Over the past week—when not sitting in meetings, prepping for tomorrow’s classes, or trying to squeeze in some research—I’ve been trying to think through the NBA “family’s” self-celebrated claims of having made history on Tuesday with the lifetime ban of Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling. And once again, just like last week, I’m feeling torn.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the league did the right thing in coming down so hard on Sterling. I’m even more impressed, in retrospect, with how quickly and decisively they did it. I was also impressed by the way that players came together in expressing their views and pushing for action. In fact, although I’d have to hear more about it to say whether the threat of a walkout was decisive or not as Dave Zirin has suggested, I do think the collective unity and coordinated action of the players is an aspect of the story that may prove historic.
But some of the self-congratulations just went a little too far for me. Kevin Johnson‘s comparison of the incident to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s 1968 clenched fist salute on Olympic victory stand in Mexico City is probably most egregious in this respect.
The thing about Smith and Carlos (and I wrote a book about this, actually) is that their gesture was part of a whole year-long effort on the part of African American athletes—and it was a movement intended to use their visibility in sport to challenge racism and injustice in society at large, outside of the world of sport. In other words, this was a progressive, forward-looking societal vision. In contrast, the recent NBA episode—necessary and essential as it was—was really about cleaning up dirty laundry within the world of sport. Again, I’m glad it was done—just not sure about the over-the-top back slapping.
One other thought. The NBA sent a clear message that there is no place for racism in basketball.But there clearly is a place for race in the NBA. In fact, a lot of great sports sociology over the past decade or so has been predicated on demonstrating how, at least since the late 1970s, professional basketball has been built on and around the excellence and performance of African American athletes. The dynamic between basketball and blackness is complicated–in some ways it celebrates blackness and empowers African Americans, in others it is controlling, constraining and even exploitative. But to the extent we can begin to grasp this dynamic and, more importantly, use it to identify and address racism and racial injustice in society as a whole, then I would really be willing to consider the historic implications.