Metta World Peace and the Stigma of Criminalized Bodies Pt. 2
By David J. Leonard
The elbow seen around the world and the media fallout continues to bother me. Over the last five weeks, I have found myself debating others online, yelling angrily at the television and otherwise struggling to make sense of Metta World Peace’s elbow of James Harden. As I noted in part 1, my concern stems from a media narrative that too often invokes the language and frames reserved for “criminal justice” matters (the courts). It also reflects a narrative that refuses to let MWP live in the moment, to be defined by his actions in our present. Instead, he is defined now (and as he has been since 2004) by his actions and the meaning of those actions within our racialized society. Having paid his debt to the NBA, and society, he continues to be dogged by the past, an unfair constraint of America’s criminalizing culture.
The efforts to criminalize MWP, to depict him as pathological and dangerous, as a constant threat to those on the court is illustrated in language usage but also in the constant references to his past. The constant reference to the Palace Brawl and to past suspensions without any acknowledgement of the specifics of each instance (and the differences), the timeframe involved, or the changes MWP has shown is telling. For example, many commentators continue to reference his “past,” his “history” and the fact that he has been suspended “13 times in his NBA career for a total of 111 games.”
However, few provide any specifics, as if they don’t matter. Three of those suspensions (4 games) were for exceeding the maximum allowable flagrant foul points, with another coming from his leaving the bench during an altercation that he was not involved with. Even his first suspension in the league (4 games – “With the Pacers, four games for confronting and making physical contact with Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, for taunting the Miami bench, for committing a flagrant foul-2 on Caron Butler (pushing him into the stands) and making an obscene gesture toward fans”) or two of his more recent suspensions, both of which were clearly impacted by his involvement with the Palace Brawl, points to the problems of imagining MWP as some “habitual” offender.
None of this is to excuse MWP for the elbow or even past actions (including a plea of “nolo contender” in a case where involving infliction of injury his wife, clearly his most troubling offense yet one that received much less media outrage that the elbow or the Palace). Rather, I call for specifics and reflection as a way to caution against the continued merging of the criminal justice system and public culture, between the criminal court and the basketball court. The normalization of the language of the criminal justice system and the criminalizing of “bad” bodies gives life to America’s prison culture, to America’s new Jim Crow.
This leads me to why the media coverage regarding the elbow gives me pause – why it troubles me more than the elbow itself. The intrusion of the language of the criminal justice system, the ubiquitous references to Metta’s past, and inability of others to allow MWP to move forward without the past shackling, defining, and controlling him reflects a larger injustice: the stigmas, life-sentence, and 2nd-class citizenship “afforded” to criminalized communities. “A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind,” writes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:
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