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The Real Color of Money: Controlling Black Bodies in the NBA

David Leonard

The NBA playoffs are upon us, and PopMatters covers both sides of the debate surrounding the push to impose age limits on the league's incoming players.

+ Age Before Ability: Why College, Not a Contract, Should be the Next Stop for the Student Athlete by Bill Gibron

Asked about the racial implications of the proposed age limit that the NBA plans to add to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Indianapolis Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal stated: "As a black guy, you kind of think [race is] the reason why it's coming up. You don't hear about it in baseball or hockey. To say you have to be 20, 21 to get in the league, it's unconstitutional. If I can go to the U.S. Army and fight the war at 18, why can't you play basketball for 48 minutes and then go home?" He went on to point out, "In the last two or three years, the Rookie of the Year has been a high school player. There were seven high school players in the All-Star game, so why we even talking [about] an age limit?"

Before he even finished his last sentence, the media vultures began to circle. O'Neal was predictably attacked with little thought or regard for his statements. "Jermaine O'Neal has no idea what racism is," wrote one columnist, while another cited the absurdity of O'Neal's comments as reason enough to institute a rule change: "Look at the behavior of Jermaine O'Neal. He has helped prove the fact that the NBA needs less high school-ers in the league. All you need to do is bring up his behavior in Detroit, and everyone will know what I'm talking about." For these commentators, and for many others, whether these young pros are talking about race, fighting at the Palace, or merely donning braids, tats, and phat diamond earrings, the downfall of the league rests on the back of those players who have entered the league without a stint in college.

In reality, this response to Jermaine O'Neal's comments reflects a widespread acceptance of colorblind racism, which continues to guide post-civil rights racial discourses within the United States. In his book, Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues that discursive frames that minimize racism "suggest that discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities' life chances." Dismissing hate crimes, police brutality, racial profiling, continued inequality, and individual prejudice, whites accuse people of color of using race as a "crutch," of being overly sensitive when it comes to racism, and of deploying the dreaded and instantly discredited "race card."

The swift and pathologizing response to O'Neal used his comments as evidence for his lack of education and for the need for an age limit. Such a reaction is reflective of this widespread colorblind frame. The subsequent discourse has denied the very real racial contexts, implications, and meaning of an age limit within the predominantly black NBA, and has instead reduced the problem to just another of O'Neal's ignorant views and the latest installment of the tendency of people of color to see race where it is not appropriate.

Defenders of the proposed age limit see race as a non-issue here. A number of commentators have similarly dismissed O'Neal invoking race in that the rule would affect all players, regardless of race. Nick Prevenas of the online Sports Fan Magazine claims that, "The proposed NBA age limit has its share of problems, but it's not a racist initiative. The age limit is an equal opportunity discriminator. The 20-and-under barrier wouldn't only affect American high school kids -- it would have a massive impact on overseas prospects." Of course, the overwhelming bulk of the players impacted by such a policy within the predominantly black NBA would be African American, but comments like Prevenas' seek to limit racism to instances of intentionally and explicit harm done to a single racial community. They furthermore represent a failure to see outcome, or to see links between racial discourses and the condemnation of young players as "greedy," "selfish," hip-hop," "punks" or "thugs."

Efforts to de-racialize the proposed age limit, professional sports, or contemporary America at large, reflect a lack of understanding of the way that race operates today. In the absence of Klan rallies and Jim Crow signs, racism is often difficult to both define and locate; coded and guided by implicit assumptions, racism is indeed alive and well. For instance, laws in Chicago that require felonies for those possessing narcotics within 300 feet from public housing (compared to misdemeanors for identical crimes in the suburbs) do not possess a specific racial text, yet those affected (in arrest, sentencing, incarceration) are people of color. The same can be said for a recent Virginia law that sought to criminalize "sagging pants." Contemporary American policies, like the age limitation, whether within the NBA or the criminal justice system, do not resemble Jim Crow signs of the past, but their support still emanates from racialized notions and their impact unquestionably preserves white dominance and inequality.

Along these same lines, commentators have sought to delegitimize O'Neal's comments in saying that objections to the rule are not motivated by race but by money. While certainly part of the equation, monetary issues don't necessarily invalidate racism as an explanatory factor -- wasn't slavery driven by both financial greed and white supremacy? In fact, the systemic process of financially exploiting the bodies of black athletes fulfills a long history of racism in America. A third argument stems from the idea that an age limit finds support amongst people of color, whether it be players (Shane Battier; Reggie Miller), commentators (Michael Wilbon) or fans. This again does not undermine the legitimacy of O'Neal's comments, but rather demonstrates the complexity of race and the power of racist ideologies. As noted in Racism without Racists, in a society where 40 to 50 percent of black people (and just less than 60 to 70% of white people) believe that blacks are lazier and more inclined to commit crimes than white folks, racism is not dead, but rather infects and guides discourse in all communities. Lastly, the argument that the rule cannot be racist because it ultimately seeks to help black youth is both absurd (imperialism, colonization, and institutions of enslavement have always invoked paternalism and "helping" as a legit basis for their endeavors) and baseless.

In general, the rationale for implementing an age limit has been over-simplistic. Michael Wilbon, for example, stated on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption that the policy was a good idea because it would give a different message to hundreds of young black men who are operating under the disastrous idea that they are headed for the NBA and therefore aren't concentrating on school. In other words, such a policy would supposedly send a message to America's (black) youth that school matters, that success can come from something other than "slingin' rock" or ballin with "a wicked jump shot." Such a colonial discourse reflects not just hypocrisy but a reimagination of reality as well. Within the contemporary United States, racism and inequality do more to drive young black teenagers away from the books than pro sports ever could. From "No Child Left Behind," which has shifted funds away from schools and pushed youth of color into the military, to the growing police state, which draws minority youth away from school and into America's prisons, it is the state, and not basketball, that discourages youth of color from "success in schools." Allan Johnson's Privilege, Power and Difference, offers an in-depth examination of this phenomenon. In New York, for example, Johnson notes the richest (predominantly white) school district spends almost $40,000 per student, while the poorest (predominantly people of color) invests less than $5,000 in each student. If it is not the non-funding of education for minority youth, it is the fact that education does not translate into professional or financial success for people of color, for black and Latino households with college educations are three times more likely to live in poverty than white families.

Rather than engage these realities, the discourse concerned with an age limit within the NBA follows a larger discursive tradition: the blaming of individuals and a community culture that supposedly pushes ballin' over books. Just maybe, though, it's the paltry per-pupil spending or persistent job discrimination that represents the true point of discouragement.

Moreover, the argument that the NBA is facilitating a whole generation of young black males who invest all life's energies and focus into a vain pursuit of basketball has little to do with the age limit proposal. Everyone from Charles Barkley to the average blogger has cited the dangers of a generation of black youth with no education or skills beyond basketball as the basis of supporting the rule change. Beyond promulgating stereotypes and deploying the problematic rhetoric of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others, who have cited personal (and cultural) factors as the basis for understanding rates of welfare, incarceration, and poverty, efforts to link an age limit in the NBA to helping America's youth of color fundamentally lack evidence. In his 2004 Sports Law Review article, "Illegal Defense: The Irrational Economics of Banning High School Players From the NBA Draft," Michael McCann illustrates the lack of supportive evidence for the argument of Stern, Barkley, and others: "[F]rom 1995 to 2003, over 80 percent of drafted high school players became, or will become, multi-millionaires by the age of 21... Simply put, for every Korleone Young, there are two or three Kobe Bryants." In other words, the argument that the age limit would not only have been good for Korleone Young, but for the many black youth who ignore their books to become the next Kobe or KG, is not only baseless, but further removes the real culprits -- state violence, racism -- from public discourses regarding youth of color.

The desire to establish an age limit cannot be understood outside the backlash against the hip-hop baller in the wake of Kobe Bryant's non-trial, the Palace Brawl, and a host of other events, each of which supposedly announced the demise of the league if it didn't wrestle control back from the tattooed, braided, bling-blingin', posse rollin', street ballin' straight-outta-high school ghetto baller. Following the Pistons-Pacers melee at Auburn Hills, Bryant Burwell wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the following assessment of the league, demonstrating the racialized disconnect between the league and the fans: "[the NBA] thought they were getting Will Smith and LL Cool J. But now they've discovered the dark side of hip-hop has also infiltrated their game, with its 'bling-bling' ostentation, its unrepentant I-gotta-get-paid ruthlessness, its unregulated culture of posses, and the constant underlying threat of violence." In other words, it thought it could capitalize on the popularity of hip-hop through safe and acceptable (policed) embodiments of blacks, yet that is not what proved to be profitable and, ultimately, heightened fear within the league has resulted.

As a means to minimize the infiltration of this (literal)"dark side of hip hop," the proposed age limit not only functions as a gatekeeper, but represents an effort to put black male bodies and styles under surveillance and control. While partially about the owners not wanting to pay first round dollars to players that might take years to develop, and most certainly about the desire of college programs to profit from the unpaid labor of America's top players, the push to force athletes to attend college reflects a desire for them to arrive into the league as "seasoned" and "domesticated." A few years with champion taskmasters Bob Knight, Mike Kryzwezski, or any number of white NCAA coaches is believed to be the answer to the influx of the hip-hop generation. As one columnist wrote, "Perhaps Kobe Bryant would have dealt with adversity in a more positive manner had he spent a season or two playing for Mike Kryzwezski at Duke." In other words, an age limit will not only make the NCAA better with an influx of talent (and, let's not forget, dollars), but it will also enhance the popularity of the game -- all while players exchange their labor for the charade of a college education. This would also improve the NBA on the court and off, with white coaches breaking down the next great baller by thwarting the street ballin' and unacceptable hip-hop demeanor that scares both the league and America.

The racial implications are as undeniable here as are the policy's intent to control black male bodies and aesthetics. Scoffing at those who denounced O'Neal for his comments about race and the proposed age limit, Scoop Jackson wrote, "Let's define stupid... An NBA superstar finding something racially motivated when the principals involved are specifically of one race? That's not stupid. That's conscious." Can you imagine a media commentator or citizen of the 1960s denouncing a civil rights worker or even a black laborer for questioning the racial implications of Jim Crow? Just as then, the motivations of profit and appeasing white customers play through the age debate. At its core is an agenda of controlling black male bodies, making sure that they yield a steady, reliable source of cash.

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