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Ball Don’t Lie

Sports metaphors, as a rule, are silly and rarely accurate. Football is not really like war, regardless of what its legion of ex-players and commentators will tell you. Baseball does not provide a window into America—the gentle tension between laconic, quasi-agrarian pacing and the game’s values of grit and meditative cunning feels nostalgic to the point of absurdity now. There was a time when every salaried sportswriter would anthropomorphize every three-year-old filly into Joan of Arc, but those stories read like kitsch today. They may evoke some past, but no one under the age of sixty is sure if that past actually existed.

Hank Willis Thomas/Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Hank Willis Thomas: Basketball and Chain, 2003

Basketball has always generated a different set of metaphors than football and baseball. Part of the distinction comes from the sport itself, which, like boxing, presents the athlete as both ordinary person and superhuman. Because it is played without caps or helmets and in a relatively small space, basketball allows us to see not only the emotions a player experiences during the game but also the beauty and extraordinary skill that goes into every minute of action. It’s possible that you or I might close our eyes and picture ourselves playing second base for the Mets, but only the most delusional person would ever think they could play alongside seven-footers with forty-inch vertical leaps.

The closeness of the camera lens also invites the fan to reckon with who, exactly, the athletes are. The superstars, around whom the sport has always revolved, each has an interpretation of the game, epitomized by Michael Jordan’s singular intensity, or LeBron James’s patience and perfection, or Stephen Curry’s joy. Basketball, as a result, becomes “like jazz” or “like hip-hop” or “the heartbeat of the city.” The “soul” of the game, to borrow another coded cliché, is Black, somewhat, though not entirely, in the way that boxing was Black. Both sports have been dominated by Black athletes who take on a god-like status and become among the most famous people in the world. Both carry a vague, seemingly political weight, wherein every argument about Black people will also be freighted onto the Black athlete.

Boxing and basketball are both Black sports, but their myths—at least the ones that endure, whether Norman Mailer’s writing about Muhammad Ali in Zaire or Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx’s footage of William Gates and Arthur Agee in Hoop Dreams—are created by white men who are earnestly, and often clumsily, trying to understand their subjects. The reports always read a bit anxious—there is no one more self-conscious than the white boxing or basketball writer who has to address race. Even the objections to the dominance of Black athletes in these two sports exist in an anxious state. You can cheer for the Great White Hope all you want, but you know he’s eventually going to get knocked out.

These contradictions are examined in Robert Scoop Jackson’s recent book, The Game Is Not a Game: The Power, Protest, and Politics of American Sports. Jackson, who is Black and most recently a writer at ESPN, has spent the last three decades navigating how, exactly, to present the concerns of Black athletes and fans to readers in a media industry owned and operated by white people. His examinations of protest and politics, as a result, read more like literary criticism than anything else. Through a series of essays and a lengthy interview with Jemele Hill, the Black SportsCenter anchor who was dragged through the conservative outrage machine for tweeting that Donald Trump is a white supremacist, Jackson asks not who has the real power—the answer is obvious: the white owners of the league—but rather who controls the cultural production of sports.

This examination is personal: Jackson came to prominence in the mid-Nineties as the lead writer for SLAM, a magazine whose covers showing NBA athletes Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Allen Iverson in defiant poses came at a time when “authenticity” through hip-hop culture was sold at scale to kids in the suburbs. Just as The Source magazine and the Rap City TV show on BET provided white kids access to NWA, Notorious BIG, and Tupac, Slam promised an unvarnished, street-driven look at basketball. It was selling “realness.”

I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the breeding ground for “the Carolina way” defined by Dean Smith, the longtime basketball coach of the University of North Carolina. His teams took on an almost genteel affect, one that both reflected and molded the politics of the town. Smith was one of the first coaches to desegregate college basketball in the South, and he was always given credit for turning his Black athletes into gentlemen, student-athletes who could blend in with the wealthy donor class sitting courtside in powder-blue sweater-vests.

For a rebellious, Korean-American teen like myself who was awkwardly trying to situate himself, without much success, Jackson’s writing, with its rap and jazz references and its relentless, engaging voice, provided a vision of Black agency that felt almost illicit. My high school did have a fair number of Black students, the vast majority of whom were poor and lived in a de facto segregated part of town. Chapel Hill prided itself on being more tolerant than the rest of the state, but the markers of its past were everywhere. We played youth basketball in the gym of the formerly Black high school; we walked past a now toppled Confederate monument on our way to Pink Floyd laser-light shows at the planetarium. Slam, and Jackson’s vision of basketball, made the endless local debates about the relative morality of UNC, the public school with a civil rights hero as coach, or Duke, the tobacco-baron institution for spoiled kids from New Jersey who hadn’t gotten into Princeton, seem both stuffy and parochial. It felt political in a way that I could not articulate but urgently wanted to understand.

This was always the dialectic of boxing—even the most ardent racists were trying, in their way, to deal with the fact that, under the fair-fight Queensberry Rules, a Black man could beat the living hell out of a white man. The racists were usually rebutted by the well-intentioned, like the famous New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Cannon, who said of Joe Louis, “He is a credit to his race—the human race.” Later, David Remnick, in his book about Muhammad Ali, rightfully took Cannon to task for that phrase and pointed to its clear condescension as a sign of Cannon’s own sublimated racism. This sort of pileup of corrections—white writers disentangling the racism of other white writers and saying that they knew better—was the animating spirit of mainstream fight-writing. Today, that tangle has been shipped off to the NBA. The contours have shifted and much of the discussion around basketball has moved away from the players, thanks to analytics and the rise of obsessive reporting on every transaction a team makes, but Jackson is right to argue that any discussion of politics in basketball must first acknowledge the innate warp in the conversation. We’re still trying to figure out who really got Ali best: George Plimpton, Mailer, or Cannon?

In June I went to a protest in Oakland that had been organized by a group of high school students. Thousands of people were expected to show up, so I parked about a mile away and walked to the site. On my way, I passed a line of cars that had stopped at a busy intersection. A barrel-chested, middle-aged white man got out of a Mercedes SUV and stood solemn watch as three teenage girls excitedly climbed out the back holding “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police” signs. He was wearing a T-shirt that expressed his own political beliefs: “Popovich/Kerr 2020.”

The most revealing chapter of Jackson’s book deals with the coaches Gregg Popovich, of the San Antonio Spurs, and Steve Kerr, of the Golden State Warriors. Both are NBA champions who have spoken out extensively on race, policing, and Donald Trump. Other NBA coaches, including David Fizdale (formerly of the New York Knicks), who is Black, and Stan Van Gundy (formerly of the Detroit Pistons), who is white, have given similar, if not even more forceful, protestations, but they do not receive the same retweeted love. There are no “Fizdale 2020” shirts. The basketball press does not lionize Van Gundy, who, in addition to his repeated support of Black Lives Matter, recently argued for a $15 minimum wage.

Jackson also admires Popovich and Kerr. “The outspokenness and frankness,” he writes. “The realness and openness. The courage and temerity. All beautiful to witness. All necessary in order to make the change they seek or to force a change unwanted. But,” Jackson goes on, “theirs is without risk. For they are protected. They are not threats to themselves or to others around them.”

They are, in other words, white, and enjoy all the associated safety that comes with being it. But not all white coaches, Jackson argues, are the same. Two things set Kerr and Popovich apart: the lack of compromise in their statements, and, perhaps more interestingly, and unlike Van Gundy, their résumés on the court. Kerr and Popovich

are able to stand on what they stand for openly due to their history of winning and continual ability to win…. Same with any coach who has amassed the respect that comes with winning in sports in America. Being white is a bonus. An added uniqueness. Winning one-ups race, sometimes gender, often class, on occasion politics. A coach—especially a white one—who sets a standard for winning is in most cases the most powerful person in their respective sport.

This, for the most part, checks out. Successful coaches almost always last longer than their players. They are older and carry a nearly professorial gravitas that bleeds over into everything they publicly discuss, whether zone defense or police violence. Jackson doesn’t explicitly say why, but my sense is that the self-consciousness that informs basketball writing runs both ways: when white people seek out the opinion they should hold about race in America, they seek out pedigreed white men who not only have spent a lot of time with Black people but also have led them to victory.

Popovich’s and Kerr’s dissent operates on two levels. They are the wizened translators for their Black players, but their authority comes, as Jackson points out, from the bizarre conviction that winning games must require some special insight into Blackness itself. Black coaches don’t get the same credit: Doc Rivers, a Black coach who won a title with the Boston Celtics and guided the Clippers team through the Donald Sterling controversy, in which the league’s most trenchant racist was finally ousted, also talks about social justice, but until he nearly broke down in tears while discussing the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, his thoughts had mostly been ignored. Similarly, the actual beliefs of Black players are largely taken for granted, which means the coach sits not exactly as the medium for his players but for a vaguely defined “Blackness.”

For its non-Black, liberal fans, basketball exists in a sort of triple consciousness. They love basketball in part because it allows them access to Blackness. This, however, comes with guilt and discomfort, which gets processed into a monolithic and easily accessible politics of what these days is called “allyship,” which then needs to be codified and rubberstamped by the esteemed white men who know the players the best. Popovich and Kerr serve as models for white allies. Underlying all this is a pressing need to understand Black people.

In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons, undoubtedly the most influential NBA writer ever and the founder of The Ringer, the sports and pop-culture website and podcast network, wrote that when he was a Celtics-obsessed six-year-old, he told his teachers his name was Jabaal Abdul-Simmons because he wanted to be Black. Simmons has been relentlessly mocked for this by other NBA writers and fans, but he laid out the simplest and possibly most honest reduction of the white fan’s relationship with basketball: at some visceral, perhaps subconscious level, that fan obsessively follows the NBA because he wants to be culturally Black. This is nothing new. The white jazz fans who crowded into the Café Bohemia in New York to hear Mingus or the white backpackers who hung out in front of Fat Beats in Los Angeles and spoke with an affected Black accent were after something similar—they wanted to sidle up to Black culture while only reckoning with Black suffering through shallow declarations of support for social justice and enthusiastic support for famous Black people. They, like NBA fans, defined themselves not so much by their relationship with Black people as by the small differences between themselves and their fellow white culture-tourists.

As happened in boxing, successive generations have brought to fandom a more respectable and less cringe-inducing language that gets policed relentlessly. Jackson devotes an entire chapter of his book to the analytics movement, which after giving rise to Moneyball-inspired, Ivy League–educated executives who ran baseball teams like hedge funds moved over to basketball. Jackson sees analytics as an insidious development meant to strip power away from Black athletes and executives. “Too many empty theories,” Jackson writes,

too many number crunchers, too many pseudo-intellectuals, too many white dudes stripping away at the culture of the game by using numbers to dictate how the game is going to be played, and to discredit the way it was played in the past. It is the customary American process of controlling someone else’s American Dream.

“We play the game,” he continues,

for a greater purpose than numbers. There’s a passionate connection we have to basketball that no other race, creed, or culture in America could understand unless it has walked with us through that four-hundred-year fire we call our existence in America.

When I worked for Simmons at the now defunct sports and pop-culture website Grantland, we published a lot of basketball analytics writing. Part of our project was also “celebrating” the NBA through an obsessive coverage of “silly” players like JaVale McGee, Nick Young, and J.R. Smith, who became lovable antiheroes. Every lascivious Instagram post, every tweet that read as “street,” every boneheaded play in a game was converted into smirking content. Everyone in the editorial office, save me, was white. I don’t think we acted out of malice, but the intent, at least subconsciously, was to create two points of access for ourselves, and, by extension, our audience of mostly white, mostly educated sports enthusiasts. First, we wanted to be the best analytics site on the Internet. Second, we wanted to “humanize” the league through a meme parade. We were desperately trying to wring our work through the hope, however misguided, that we could justify our own place in a Black sport. What Jackson understands is that the entire structure of professional basketball—whether ownership, marketing from the shoe companies, or self-conscious coverage of an overwhelmingly white sports media—is just a variation on that same ungainly attempt.

In the winter of 2015 I took a break from journalism and moved to Portland, Oregon, to work at the Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency. The reason was simple: I needed the money. But I also had reached a bit of an impasse in a career spent writing about sports and race. The problem was that I didn’t really know if the two subjects converged, at least in any meaningful way. At the time, political sports writing felt like a mostly nostalgic exercise with fixed yet somehow abstract reference points—Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens—whose modern-day equivalents, through no fault of their own, never quite lived up to the comparison. LeBron James, for example, might wear an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt before a game, but that only seemed to inspire meta-conversations about athletes’ responsibilities, rather than pushing forward an idea itself. I was tired of the stretching, so I decided that I might as well go work for the company that had made all my favorite Nike ads. The line between sports journalism and sports marketing didn’t seem wide enough to deny myself the comforts of an actual salary.

My work was mostly pleasant. I liked my coworkers. Nobody seemed much bothered by trivial dichotomies between story and commodity or brand and truth. This was just a fun job where you made cool stuff with every perk you could possibly imagine, from lunch meetings catered by one of Portland’s culturally appropriated restaurants to long shoots in Los Angeles under the direction of Michel Gondry. I watched Kobe Bryant’s last game, in April 2016, at a bar with my colleagues because my closest friend at the agency had been the art director of the farewell commercial in which a cast of fans and players serenaded Bryant with a satirical version of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” We were all excited for him when it aired. Scrolling through social media that night, I saw that everyone else had loved it, too. This, it seemed, was a better way to be a sports fan.

After six months of pleasantness, my wife got pregnant. We weren’t sure if we wanted to raise our kid in Portland, so I went back to New York City to take up journalism again. On my third day at my new job at Vice News on HBO, Philando Castile was killed in Minneapolis. A Black copywriter at Wieden+Kennedy sent out an agency-wide e-mail about how the death of yet another Black man at the hands of the police had affected him. (I was still on the agency’s e-mail list.) This prompted a reply-all deluge of sincere, at times uncomfortable conversations about race. After dozens of emails, Wieden+Kennedy’s website went black but for a short, succinct message: #BLACKLIVESMATTER.

A few days later, the agency announced their newest client: social justice. Some very serious Super Bowl ads followed, and then in 2018, a full two years after Colin Kaepernick knelt for the national anthem and was subsequently blackballed by the NFL, my pleasant and earnest ex-colleagues put out Kaepernick’s famous Nike ad. The spot, which did not once mention the police—and which featured the nebulous slogan, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”—was widely celebrated, not so much for its message but for its existence in the sports economy. If Nike and its billions of dollars and its influence could stand with Kaepernick, that meant something was changing.

This was two years ago. I found myself thinking about those advertising colleagues this summer, when news started coming out about the NBA’s plans to “address systemic racism” inside its elaborate, Covid-fighting bubble at Disney World, which it set up after suspending regular season play in March. These plans included a set of messages agreed on by players and owners that could be worn on the back of jerseys that ranged from “I Am a Man,” the slogan used by Memphis sanitation workers during their 1968 strike, to anodyne words like “Equality” and the even more bendable “Freedom.” The league, in addition, would be placing decals saying “Black Lives Matter” on the courts at Disney World. Before the players arrived, Kyrie Irving, one of the league’s most popular athletes, tried to convince his fellow players to not play and focus, instead, on the protests. Irving did not give much detail about what that might mean, but on a conference call with over eighty players, he reportedly said, “I don’t support going into Orlando. I’m not with the systematic racism and the bullshit. Something smells a little fishy.” He added, “I’m willing to give up everything I have” for social justice.

His declaration was debated on all the usual sports talk shows. The attendant chatter on social media focused on whether or not Irving—who was injured at the time and couldn’t play in the bubble anyway, and who has occasionally floated flat-earth theories—was serious. Far less time was spent discussing the (valuable) line he seemed to be drawing between supposedly real protest and the display put on by the league and its corporate sponsors. Weeks later, Irving donated $1.5 million to help offset the salary losses of WNBA players who had decided to opt out of their own bubble. (That included Maya Moore, one of the greatest women’s basketball players of all time, who sat out last season to help free a wrongfully incarcerated man from prison.) The question Irving seemed to be posing was not unlike the one I had cast aside when I decided to go work in advertising: Can the NBA partner with Nike and its marketing and advertising machine to create a meaningful message of dissent? And if so, whom is the message supposed to reach?

For Irving, the answer was no. At the time, he was seen as an outlier—not just in the league, but also among protest leaders, including Alicia Garza, one of the three Black women who started the Black Lives Matter movement. Garza recently told the sports website The Athletic that seeing those words used by professional sports leagues across the world “blows me away. It’s incredibly amazing.”

Jackson, for his part, is not a critic who wants to tear everything down at the first whiff of impurity. He, like Garza, believes that dissent in sports, even if it’s organized by the biggest corporations in the country, can have a profound transformative effect. In his introduction, Jackson writes, “THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT POWER,” and while he concedes that white ownership ultimately calls the shots on the business side, he still sees great potential in both the actions of individual athletes and the physical and spiritual spectacle of the games themselves:

I’ve noticed how most of the people making decisions that affect sports at the highest money-generating level are those furthest removed from the cultural center of the games….

I’ve also learned that not having power or ownership in sports doesn’t make you powerless…. Sports in America gives—and has given—minorities, women, the disenfranchised and disrespected leverage that is rarely afforded by any other chosen American profession. Through sports we have found a sense of freedom that is nonexistent or not accepted in other walks of life.

For Jackson, the game is the game, but there’s still the game itself, which is not a game.

These are real distinctions, not just semantics, but as I read through Jackson’s book, I couldn’t always tell where power started or ended. He describes, for example, how a team’s ownership can work with media to offload its own messaging onto an athlete, but he also touts the social importance of Nike ad campaigns, calls Kaepernick a “militant in Nike clothing,” and even suggests that Popovich and Kerr should have a Nike shirt that reads, “I’m Not Woke, I’m Wide Awake.” The final chapter, titled “I (Still) Can’t Breathe,” argues that individual athletes should not have to be the face of social justice in sports, but that teams, their owners, and the leagues themselves should take the lead. He seems fully aware that these institutions are almost entirely owned and managed by white people who exploit Black labor, but his suggestions mostly call for a shift in messaging, not exactly in practice. The discussion of basketball and race, in other words, should be turned into a monologue, but the triple consciousness—wherein the white fan confronts the Blackness of basketball but accesses it through its white power structure and uses that comfort to create a conditional, and ultimately facile, “understanding” of Black people—can remain mostly undisturbed.

The Game Is Not a Game was published before the protests in response to George Floyd’s death and the creation of the NBA bubble, but in his final chapter, Jackson predicts a revolution in sports that will spread to the greater public:

Given the state this country is in, the divided mindset of the people, the players’ struggles and maneuvers for power, the refusal to relinquish position or provide leverage by those in power, the current outcome may not be an outcome at all—with sports transforming into something much more than a game, athletes subscribing to be much more than just athletes, and fans believing more and more that we have earned the right to be more than just fans.

For the first two months inside the bubble, the NBA followed Jackson’s prescription. Every team and the leadership of the league placed the vague notion of systemic racism at the center of their self-presentation. On the first night the NBA season resumed, I watched players, coaches, and referees link arms and kneel for the national anthem. When the song ended, the players took the court with the collectively bargained slogans on the backs of their jerseys. Following Popovich and Kerr’s lead, the NBA centered its show around thoughtfulness, with dutiful incantations of its responsibility to use its platform for good and ninety-second videos of players, all of whom were wearing masks, talking to the camera about what systemic racism and police brutality mean to them. Nothing was unexpected or particularly moving. I imagine nobody’s mind was changed about anything, which I imagine wasn’t the point anyway.

During those first days of the NBA bubble, the only disharmony came from two players—one white, one Black—who stood while everyone else knelt. (Popovich, who served in the military, also stood for the anthem, as did Becky Hammon, the first woman to work as a full-time assistant coach in the NBA. When asked about it, Popovich said, “I’d prefer to keep that to myself.”) These acts of defiance prompted an interrogation both from the reporters inside the bubble and then throughout social media about why they would do such a thing, openly at odds with not only public morality but the stated values of the NBA. This shouldn’t have been surprising—protest requires conflict, and the most progressive league will offer the fewest opportunities for an actual challenge to power. When almost everyone kneels and the media asks the standers about it, kneeling becomes the league-approved norm.

Professional leagues around the world have also followed Jackson’s prediction and placed their institutions, whether franchises or their front offices, behind Black Lives Matter. But outside of NASCAR, which banned the Confederate flag from its raceways, pro sports have not yet “transform[ed] into something much more than a game.” The athletes were still athletes and the fans were still fans.

After two nights of demonstrations in Kenosha, several NBA players expressed frustration over being stuck in the bubble. Their thoughts were most succinctly summed up by Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics, who tweeted, “I want to go protest,” implying that what he was already doing—giving statements to the press and kneeling for the anthem—did not qualify. The next day, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for Game 5 of their series against the Orlando Magic. That same night, WNBA players staged a walkout; the Milwaukee Brewers declined to play their scheduled MLB game against the Cincinnati Reds; the tennis star Naomi Osaka said she was dropping out of her semifinal match in the Southern Open; and Kenny Smith, a former point guard and longtime commentator on TNT’s Inside the NBA, walked off the set. For the players, coaches, and media who withheld their labor, true resistance lay outside the game.

The day after the strike, the NBA announced it would resume the playoffs. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that the players wanted to “find new and improved ways to make social justice statements,” but that “games would be returning over the weekend”—which does not make the NBA’s initial bubble demonstration meaningless. If the league’s experiment showed just how effectively a well-run corporate machine can keep the balls bouncing during a time of viral infection and uprising, the player strike showed what can happen when all that comes crashing to a halt, if only for a couple of days.

When yet another Black person is killed by the police, no person of good conscience will stay home because they believe that watching a basketball game has fulfilled their duty to humanity. Nor will the spectacle of players kneeling at half court inspire anyone to walk into clouds of tear gas. Kaepernick’s initial act of protest, four years ago this week, was replicated in stirring, meme-like fashion on high school lacrosse fields, college basketball courts, and throughout the NFL; it has become a signifier of assent. Nike just provided every NBA player and coach with a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt written in the familiar “Just Do It” font. And the league has made it clear that they, too, consider social justice a treasured client. After the strike, these messaging efforts will only be redoubled. All of this could help lessen the distance between the white fan and the league he loves—but I don’t see how diminished self-consciousness or increased social awareness will lead to Jackson’s revolution.

Soon the season will resume, and the league will again test hundreds of its players, coaches, and staff for Covid-19 in a bubble located in Disney World. Those players will receive their results within twelve hours in a state where doctors, nurses, and elder care aides report twelve-to-fifteen-day waits on their diagnoses. Between games, the players will head back to their rooms, which are cleaned by a workforce made essential by the NBA’s need to play games. They will eat food cooked by another, similar group of workers, none of whom are within the bubble or have access to the same testing capacity. The vast majority of those workers will be Black or Latino. This is also a form of “systemic racism,” but it’s one that the usually smooth, frictionless politics shared between the NBA, its players, and its fans will never acknowledge because it goes beyond the abstract desire for white people to understand Black people, and speaks, instead, to the ritual exploitation that benefits—and damns—us all.

—August 27, 2020