracks are now part of the attraction (often referred to as “racinos”), horses and jockeys are a dime a dozen, and the money gives people a reason to break the rules. Meanwhile, the casino tracks are low profile, so they receive even less regulatory attention.
The use of the phrase “break down” to describe a horse who has snapped its own bones in the process of entertaining and enriching human beings is an indication of how nonchalantly industry figures approach this problem. It suggests that these animals, and perhaps their jockeys as well, have been thoroughly objectified: cars break down, air conditioners break down, we break down boxes. The language entirely fails to capture what is happening to these horses. It may very well, however, describe what has happened to the industry and to the basic humanity of its most culpable beneficiaries.
Death at the Track:
Visit the New York Times to watch “The Rise of the Racinos” and “A Jockey’s Story.”