On the NBA: Discussion with David J. Leonard, author of ‘After Artest.’

‘After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness,’ the third book by David J. Leonard, is a deeply compelling interrogation of the historical racial politics at play in the power structures and representations relating the NBA’s players, audience, media, and organizations. I got a chance to correspond with Dr. Leonard via e-mail, for this week’s column.

Q – What led you to write this book?

A – As an NBA and basketball fan, and as a scholar of race and racism in post-civil rights America, After Artest is really the confluence of my academic expertise and personal passions. One of the first pieces I wrote was about race and the NBA in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s arrest in Colorado. At that point, I began to think about how the NBA was a site for the articulation of ideas about race. In a society where race was always present yet minimized and denied, the NBA operates as Todd Boyd has noted as a space where race was front and center. I set out to write a book about race and the NBA, but my outline for the book quickly changed after the Palace Brawl. Just as the landscape, the narratives, and the cultural significance of the NBA was changing, the book changed as well. To examine race and the NBA, to look at media representations and persistent stereotypes, led me to focus on the NBA after Artest. While I sought to write about the Brawl, the dress code, and the age debate, the book really came about as unfolding story about the NBA. As the league changed, and with each report, column, or debate, I sought to integrate them into the book itself. So, in this sense, the book came about in response to the shifting debates (and rule changes), the contested ideas, the changing landscape, and the permanence of race and racism inside and outside America’s basketball arenas.

Q – You say that the Palace Brawl restructured your vision for the book. Since you finished writing it, plenty has transpired that has significantly altered the discussion of the issues at hand in ‘After Artest’—the continuing illumination of the proceedings of the 2011 lockout, and subsequent new CBA certainly come to mind. Is there any one *After ‘After Artest’* moment that sticks out to you; anything that happened where you wish you could’ve included it in your narrative? (Dwyane Wade telling David Stern ‘I’m not your child’ would be my answer…)

A – Yes, much has happened since I finished the book – from LeBron’s decision to take his talents to South Beach to Peace’s elbow of “the beard.” The lockout, and the NBA’s intent on restructuring the league to curtail and constrain player power is a powerful signpost as well. The effort to try to remake the league as one of rivalries (in the tradition of the NFL) reflects the influence of Palace Brawl and the perception that NBA players had too much power. The resistance and backlash directed at years of paternalism that came to a head during the lockout is also illustrative. As you note, Wade telling David Stern ‘I’m not your child’ is almost a post-script to the book in that it embodies the ongoing frustrations and opposition to the systemic reposes from the league. These all matter and are all part of the continuing narrative that I seek to document with After Artest. But more than anything else, Trayvon Martin stands out for me not only because he was killed on All-Star Sunday, and because the book seeks to bridge what is going on inside/outside the arena. It sticks out because the NBA enacted a dress code; it sticks out because the NBA and the media as a whole lamented certain clothing styles as undesirable, suspect, and even criminal. Thinking about the many articles and the NBA’s legislative decision in relationship to Trayvon’s hoodie and player protests is powerful.

Q – Were you heartened to see the Heat’s acknowledgement of the tragedy?

A – It did hearten me because it took risk. It pointed to the power and potential of social media, which takes the exclusive power away from the traditional gatekeepers. It took an effort to push back against the forces that seek to keep NBA players inside of a bubble that constrains and contains contemporary black voices. It also gave me pause because I think we have collectively failed to make the links between Trayvon and the media coverage of today’s NBA players; we need to talk about the consequences of the NBA dress code and its racial messaging. The tragic killing of Trayvon Martin and the response from the Heat, Carmelo and others provided an opportunity to talk about the criminalization of black bodies within contemporary society and how media and sports culture perpetuates stereotypes. It was a moment for media and fans to look in the mirror and the links between describing clothes worn by players as “gangsta” or “thug” and what happened to Trayvon Martin.

Q – Regarding the dress code, I’ve been intrigued by the increasingly unusual fashion choices of guys like Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Rajon Rondo. I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before their expressive clothing (while working within the dress code restrictions) steps over a line that the NBA clout doesn’t like, and we see even harsher clothing restrictions; or, perhaps, something more dynamic. What do you think?

A – I actually think the emergence of “nerd chic” within the NBA illustrates the ways that NBA players have sought to challenge the dress code that sought to imagine professional through a blue 3 piece suit. While following the rules, players have sought to assert their own sense of style, their own sense of individuality, through sartorial choices. That is, the clothing can be expression of resistance to the demands that the players look and act like Michael Jordan. The media and the league has long elevated Jordan not only because of his game, but because of his symbolic meaning for much of white America: as evidence of post-raciality. Jordan was known for his suits and in the aftermath of the Palace Brawl, the league and media commentators demanded that players look more like Jordan. So that when we look at the stylistic choices, we must think of this in terms of resistance, in terms of asserting control over their own identities, brands, and public personas.

Q – I agree. What are the odds that the players, in their search for a new NBPA Union leader, choose someone who’s attuned to these sorts of issues? Billy Hunter obviously didn’t fight for them, and–whether it was consciously, or just resultant from his basically selfish malfeasance–he was very much party to the systems of control exercised by ownership and the league’s front office. Do you think there is a man alive, a good candidate, who can effectively mobilize the players’ best interests?

A – The players, especially in a post-Palace Brawl environment, and because of the ways that race operates within contemporary culture, have a difficult road in terms of mobilizing support for their cause. Because of the money, because of the belief that “they should shut up and play,” that they should be grateful, because of racial stereotypes, resistance is hard. If we look at how players are chastised and demonized for the slightest critique of the dress code or the rule excluding straight from high school players and we can see the extreme difficulty. I actually think it has to be about fans, about those committed to equity and justice. And this isn’t a fight just about player interest because the costs and consequences of the culture of punishment within the NBA, the demonization of black youth, and so much more extends beyond the NBA. I think it has to be a cooperative coalition which would also require the NBA Union to be more vocal and present about issues of justice outside of the scope of the NBA. The NFL union has been much more out front in terms of bridging the struggles their members and the broader fights for justice, fair employment, health conditions, and countless other issues.

Q – That seems about right to me; that it needs to be a larger civic issue. And that we’re a long haul away. I remember when the lockout hit, and I kept over-hearing people malign the players for demanding more money. They didn’t even know that it was the owners who started the lockout, by freezing the players out.

A – Yes, it points to failure of media to provide an accurate account; it points to need for society to becoming more literate as it relates to popular culture, media, and race; it points to need for the union to challenge the process that reduces players to pure commodities. It’s tough, and after the Palace Brawl, the NBA league office and its media partners have increased their leverage over the players. While always an uphill battle, given the place of ball within society, given persistent racism, the Palace Brawl provided the league with necessary leverage and fan support to further undermine player voice and power

Q – Michael Jordan’s real voice was largely suppressed, in his famous 90’s runs–your book alludes to his lack of public ‘black personality.’ I heard a lot of outrage from fans, and the media, when his Hall of Fame speech exposed him as something other than corporate monolith he was made to be. A – I think the reaction to Jordan’s HOF speech highlights how fans in general don’t want honesty, and especially don’t want honesty from black athletes. The speech reflected a level of rawness unseen with Jordan with his tailored suits and public persona. His refusal to endorse a candidate in North Carolina Senate race and his lack of involvement within issues of inequality embodies the demands, if not constraints, of being a black athlete within contemporary America. His visibility, his power, his popularity, and his presence as the face of the league was contingent upon his avoiding politics, avoiding discussions of race, and otherwise making white fans comfortable. Yes, his ascendance to the top of the NBA mountain was about his game but it was also about what he embodied in the dominant imagination. Q – Yes—and it’s this space of the dominant imagination that LeBron James seems increasingly less interested in filling, himself. A – Yes, LeBron has always been less concerned about his role as representative of the league. From his use of social media to his decision to take his talents to South Beach, from his employing his friends as part of his “team”–and even ‘The LeBrons–illustrates how he is able and determined to craft his own “brand.” He seems less concerned about filling MJ’s shoes as the symbol of America’s postracial fantasy.

Q – What, if anything, do you know about forthcoming new NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver? Do you think his stance on identity (racial) politics in the league will differ any from Stern’s?

A – I cannot see any changes in terms of NBA policy with handover of power from David Stern to Adam Silver. I actually foresee a continuation of same old policies which rather than working to challenge dominant ideas about race as it relates to the NBA embrace, nurture, and perpetuate stereotypes. If we look at the NBA Lockout for any cues about the Silver administration it should be clear that the next NBA era will not be one that’s transformative and empowering for its players

Q – In lighter territory: who’s your team?

A – The LAKERS; I was born and raised in LA, so have been a Lakers fan since I was a little kid. I grew up watching Showtime, remained a fan even in the lean years, and continue to follow the Purple and Gold.

Q – What kind of noise do you think they can make in the playoffs?

A – All about matchups; if they can avoid the Thunder in the first round, they could go deep. I think they can still do some damage and have started to figure out their identity, but I think they could make the finals.

View this discussion from the forum.

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