NewBlackMan: The Elbow Heard Around the Nation: The NBA and the End of ‘Peace’

The Elbow Heard Around the Nation: The NBA and the End of ‘Peace’

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

The Elbow Heard Around the Nation: The NBA and the End of ‘Peace’

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

When Ron Artest announced his intent to change his name to Metta World Peace, I had discussions with several people about potentially changing the name of my book, After Artest (May 2012, SUNY Press) to reflect his metamorphosis. Examining how the Palace Brawl forever changed the NBA, while also highlighting the larger scripts of race and criminalization, After Artest reflects on the processes of demonization and criminalization directed at Artest and his black baller brethren in the aftermath of the 2004 fight between the Pacers-Pistons-Piston fans.  While deciding against changing the book’s title for a myriad of reasons, one principle issue for me in pushing back against a title like “Peace after the Palace” was that in spite of efforts from the NBA, its fans, and the media establishment to police, punish, and control blackness in their efforts to secure peace, neither condemnations and suspensions, dress codes or age restrictions, would bring about peace for the league because of the ways that race and racial narratives operate within the American cultural landscape.  The efforts to recreate the illusion of a racially-colorblind Jordan-esque landscape were futile given persistent anti-black racism and governing stereotypes.  Peace after the palace was not possible because of the ways that blackness and anti-black racism overdetermined its meaning within the national landscape.  Artest and what he embodied in the national imagination guided and served as a lens as the NBA sought to deracialize itself within the national imagination.  This is why I start After Artest as follows:

“The real question, how does it feel to be a problem” – W.E.B. DuBois, 1903 (Quoted in Jackson 2006, p. 9)

“Ron Artest more than likely will be suspended, but so should Kobe” (Resnick 2009)

“Kobe vs. Artest: Proof Artest Will Kill Your Team” (2009)

“NBA Bad Boy Ron Artest of L.A. Lakers Admits He Had A Problem: Drinking During Games! ” (Douglas 2009)

“Trevor Ariza loses shoe, Ron Artest tosses it into the stands” (2009).

Artest, who’s trying to put his bad-boy image behind him, said he could simply display his ring in his living room or he could wear it.’ But I think it’ll be more important to give back to something I believe in, which is providing kids with someone to talk to because it’s so expensive. I pay for parenting counseling, marriage counseling and anger management, and it’s very expensive. This will be for children of all demographics, rich or poor — preferably the rich can pay for their own psychologists — but it’ll be a great way to help kids who don’t know where they’re going in their life at this point’ (“Ron Artest Plans” 2010)

***

Artest, who’s trying to put his bad-boy image behind him, said he could simply display his ring in his living room or he could wear it.’ But I think it’ll be more important to give back to something I believe in, which is providing kids with someone to talk to because it’s so expensive. I pay for parenting counseling, marriage counseling and anger management, and it’s very expensive. This will be for children of all demographics, rich or poor — preferably the rich can pay for their own psychologists — but it’ll be a great way to help kids who don’t know where they’re going in their life at this point’ (“Ron Artest Plans” 2010)

***

At first glance, the above headlines point to the fact that Ron Artest’s personal history, and especially his association with the Palace Brawl, continues to determine the public narrative assigned to him by the dominant media and broader public discourse. Even those instances of praise and celebratory redemption does so in relationship to his past indiscretions. Despite the banality of his exchange with Kobe and his tossing of another player’s shoe off the court (his sportsmanship was questioned by an announcer), and notwithstanding his efforts to admit to a past drinking problem1 or shed light on the issue of mental health, each in varying degrees have been the read through the lens of the Palace Brawl.

In 2009, Ron Artest admitted to drinking alcohol at halftime while he was a member of the Chicago Bulls. Hoping to teach kids by sharing his past mistakes, Artest’s admission, not surprisingly, prompted much media and public debate. Although some people questioned the truthfulness of his admission, others used this moment as an opportunity to speculate about whether Artest was indeed drunk when he entered the stands in 2004. Likewise, his tossing of Trevor Ariza’s shoe into the stands, along with his physical and verbal altercations with Kobe Bryant, were given amplified meaning and importance considering his role. In all four instances, Artest’s past and his character are used as points of reference.

Often invoking his involvement in the 2004 Palace Brawl, the dominant frame that facilitates his representations is not only constrained by Artest’s personal and professional histories, but by the prism of race and blackness. He is consistently imagined as a problem. The nature of these representations point to the ways in which blackness overdetermines not only the meaning of Artest, but of all black NBA players in a post-Brawl context. Post-Artest, blackness is the hegemonic point of reference for both the commentaries and the policy shifts within the NBA, demonstrating that the Palace Brawl changed the racial meaning of the NBA and thus changed the regulatory practices governing the league. . . . .

The Palace Brawl was the culmination of the recoloring of the NBA. It represented a moment when the blackness of the league was irrefutable and thus needed to be managed, controlled, and, if necessary, destroyed. After Artest argues that the Palace Brawl served as that “aha moment” in which blackness displaced the racially transcendent signifier of Michael Jordan. This blackness, and its representative threat, were undeniable and, as such, necessitated intervention, termed as an assault within this book’s title. Not surprisingly, anti-black racist/white racial frames have anchored the debates and policies that have followed Artest; frames based on racial transcendence or colorblindness remain in the background. In this sense, Artest mandated a reversal wherein race/blackness had to be noticed (and controlled/destroyed), leading to public articulations of the white racial frame instead of denials of racial significance.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that the sports media establishment, and the social media world is all abuzz following a Metta World Peace foul on James Harden on Sunday in a nationally televised game.  A hard foul that was reckless and dangerous; one that warranted an injection (unlike others I have no idea his “intent”) and a suspension; and one that was disappointing to say the least and not worry of defense. I am not here to defend the foul or explain, although those who use the foul as a referendum on Metta, the NBA, or blackness need to check themselves.

It was unfortunate; yet equally unfortunate and more destructive have been the response.   Hayden Kim, on The Bleacher Report, referenced Metta’s “unstable mental stable” and an inability to maintain control; worse yet, he described his outburst in the following way:  “As he pounded his chest, acting like a gorilla during mating season, he caught James Harden with an ill-advised elbow that could have caused an earthquake” (the original piece no longer has this language but can still be found here and here).  The hyperbole notwithstanding, the descriptor of Metta as a “gorilla” given its historic meaning is disturbing to say the least – disgraceful, in fact.

Ken Berger focused more on the typical hyperbole and ‘what ifs” with his discussion of the elbow heard around the world.  “Metta World Peace’s vicious, dangerous elbow to the head of James Harden Sunday was no garden variety NBA elbow, and it probably will result in longer than your typical elbowing suspension,” writes Berger. “It should, anyway. This was about as cheap as a cheap shot gets. It’ll have nothing to do with the fact that Metta World Peace is really Ron Artest, he of Malice at the Palace fame. World Peace, after all, has come a long way since his 73-game suspension for going into the stands in Auburn Hills, Mich., in 2004, and even won the NBA’s citizenship award last season (when his name was still Ron Artest).”  Berger, unlike so many others notes his recent citizenship award, falls into the trap that he cautions against: reading the incident through the Palace Brawl.


Continue reading @NewBlackMan: The Elbow Heard Around the Nation: The NBA and the End of ‘Peace’.

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