Playing Field to Prison Pipeline?

Hank Willis Thomas – “Strange Fruit”

Playing Field to Prison Pipeline?
by David J. Leonard |

In our contemporary moment, sport does much of the ideological work of mass incarceration.  Even more than other forms of popular culture, which peddle in racial stereotypes, celebrate law and order, and turn police into righteous crime fighters, sports has increasingly become a space that is central to maintaining America’s prison nation.  Because of the visibility and cultural resonance of sports, because of the number of African Americans involved in professional sports, and because of the centrality of “American Dream” narratives, sports serve as the public relations wing of mass incarceration.

None of this should be surprising given the racist nature of America’s criminal justice system, and the centrality of race within contemporary discourses.  Public discourses around sports and criminal justice center race.

Writing about basketball, Todd Boyd argues that the NBA “remains one of the few places in American society where there is a consistent racial discourse,” where race, whether directly or indirectly, is the subject of conversation at all times (Boyd 2000, p. 60).  This is equally resonant with football and therefore it is not surprising that racialized conversations of sports and the criminal justice inform one another.

Of course this is nothing new.  According to Elizabeth Alexander, the history of American racism has always been defined by practices where black bodies are put on display “for public consumption,” whether in the form of “public rapes, beatings, and lynchings” or in “the gladiatorial arenas of basketball and boxing.”

Jonathan Markowitz highlights ways in which the sports media contributes to the widespread criminalization of the black body: “The bodies of African American athletes from a variety of sports have been at the center of a number of mass media spectacles in recent years, most notably involving Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson, but NBA players have been particularly likely to occupy center stage in American racial discourse.”

Whether through the media spectacles surrounding Tyson, O.J. Kobe Bryant, Aaron Hernandez and countless other cases, or the adoration and fear imbued in physical bodies (that which is desired on the field is also that which rationalizes mass incarceration, stop and frisk, and law and order), we see the convergence of the front and back pages.

Not coincidently, the increased focus on law-breaking athletes mirrors the integration of sports (and the rise of America’s prison nation).  That is, as collegiate and professional sports became more integrated, sports media and fans began to show an increasing concern about “criminal athletes.”  This is especially the case in a post-1980s context, whereupon President Reagan seized upon the death of Len Bias to expand the racialized war on drugs.

Since then, and with proliferation of ESPN industrial complex, there has been an immense focus on crime and athletes, giving credence to the widely circulated ideas about the pathology of blackness.   The shared language of “discipline” and the administering of punishment for those who violate the rules of society/sports further illustrates the convergence of the sports and the (in)justice system.

If sports are central to the prison industrial complex, ESPN represents the CEO of its public relations firm. Given the longstanding role of the Disney Corporation in circulating dehumanizing images, it should be of little surprise that ESPN is doing the ideological grunt work of contemporary racism and mass incarceration.

Whether publishing articles about drugs and Oregon football, or sensationalizing each and every traffic stop involving a (black) athlete (never mind issues of pretext stops and racial profiling) or becoming the mouth piece for bringing law and order to a post-Palace Brawl NBA, ESPN has been a willing partner in the prison industrial complex.

In recent weeks, ESPN has turned this job over to Jason Whitlock. This is the same man who once refereed to Serena Williams as an “unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber, a byproduct of her unwillingness to commit to a training regimen and diet that would have her at the top of her game year-round.”  Fear and loathing of black youth jumps off his pages; the same sort of stereotypes and narratives that rationalize stop and frisk, and shoot first mentality that plagues this nation.

The sustained nature of Whitlock’s discussion of personal/communal/cultural failures and mass incarceration (see Whitlock Gone Wild), raises the stakes here.  For example, in a recent column on Thanksgiving (never mind the history of genocide and white supremacy), where Whitlock denounced Professor Michael Eric Dyson, he once again peddled his simplistic vision of the world: the personal and cultural failures of African Americans, facilitated by intellectual and cultural enablers, has led to mass incarceration.

And while Mr. Whitlock wants to locate mass incarceration at the doorstep of hip-hop culture, at the feet of Jay Z, Allen Iverson, and Michael Eric Dyson, he is asking us to ignore history.  He wants to erase the linkages between mass incarceration and the history of slavery, between white supremacy, “Black Social Death,” and America’s prison system.  In turning the discussion into choices, values (respectability), culture, single-parented homes, and bad role models, he denies the links between deindustrialization and prison expansion, between the militarization of America’s police forces and the number of African American youth locked up.

As I read column after column that blames hip-hop or the N-Word for mass incarceration, I cannot help but wonder if Richard’s Nixon’s launching of the war on drugs, if the Rockefeller laws, the federal sentencing guidelines for crack, the disenfranchisement laws that saturate our nation, the centrality of racial appeals for law and order, President Bill Clinton’s massive expansion of America’s prison system, and the he investment in police and not schools, was all because of hip-hop.  If you live in Jason Whitlock’s world, and that of the vast number of celebratory commentators, that seems to be the conclusion.

Post Script (1/26/14)

In the aftermath of the sustained demonization of Richard Sherman I am struck by the continued role that sports as an instrument of mass incarceration.  The response to Sherman, the panics, and even the defense (“he is one of the good ones”) all points to the engrained nature of the criminalized/commodified black body within the dominant sporting imagination.

In 2011, C. Richard King and myself edited book – Criminalized and Commodified: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports –  on the anti-black racism that is central to American sports.  While including essays on different case studies, the cultural and media discourses that have been full display this week are prominent within this work.  The original title of this book  was “Thugs and Dollar Signs” in that black athletes are continuously subjected to the logics of racism and late twenty-first century capitalism – they are legible as criminals/”thugs” and dollar signs/source of profits.  And this is not a binary but rather indication that the criminalized black body is a source of profit – financial profit, ideological profit, political profit and indicative of the profits of racism. As evident in this instance (and before) Sherman has been imagined to be a “thug” all while the NFL, ESPN, and others found ways to continue to profit not only off his body but the “thug discourse.”  This represents a window into anti-black racism.  The rendering of Sherman as a “thug” and the profiting of his body and anti-black racism is ubiquitous.  The consequences of these ideological and material systems are daily.  It’s bigger than a play, it’s bigger than Sherman and it’s bigger than the game.

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