The basketball court, like other sporting venues, is supposed to be a place for meritocratic values: success is determined not by skin, but by skill. In a recent journal article (Ethnic & Racial Studies, June 2012), however, Kathleen S. Yep contends that race continues to matter in elite-level sports, even if prevailing beliefs suggest otherwise.
Implementing historical data analysis and in-depth qualitative interviews with former non-white “barnstorming circuit” basketball players, Yep argues that media portrayals of today’s non-white NBA players largely echo those from the 1930s. One possible example is the trifecta of Demarcus Cousins (portrayed as the hotheaded and volatile black threat), John Wall (the skilled and coachable black hero), and Jeremy Lin (the hard-working Asian American novelty act). While all joined the NBA in 2010, the words used to describe them are remarkably similar to those used 70+ years ago for teams such as the Harlem Globetrotters (the black threat), the Bearded Aces (the white hero), and the Hong Wah Kues (Asian American novelty act). Though some black players, like Wall, are now elevated to hero status because of their superb skill and work ethic, not all non-white players are viewed as quite as deserving. Such disparities, Yep insists, are a sign of the contradictions inherent in a sporting world that pushes the rhetoric of liberal multiculturalism while still relying on discourses of white supremacy.