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.

Silence and Spectacle: How the Sports Media Sanctions Racist Mascots

Silence and Spectacle: How the Sports Media Sanctions Racist Mascots

By Guest Contributors C. Richard King and David J. Leonard

One would hope sport media outlets might take their civic duty to foster critical thinking, public engagement, and informed debated seriously. Their approach to the representations in Native Americans in sport suggest otherwise. Under the veil of fairness and balance, they opt to speak for, to be silent and to silence as preferred pathways.

When ESPN columnist Rick Reilly offered a defense of Native American mascots because the American Indians he knew did not have a problem with them. Flouting his whiteness and playing his privilege with little regard, he spoke for Native Americas. His word – his whiteness, his platform – made their words meaningful. His editors neither batted an eye nor cleared a space for Native Americans to express themselves.

In fact, Reilly misrepresented his key source, his father-in-law, who wrote a lengthy retort in Indian Country Today that noted he found the name of Washington D.C.’s National Football League team to be objectionable. Reilly still stood by his piece and neither he nor his publisher have offered a correction or an apology.

Fans of Washington, D.C.’s NFL team. Image by Keith Allison via Flickr Creative Commons.

Similarly, Daniel Snyder, the owner of the franchise, continually invokes American Indians to support the team name, imagery and traditions, as in his recent sentimental letter to the public, from one-time coach Lone Star Dietz (who claimed to be but was indeed not indigenous) as the inspiration of the honorific name to the Red Cloud School (a reservation school which does not support it).

Not surprisingly, someone who loves and profits from the invented Indian figure he owns does not have a problem with offering up insincere fictions in his defense. He doesn’t invoke the history of colonization and genocide, or the specific racial history of his own franchise. Predictably, someone who reaps the daily benefit of white supremacy sees little problem with the football team located in the nation’s capital having for its mascot a racist slur seeped in white supremacist colonial history.

Continue reading at Silence and Spectacle: How the Sports Media Sanctions Racist Mascots | Racialicious – the intersection of race and pop culture.

NewBlackMan (in Exile): ESPN Must be High: Drugs & Jim Crow in Sports’ Reporting

ESPN Must be High: Drugs & Jim Crow in Sports’ Reporting

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

My concern and interest in sports often has little to do with sports. While I am clearly a fan, someone who enjoys watching and thinking about sports, I am often drawn into the world sports because of the larger implications and meanings. Sports are more than a game; it is a pedagogy, a technology, and an instrument of larger social, political, and racial processes. During a recent interview with Colorlines, I spoke about the danger in seeing sport as purely game, entertainment, or distraction:

One of the things that often strikes me is the disconnect between progressive and those engaged in anti-racist movement and struggles — and sports. Sports continues to be seen as antithetical or a distraction, or not part and parcel with the movements for justice. I think that when you have a society that is increasingly invested in and has been for the last 30 years, with incarceration, with a suspension culture, with racial profiling, it’s not a coincidence that you have a sports culture that’s equally invested in those practices. And invested in the language of the criminal justice system.

I consume and am consumed by sports not simply because of the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” but because of its potential as a source of social change. Yet, sports continue to be a site for the perpetuation of injustice, violence, and despair. As a critical scholar, as an anti-racist practitioner, and as someone committed to justice, my gaze is never just as fan. In watching games, listening to commentaries, and reading various sports publications, I am unable and unwilling to suspend this gaze. So, it should be no surprise that when I recently opened ESPN: The Magazine, to find an article on drug use and college football, it had my attention.

“Of 400,000 athletes, about 0.6 percent will be tested for marijuana by the NCAA.” The lead-to ESPN’s sensationalized and misleading story on marijuana use and collegiate football, thus, frames the story as one about both rampant illegal drug use and the absence of accountability. While attempting to draw readers into their stereotyped-ridden, sensationalized tabloid journalism masking as investigative reporting/journalistic expose, it reflects the dangerous in this piece. “College football players smoking marijuana is nothing new. Coaches and administrators have been battling the problem and disciplining players who do so for decades,” writes Mark Schlabach. He highlights the purported epidemic plaguing college football by citing the following:

NCAA statistics show a bump in the number of stoned athletes. In the NCAA’s latest drug-use survey, conducted in 2009 and released in January, 22.6 percent of athletes admitted to using marijuana in the previous 12 months, a 1.4 percentage point increase over a similar 2005 study. Some 26.7 percent of football players surveyed fessed up, a higher percentage than in any other major sport. (The use of other drugs, such as steroids and amphetamines, has declined or held steady.) A smaller percentage of athletes actually get caught, but those numbers are also on the rise. In the latest available postseason drug-testing results, positive pot tests increased in all three divisions, from 28 in 2008-09 to 71 the following school year.

It is important to examine the evidence because of the narrative being offered here and the larger context given the racial implications of the war on drugs.

According to Schlabach, 22.6 percent of football players acknowledging using marijuana; in student-athletes playing football were the most likely to acknowledge marijuana amongst those participating in MAJOR sports. While unclear how he is defining major sports, I would gather that those major sports include football, track, basketball, and baseball, coincidentally sports dominated by African Americans in disproportionate numbers. Why limit the discussion here other than to perpetuate a stereotype? Does the revenue or popularity of a sport require greater scrutiny? I think not.

Examination of the actual NCAA study tells a different story. Indeed, baseball (21.5%); basketball (22.2%), and track (16.0%) trail football. Only men’s golf and tennis, with numbers of 22.5% 23.2% trails football amongst non-major sports. If one compares reported marijuana use between collegiate football players to their peers in swimming (27.2%) ice hockey (27.4%), wrestling (27.7%), soccer (29.4%), and lacrosse (48.5%), it becomes clear that football is not the problem. Add women’s field hockey (35.7) and women’s lacrosse into that mix, and yet again it is clear who is getting high. In fact, when High Times or Bill Maher looks for a role model within collegiate sports, they are more likely to call upon soccer or lacrosse players than a football player.

ESPN further mischaracterizes the study by failing to sufficiently acknowledge the differences drug use in Division 1 football and Division III. The NCAA study found that marijuana use is least common amongst Division I student-athletes (16.9%), where Division II student-athletes (21.4%) and those from Division III having the highest level of usage with a number of 28.3%. Since the 2005 study, drug usage actually declined at the Division I level, while increases were seen in other two divisions.

via NewBlackMan (in Exile): ESPN Must be High: Drugs & Jim Crow in Sports’ Reporting.

The White Coach’s Burden | Racialicious – the intersection of race and pop culture

The White Coach’s Burden

By Guest Contributor Dr. David J. Leonard

During my “glory days” playing high school football–among other positions I played linebacker–there was a game where, after several tackles (pretty amazing tackles if I remember them correctly), I found myself rolling on the ground in pain. Their running back decided to thrust his helmet into my gut leaving me gasping for air. I would later find out that the opposing coach encouraged his players to “take me out”: a helmet to the gut would do that for at least one play.

The fact that a nobody player in a nothing high-school football game between two tiny private schools in Los Angeles was “taken out” illustrates how encouraged violence is part and parcel to football culture, even if there were no “‘knockouts’…worth $1,500 and ‘cart-offs’ $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs,” rewards uncovered as part of the New Orleans Saints’ “bounty program” last week.

Yet, the NFL, much of the media, and others have acted as if the Saints’ actions are an aberration that can be easily corrected. As such, the league’s response was predictably clichéd:

The [anti-] bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity. It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it.

The NFL wasn’t alone with its shock and outrage (and hypocrisy). The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke referred to the bounty system as “sanctioned evil” that in one game constituted a “blatant mugging by the New Orleans Saints.” Eamon Quinn described bounties as antithetical to the values of sports: “Such malicious intent—regardless of whether the particular hit was legal by the letter of the law—totally undermines the camaraderie and goodwill inherent in participation in sports. It is diametrically opposed to the inherently benevolent nature of sporting competition.” Similarly, ESPN’s Gregg Easterbrook identified the bounty issue as “Sinnersgate” which “is about being paid to cause injury, which takes a beautiful sport and makes it a low, filthy thing.”

Dave Zirin rightfully highlights the hypocrisy in the league’s resisting calls for reform while marketing itself on the “Orwellian staple” of comparing NFL players to warriors:

There is no morality in war — but that doesn’t stop our political and military leaders from insisting otherwise. Invariably, the enemy consists of immoral, medieval cave dwellers who respect neither human life nor the sacred rules of combat. Our side, on the other hand, engages in “surgical strikes” to limit “collateral damage” in a noble effort to liberate the shackled from tyranny. They tell us to ignore the innocent killed in drone attacks, the piling body counts, and just remember that our enemies are savages because they don’t play by civilized rules.

The moral indignity of the media is striking given its own promotion of on-the-field violence. The proliferation of a highlight culture dominated by jarring hits is as much a bounty as any direct or indirect payment system.


An ESPN culture that leads with bone-crushing, de-cleating tackles, turning relatively obscure defensive players into household names, illustrates the role of the media in offering incentive for viciousness on the field. The hypocrisy and faux-outrage from the media as well as fans, given the widespread acceptance of a culture of violence, seems more about disappointment the behavior of any coaches involved; bounty gate isn’t a challenge to perception of football and the NFL, but the league’s patriarchs – the coaches.

Continue reading @ The White Coach’s Burden | Racialicious – the intersection of race and pop culture.

ESPN’s Week in Whiteness: Why White Fans Dislike Athletes of Color By Charles Modiano

Cross posted from POPSspot

ESPN’s Week in Whiteness:

Why White Fans Dislike Athletes of Color

By On February 10, 2012

Forbes came out with its poll this week on sports most-disliked players, and the names ring familiar. In order, they are Mr. Vick, Tiger, Plaxico, NDamukong, Kris Humphries, Lebron, Kobe, Terrell, ARod, before Kurt Busch comes in at #10. Quite notably, Joe Paterno or Jerry Sandusky [1], Ben Roethlisberger (accused twice of rape), and the allegedly “polarizing” Tim Tebow didn’t crack the top 10.

These types of polls are almost always dominated by white voters, and the “most disliked” people are almost always dominated by athletes of color. While there is disturbing bigotry inherent in these lists, media plays a critical role in perpetuating and maintaining views of white fans [2].

This past week offers an excellent illustration of white privilege in action. Here is a quick recap on some of what you might have missed amidst Super Bowl week.

Feb. 1: Kevin Love Hacks Danny Granger and Talks Big-time Trash to Pacers
Feb. 2: Josh Hamilton Relapses
Feb. 3: Lance Armstrong Walks as his Federal Case is Dismissed
Feb. 3: Cardinals Announcer Joe McLaughlin – Repeat DUI Arrestee — Keeps Job
Feb. 4: Kevin Love Stomps on Face of Luis Scola after throwing him to floor
Feb. 5: Super Bowl Sunday – Congrats Giants! Manning-to-Manningham!
Feb. 6: Rob Gronkowski Dances Night Away After Super Bowl Loss
Feb. 7: George Brett Has Lawsuit filed against him for false advertising
Feb. 7: Kevin Again: Suspended Two Games (and finally receives own ESPN article)
Feb. 7: Lance Again: WADA Urges Feds to Hand Over Evidence

Some of the stories were purposely delayed to coincide with Super Bowl week, and in the previous 10 days in January Ben Roethlisberger very quietly settled on his rape case, Ryan Braun made an MVP award speech, and Dirk Nowitzki sat out games due to poor conditioning while all came with little national media hype.

With the exception of announcer McLaughlin – whose DUI continues a long Cardinals narrative – all are stand-out all-stars. With the possible exception of Josh Hamilton’s relapse (note: POPSspot wishes Josh the very best with his continued recovery), just about every story [3] mentioned was either ignored, buried on website, or downplayed by ESPN judging by black athlete standards.

What are “black athlete standards”? On Tuesday, ESPN “sauced” up a front-page DUI story on a 3rd string running back. On Thursday, a retired average pitcher received front-page treatment for his heavy cocaine use 25 years ago. In between, “Kendrick Perkins rips Lebron” over innocuous tweet, “Lebron Won’t Apologize for Tweet” while both ESPN stories received: prime web-link placement, video commentary, and front-page “staying power” that helped produce 5000+ comments for each article. And that’s just the last three days.

Now back to the white guys. The stories of Armstrong, Roethlisberger, and Love deserve a closer look:

1) Lance Armstrong Federal Case is Dismissed and Legacy Endures:

Outside of owners, Lance may be the most powerful man in sports today.  There is more evidence of Lance’s doping than Bonds, Clemens, and Hulk Hogan combined. Yet his federal case is dismissed. Says Betsy Andreu one of many, many accusers:

“Our legal system failed us. This is what happens when you have a lot of money and you can buy attorneys who have people in high places in the Department of Justice.”

Our sports media has also failed us with over 12 years of allegations against Armstrong being ignored. Now Armstrong “luckily” got the news announced on the Friday afternoon before Super Bowl Sunday. opens up with the news: “Los Angeles — The case against Lance Armstrong is closed. His legacy as a seven-time Tour de France champion endures.”

Really? Is Lance’s legacy is tied to his federal case? Was ESPN, AP, Sports Illustrated or anyone else patiently awaiting court verdicts before deciding if Bonds legacy and his 762 home runs “endured”? Lance’s multi-layered power over (American, not European) sports media deserves its own article if not book (in America, not Europe). On Tuesday, ESPN’s story read: “WADA: Turn Over Lance Armstrong Info”. Another important story, but AP reprint was buried on website (note only 9 comments). USA Today has a better take.

While ideally, no doping athlete should be subject to a federal investigation, Bonds 7-year federal pursuit changed those rules. While hundreds of millions might protect any athlete from media, the media pursuit of Tiger Woods changed those rules. While Lance’s work on behalf of cancer patients is important and laudable, off-the-field contributions has never protected an athlete of color) from media (see Tiger again, Stephon Marbury, and NDamukong Suh. Lance is not protected solely by green or white – he is protected by the intertwined and exponential power of both.

2) ESPN is STILL Protecting Ben Roethlisberger:

In 2008, ESPN famously did not report the civil suit alleging rape against Ben Roethlisberger for 2.5 days. The omission was so egregious that the rest of sports media, both mainstream and blogs, took notice and charged both corporate influence and racial bias. Well 2.5 years later, ESPN’s protection of Ben remains. In virtually every website on January 20th, the story’s title read: “Ben Roethlisberger Settles Lawsuit Alleging 2008 Rape” 

Do you see that last word “rape”? ESPN changed the title to: Ben Roethlisberger Lawsuit Settled”. A closer and longer look at both separate rape allegations against Roethlisberger will show that removing “the R word” is a common practice for ESPN and Ben, but most definitely not Lawrence Taylor! ESPN has repeatedly removed “the R word” from title for over two years.


3) ESPN Loves Kevin:

Love did more than just tweet this week. Love hacked Danny Granger and talked made-for-ESPN trash afterwards. Days later, Love threw Luis Scola to the ground, and stomped on his face (not arm like NDamukong Suh). Neither incidents garnered articles beyond game recaps. Thanks to Commissioner David Stern’s 2-game suspension, ESPN was finally forced to cover Love with a standard AP article on the suspension. ESPN’s only additional article was “Short Fuses in Shortened NBA Season” where the picture caption reads:

“Kevin Love doesn’t lack for passion. In a compressed season, that can result in some unwise explosions”.

Author Mark Kreidler goes on:

“[Love] won’t be the last to lose it on the court in this weird NBA experiment: Take the most competitive players in the world, deny them adequate training time, put them into ridiculous travel schedules, cram 66 games into 123 days, and see what happens.”

Beyond two disclaimer sentences, it was the tough intense schedule that led Love to his “series of tantrums”. Did you get that Mr. Suh and Ms. Serena Williams? ESPN offered no companion articles on the usual cadre of “personal responsibility”, “what about the kids” or “what kind of message does this send” memes. For more in-depth media analysis, or doubt about the intentionality of Love’s stomp, please read David Leonard’s: Silence, Innocence, and Whiteness: The Undemonization of Kevin Love.

The protection of Armstrong, Roethlisberger, and Love only scratch the surface of white privilege in sports media. When day after day, a massive sports media says that the courts of law should decide Lance’s legacy, that black tweets trump white stomps, and that Lebron’s “decisions” are worse than Big Ben’s – too many white fans will actually believe it.

Ideally, the solution is not for media to treat white players like athletes of color it is to treat all athletes as if they were white. But until that day comes, let there be one standard.


[1] On Paterno/Sandusky: Forbes article mentions that owners were eligible for list, so we also assume coaches as has been the case in the past.

[2] Views of “white” fans are singled out for two reasons. White always make up the vast majority of fans polled. Also, a 2011 ESPN poll shows that only 28% of white sports fans believe that “the media put more of a spotlight on problems involving black athletes”. That same poll showed that 65% of African-American fan believed that problems of black athletes received a greater media spotlight.

[3]  Unlike USA Today, original Gronkowski dancing story received no ESPN article (it did only after Rodney Harrison responded). McLaughlin story was never printed by ESPN or AP. George Brett AP story was buried in ESPN webspace.

NewBlackMan: Protecting the (White Male) Gaze: Homophobia of Sports Talk Radio Goes Unchallenged

Protecting the (White Male) Gaze: Homophobia of Sports Talk Radio Goes Unchallenged

by David C. Leonard | NewBlackMan

During his ESPN show on Tuesday, Bruce Jacobs described the Los Angeles Sparks and the Phoenix Mercury as “the “Los Angeles Lesbians” and the “Phoenix Dyke-ury.” He returned to the air the following day to offer the following “apology”: “My comments yesterday were ridiculous, stupid and amateurish. I apologize for even uttering the comments, whether you heard them or not, whether you were offended or not.”

To date, little has been made about either his comments or his half-hearted apology that neither apologizes for the spirit of his remarks nor the ideological underpinnings that led to such comments. His apology does not repudiate his own homophobic stereotypes nor does it challenge the ideological assumptions evident here, but instead apologizes for vocalizing them. It isn’t the homophobia that warrants the apology, but expressing it on his show.

While Mr. Jacobs needs to be held accountable for his remarks, along with ESPN, which has failed to publicly condemn the comments, it would be a mistake to isolate this rhetoric as that of a “bad apple.” The homophobia and sexism on display here is reflective of sport talks radio. As with talk radio in general, sports talk radio emerged as a movement to “restore” the hegemony of white male heterosexism. The homophobic remarks of Bruce Jacobs represents a systemic and longstanding effort to restore the normalized vision of sports as a space of male dominance.

Like the efforts to sexualize female athletes, the construction of female athletes as lesbians reaffirms the “normalcy” of sports as a male domain. According to David Nylund (2004), “With White male masculinity being challenged and decentered by feminism, affirmative action, gay and lesbian movements, and other groups’ quest for social equality, sports talk shows, similar to talk radio in general, have become an attractive venue for embattled White men seeking recreational repose and a nostalgic return to a prefeminist ideal.” As argued by Trujillo (1994) and quoted in Nylund:

Media coverage of sports reinforces traditional masculinity in at least three ways. It privileges the masculine over the feminine or homosexual image by linking it to a sense of positive cultural values. It depicts the masculine image as “natural” or conventional, while showing alternative images as unconventional or deviant. And it personalizes traditional masculinity by elevating its representatives to places of heroism and denigrating strong females or homosexuals. (p. 97)

His comments, thus, embody the efforts to silence, surveil, demonize, and ultimately discipline and punish any challenges to the white male heterosexuality of sporting cultures. Those perceived threats to this hegemony are met with efforts to reclaim the sporting space as one of masculinity. From the ubiquity of images of hypersexual female athletes on various sports websites to the commonality of homophobic, sexist, and racist rhetoric, we see that despite the increased levels of diversity, the hegemony of white male heterosexuality remains a central facet within to contemporary sports culture.

The relative silence about this instance of homophobia (as of writing there has been only 9 articles about Jacobs’ comments) and the culture of homophobia within the sports media is especially telling given the widespread condemnation of various players for homophobic slurs during the 2011. Others may cite the varied levels of celebrity and the divergent platforms as reasons for why the comments of Kobe Bryant, Joakim Noah, and Wayne Simmonds received ample media attention. Yet, the comparative silence here reflects a level of comfort in isolating homophobia as a symptom of athlete culture, hip-hop culture and blackness.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Protecting the (White Male) Gaze: Homophobia of Sports Talk Radio Goes Unchallenged.

New piece @NewBlackMan: The “Selling of Candace Parker” and the Diminishment of Women’s Sports

The “Selling of Candace Parker”and the Diminishment of Women’s Sports

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

Breaking News: The WNBA is about to complete its 14th season. If you watched ESPN regularly, read a myriad of sports pages, or surfed the virtual sport world, the fact that the WNBA season was actually going on might be breaking news. In what could have been an exciting season—given the parity between teams and the influx of new talent, which could have resulted in increased cultural and sporting significance—the WNBA experienced yet another summer of alienation.

In a recently published piece in The Nation, entitled “Sex sells Sex, Not Women’s Sports,” Mary Jo Kane explains this marginalization, debunking the idea that sex is able to sell women’s sports. Rather, she notes that, “Sex sells sex, not women’s sports” leaving little doubt why women’s sports continues to struggle within the marketplace. “Millions of fans around the globe just witnessed such media images and narratives during coverage of the Women’s World Cup in Germany. Perhaps such coverage will start a trend whereby those who cover women’s sports will simply turn on the camera and let us see the reality—not the sexualized caricature—of today’s female athletes. If and when that happens, sportswomen will receive the respect and admiration they so richly deserve.” To reflect on these dynamics and the continued struggles of the WNBA to transcend (or even undermine) the sexist grips of American sports, I want to discuss an almost three-old year feature on Candace Parker.

In 2009, ESPN: The Magazine, as part of its women in sports issue, featured an article on Candace Parker. This one story encapsulates the persistent sexism that detracts from and inhibits the development of women’s sports within American culture. Reducing women athletes to sexual objects and potentially profitable spokeswomen, the article, entitled “The Selling of Candace Parker” does little to introduce and celebrate the contributions of women’s sports, but rather elucidates the systemic problems of American sports culture.

The emphasis on selling sex, rather than athletics and sport, is evident from moment one of the piece. “Candace Parker is beautiful. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup she is proud of but never flaunts,” writes Alison Glock. “She is also the best at what she does, a record-setter, a rule-breaker, a redefiner.” Eliciting some criticism about the references to her body, and the reduction of her body to its sexualized parts, ESPN: The Magazine brushed off accusations of sexism, identifying the article as sensible given the demographics of the magazine. According to Gary Belsky, editor-in-chief, “It’s not the worst thing in the world in a men’s magazine to talk about things like that.”

The sexualization of Parker and the focus on her body, at the expense of a narrative highlighting her athletic talents, doesn’t end with this initial introduction of readers to her physical attributes. Glock continues this treatise on Parker’s body before moving to a discussion of her “feminine charm”:

She is a woman who plays like a man, one of the boys, if the boys had C cups and flawless skin. She’s nice, too. Sweet, even. Kind to animals and children, she is the sort of woman who worries about others more than about herself, a saint in high-tops.

It is this unprecedented combination of game, generosity and gorgeous that has Team Parker seeing miracles. They believe with all their collective heart that their 22-year-old, 6’4″ stunner with the easy smile and perfect, white teeth will soon be the most recognized woman in American sports.

In other words, Parker represents an ideal femininity – nurturing, sexy, and heterosexual (the article make this clear though various rhetorical phrases, references to her husband, basketball player Sheldon Williams, and of course its discussion/visual presentation of Parker’s pregnancy); she is the perfect woman who happens to play basketball. In this regard, ESPN is selling Parker as a sexy and attractive woman whose job is to play basketball, a professional choice that in no way comprises her role as mother, wife, and sexual object to be consumed by male fans.

Yet, Glock doesn’t seem to limit Parker’s immense potential as the Michael Jordan of women’s sports because of her “flawless skin” and breast size (despite multiple references to her bust size), rather arguing that Parker can transcend women’s sports, breaking down commercial barriers to become “a one namer” because she isn’t like so many of today’s (black) athletes, whose brash and hyper-masculine demeanor alienates fans. She is “nice,” humble, and likable. She “is the total package, an advertiser’s dream: attractive yet benign enough to reflect any fantasy projected upon her. Like Jordan before her, Parker is a cipher of sorts, nothing outsize or off-putting. Nothing edgy. Nothing Iverson. Aside from being an athletic freak, she’s normal. You could imagine her hanging out at your family barbecue. This matters; if Parker seems like a down-home gal, a possible friend, then it’s a short step to trust, and with trust comes a willingness to buy what Team Parker is selling.”

Continue reading at NewBlackMan: The “Selling of Candace Parker” and the Diminishment of Women’s Sports.