Ballers, Shot Callers

Ron Artest

Yet Stern has never underestimated the racial conundrum, and he moved with a politician’s elan to guarantee that he was on the case, and that his hip-hop NBA would once again be rated PG.
— Harvey Araton, “Brawl Evokes Real Story of NBA and its Fans” (New York Times 23 November 2004)

It’s merely an extension of the hip-hop culture they embrace, which promotes and encourages anger, violence, selfishness, bling-bling, excess, the exploitation of women and showboating. They are modern-day minstrels who absent-mindedly provide ammunition for white racists, and even worse, ruin the image of respectable black athletes.
— Shaun Powell, “Hip-hop Hoops Feeding Negative Stereotypes” (Newsday 25 November 2004)

Among all the things that aren’t clear, this much is: Somehow a big chunk of blame will fall on rap music and hip-hop culture.
— David Hinckley, “Hip-hop is Getting a Bad Call” (New York Daily News 24 November 2004)

Judgments have been swirling since the Malice in the Palace. That is, the Friday night when Indiana Pacer Ron Artest and a number of other basketball players did battle with Detroit Pistons fans, the most notorious of whom — 39-year-old John Green — allegedly threw a cup of beer at Artest, at that moment “chilling out” on the media table following an altercation with Ben Wallace. The video of the fight, which took place with just seconds to go in the 19 November game, became instant cable news fodder, looped and slow-mo-ed and highlighted so as to reveal the participants, increasingly ignominious with each iteration: the chair tosser, the cup chucker, the players-in-the-stands, and the tearful little boy.

The starting point for this televisual sensation was Artest, leaping from the media table into the seats: “Artest is in the stands!” yelped the tv commentator, rightly startled and excited. First-off-the-block critics found the obvious target. That arrogant Artest: he was looking for some time off to promote his CD, and now he’s got it. That seditious Artest: now he’s busted but good. That hotheaded Artest: he needs anger management, chastisement, hard-ass punishment. For too long, the carpers carp, he’s been bad for basketball, business, and blackness. At last, thanks to David Stern’s hard task-mastering, Artest is going to pay — properly. As Thomas McFeeley describes this overdetermined penalty phase, “Ron Artest was punished for being Ron Artest, the league bad boy” (“The Railroading of Ron Artest,” New York Daily News, 24 November 2004).

The second wave of commentary spread the blame around, without letting up on the prime suspect. As the event gained a series of contexts, the analysts and the pundits found more claims to make. Artest and his fellow suspendees — Stephen Jackson for 30 games, Jermaine O.Neal for 25, Wallace for six, Anthony Johnson for five, and four players (including Reggie Miller, not even suited up that fateful night) for one game apiece — turned into examples, players whose very presence in the stands signaled their excess and egotism.

Their representative status splayed in several directions, including the explanatory pieces on the “streets” influence. Inside of one week, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote two articles about Artest’s background, 26 November’s “With Artest, A Human Quality” and 28 November’s “An Enigma in the Hall Of Infamy; Suspended NBA Player Is Full of Contradictions.” Writing against the villainizing blitz, she conjures this portrait:

Let’s imagine a pair of heavy work boots, stomping around a frozen outdoor basketball court in a graffiti-scored housing project along a disconsolate stretch of the New York skyline. The boots, thick heeled and capped with steel toes, are kicking holes in a thick sheet of ice that covers the court, so that a boy with arms thin as winter branches can play basketball in the freezing winter. The boots belong to Artest’s father, Ron Sr., who breaks up the ice so his kid can play in endless cold and savagely competitive games of one-on-one, sometimes into the early hours of the morning (26 November).

Despite (or because of) its poignancy, this image also invokes familiar qualms: the kid who survives this environment is typically deemed a “natural” talent, beating odds but also limited by his particularly physical genius. As others have noted (including John Hoberman in Darwin’s Athletes, and Tobias Peterson and Mark Anthony Neal in this publication), black male athletes inspire complex responses in their consumers, ranging from admiration and intimidation, desire and disquiet.

As Artest become symptomatic rather than individual, he appears increasingly “uppity” — a celebrity afforded too much leeway, a hooligan paid too much money. Artest and his fellows now represent the strained relations between sports stars and ticket-holders: “Athletes and spectators don’t like each other anymore, generally speaking,” writes Phil Taylor in Sports Illustrated. “And it only takes a few overpriced beers in the hands of the wrong people to make the hostility leak out” (“Slippery Slope,” 22 November 2004). This image is instructive: tensions only barely repressed emerge with a fury, as fans feel wronged by performers who incarnate class inversion.

As journalists sought other ways to parse fan-player tensions, a framework emerges more nuanced than the familiar black versus white standoff, such that Artest comes to embody a generational shift. Specifically and unsurprisingly, this line of reasoning names his “hip-hop” attitude and goes on to scold the NBA’s embrace of hip-hop as a marketing strategy. That hip-hop — as an idea, industry, and politics — continues to designate race differences (despite and probably because of the much-quoted statistic that 80% of its consumers are suburban white males) only compounds the anxieties churning in conjunction with the “Motown Melee.” Such logic conveniently sets Artest alongside other black basketball players whose trouble-making seemed of a piece with their stylistic choices: Rodman, A.I., and Spre are only the most obvious examples, usually opposed to more tractable, conservative sorts like the much-beloved (though frequently and tellingly termed “vanilla”) Tim Duncan.

The invocation of hip-hop always indicts the players, of course, and not the fans also engaged in the fight. (Their aggression comes from elsewhere, perhaps their resentment that hip-hop and basketball pay so well.) As Todd Boyd observed in the Los Angeles Times, the players are then characterized as “Super-sized black men beating up helpless white men! Black men gone wild!” These descriptions lead immediately to that most convenient and recognizable of targets. “Let’s blame hip-hop culture,” Boyd continued, “The gangsta mentality, the rule of the street” (“Did Race Play a Role in Basketbrawl?”, 26 November 2004). Artest apparently had this particular accusation coming, as he earlier this month asked the Pacers for time to promote a CD. Whether this was Allure’s recently released Chapter III (which he held up during his interview with Matt Lauer on Today, thus inciting a new round of assertions that his “priorities” are skewed), or another CD on which he will rhyme at some time in the future is less than clear, but because he’s a tall black man, the leap was made, and pre-skirmish press repeatedly claimed he was requesting time off to promote a “rap CD.”

So Artest undergoes yet another transformation. First a rowdy but accomplished and well-rewarded player (indeed, the league’s most effective defender), then a deviant individual (whether representative or not), he is currently a thug and a wannabe music promoter, not quite adept at either. This latest identity includes requisite labeling (TruWarier, the name of his record company) and bad judgment (or lack of control, not quite the same thing, but blurred when assigning blame is the goal). Now observers are likening Artest to other athletes whose “problems” are characterized by an affinity to hip-hop. These include Vince Carter, who wanted to wear his headphones during practice (and so disrespecting fans, by wanting to “block them out”), and the Rockets’ Maurice Taylor, who “conducted an interview and wouldn’t even take off his headphones” (Michael Wilbon, “Hip-Hop Culture Contributes to NBA’s Bad Rap,” Washington Post, 25 November 2004).

It’s worth asking just when “wearing headphones” has become a sign of recalcitrance or insensitivity (how many of us wear them daily, at work and on the street?). At the same time, such concern underlines the ways that generation, race, and class remain entwined as identity markers. More disturbingly, it distorts those markers.

In this formulation, hip-hop is not only a sign of players’ impertinence, but also inscrutable to fans — those same fans who, by the way, purchase NBA, Nike, and Reebok gear, video games, trading cards, and Gatorade, all pitched with hip-hop-inflected ad campaigns. The “problem” of hip-hop thus seems inherent — it’s a means to sell something, consumption as a means to identity, for players as much as fans. While most consumers presume they make choices, this circulation of signs suggests otherwise, that identity is not produced by consumption, but consumes itself (in multiple senses). And as this process extends beyond hip-hop, basketball, and television, beyond celebrities or fans’ expectations, it produces fear, distrust and — the saga continues — profits.