“O’ Say Can You See” Racial Tensions and Sporting Nationalisms by Ron Mower

Americans love sport.  We are also very picky about which sports gain prominence within the U.S., how they are viewed abroad, and how it relates to love of country, respect for the flag, and our patriotic responsibilities.  Sport and nationalism represent a dialectically linked and tightly interwoven relationship that can bring out both the beauty of national identities, collective celebration, and social acceptance, but also the ominous threat of jingoistic aggrandizing, racial hatred, and parochial imperialism.  It is one thing when disrespect for the U.S. comes from people abroad (as in the recent booing of the national anthem by British fans at the Floyd Mayweather vs. Ricky Hatton fight late last year) but when it is perceived as coming from within (Becky Hammon was labeled a traitor by her former U.S. WNBA counterparts for signing a contract to play for a club team in Russia) the issue becomes an even more volatile exchange.  Throw in the issue of race in a country steeped in lingering racial disparities in education, employment, health care, overall wealth, and access to vital emergency disaster response, and you have a full blown catastrophe waiting to unfold.  Such conflict, quite literally exacerbated on many angles by rapidly advancing media technologies, has once again surfaced surrounding NBA player Josh Howard.     

During the singing of the national anthem at a charity flag football event held by Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony in July, Josh Howard appeared on a camera phone video saying, “”‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is going on. I don’t celebrate this [expletive]. I’m black …”  Since the video became public, and in the midst of a string of bad PR decisions, the popular media has heavily berated the “unpatriotic” Howard for “perpetuating his ignorance and hostility toward the masses” and becoming the Dallas Mavericks’ “resident idiot” (Smith, 2008).  I was appalled, yet sadly not surprised, to see so many overtly racist comments on public blog forums that brazenly pointed the finger of derision at Black athletes and the Black community.  Nevertheless, with such harsh criticisms abounding, it is interesting to examine Howard’s comments within a context of heightened Americocentric sensibilities, patriotism, and jingoistic nationalism surrounding the Beijing Olympics, presidential election, Iraq war, and anniversary of 9/11.  In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, then a guard for the Denver Nuggets, refused to stand during the national anthem because to him, the American flag represented a symbol of oppression that conflicted with his religious beliefs as a Muslim.  While receiving much criticism for his decision, many sportswriters resisted the opportunity to join in the haranguing, instead noting the apparent hypocrisies surrounding the National Anthem’s superficial yet ubiquitous presence in the NBA and the sporting world in general:  


This is a league that insists players, coaches and trainers “stand and line up in a dignified posture,” while a renowned recording artist butchers the work of Francis Scott Key and fans yell “Dee-fense! Dee-fense!” or allege that some detested opponent makes a lewd slurping noise.  Rowdy fans aren’t the only ones who treat the anthem as a pre-game seventh-inning stretch. Parties proceed unimpeded in luxury suites. Sportswriters type on in restricted press areas. And when the beloved anthem gets in the way of an N.B.A. network telecast, o say, can you see how it conveniently is played 20 minutes earlier, when the arena is half-empty. That is how important it really is.  It is, let’s face it, a tradition that is absolutely idiotic in today’s world, as opposed to when it began, before baseball games during World War II. Nobody goes to a sporting event to make an expression of patriotism…It is an N.B.A. rule, though, and we all know that N.B.A. rules are not made to be broken, or stretched…[but] it didn’t seem to bother the N.B.A. when Jordan, Charles Barkley and other Republic of Nike pitchmen shamelessly used the flag to cover competing corporate logos on the Olympic medal stand in Barcelona, Spain, four years ago. Guess that was just good business judgment (Araton, 1996, p. 1)

You would be hard pressed to find a similar tone of rhetoric arising from today’s popular media concerning the importance of the anthem, let alone to find anyone coming to the defense of Howard, except owner Mark Cuban who clearly has an interest in mollifying the bad PR for his star player and franchise.  It seems that political protest is a diminishing option into today’s volatile amalgamation of corporate sport, nationalism, and the media.  The past eight years have certainly set the tone for establishing the unwavering importance of “patriotic correctness” (Silk, 2007) that precludes any opposition to the American status quo.  Never mind the fact that there have been other protests during the anthem—most importantly Tommy Smith and John Carlos in 1968, but also Toni Smith and Deidre Chatman in 2003, and of course Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1996—which provided the forum to bring attention to racial inequalities, opposition to war, or America’s imperialist ambitions. 

Of course, it could be argued whether Howard’s comments represented any form of thoughtful protest or were simply the result of a verbal blunder caught on camera while “playing the dozens” (Smitherman, 1994) with his peers whom he obviously felt comfortable enough around to make his comments.  A similar mishap occurred for Carmelo Anthony who, in 2004, was seen in a highly controversial home video promoting witness intimidation.  Carmelo’s exploits in the ‘Stop Snitching’ video were certainly uncharacteristic for him; it would be absurd to claim he actually supported the message in the video—intended to intimidate local residents from snitching to police or face violent retribution—since he made extenuating efforts on his own accord to correct his actions through community outreach and has been involved in charities and philanthropy work both before and after the incident.  What is apparent in both cases is that young athletes, regardless of their race, are public figures every moment of their lives whether they like it or not.  For Black athletes then, the situation is far more tenuous due to the continuing racial anxieties plaguing our society, and the systems/structure of the sports-media-commercial complex which put Black male laborers on scrutinized display under the governance structures of White dominated NBA management.  The idea of a representative racial subjectivity remains extremely salient in our image obsessed society.  For example, while Howard’s comments denote his opposition to the anthem as a Black man, one Black sports columnist, after noting Howard’s dedication and work ethic for his team and the game of basketball, surprisingly stated:

If only Howard took that the same approach toward representation of the African-American community! Whether or not Howard is sensitive to whatever plights exist regarding African-Americans is not for me or anyone else to say definitively, because none of us are flies on his wall. In Howard’s world, he may think he’s being sensitive to black people and what plagues this community, and that may have been what he was aiming for in spewing his rhetoric. But what Howard doesn’t seem to get — and he’s joined in this by some members of the hip-hop and entertainment community, or anyone black willing to disseminate and perpetuate perspectives devoid of facts — is the damage their moments of exasperating expression ultimately costs the very people they believe they’re looking out for.  It has to stop now (Smith, 2008, p. 2)

Clearly, Black athletes, as representative subjectivities, continue to be held under greater rigidity and scrutiny for their actions than their White counterparts because they are supposed to “represent the African-American community.”  While no one really knows why Howard chose to make those remarks, it is interesting to note how the popular media quickly attributes any indiscretion by a Black athlete as the undeniable expression and influence of the hip-hop, thug generation.  Carmelo Anthony also fell victim to over hyped media criticisms in 2004 when he returned to visit friends in his native Baltimore and appeared in the infamous ‘Stop Snitching’ video on the streets where he grew up.  He too, had experienced a string of minor mistakes that, when compounded by the video, found him being labeled amongst the NBA’s “punks and thugs” (Kindred, 2004).  Prior to that time, Anthony’s commercial image was closely aligned, although with a more contemporary urban flair, to that of Michael Jordan’s squeaky clean, racially displaced image (Andrews, 1996).  However, to ensure the continued profit from his commercially mediated persona, Nike used the ‘Stop Snitching’ incident to its advantage by re-creating Anthony’s image to fit the urban, thug identity, legitimizing the authenticity of Nike’s street credibility.  In a much darker and solemn follow up advertisement, Anthony was filmed walking down those very same menacing streets past dilapidated domiciles, police helicopters, and the downtrodden poor, thereby symbolizing his individual fortitude in ascending from the urban plight of Baltimore to the fame and fortune of the NBA. 

What is similar between Josh Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and many others is that their public image, as delineated by the dictates of the White dominated popular media, is so fluidly bound up within discourses of race.  Michael Phelps can get DUI’s and a little slap on the wrist, but his popular commercial image remains very much intact.  Certainly White athletes are also derided for making mistakes, although the amount of coverage is obviously disproportionate, but their commercial image is rarely altered to capitalize upon the indiscretion and they are never lumped into racially specific categories.  Conversely, there are two primary subjectivities under which Black athletes tend to be categorized by the media and corporate colonizers like Nike.  First, the Jordanesque, “safe and sanitized” (Soar, 2001), atypical Black athlete, lauded for their athletic abilities but also their conformity to the ideals of the NBA and predominantly White consuming populace.  Secondly, there is a “ghettoentric,” urban exotic (Hall, 1992), who defies the normative codes of institutional power and is subsequently used to symbolize “authentic Blackness” (Cole, 1996; Sandell, 1995) and notions of difference in the post-Fordist commercial marketplace.  With such dichotomous representations, an appreciation of Black athletes’ diverse and complex identities as real people are, when it comes to their commercial identity, reduced to fit neatly into racial categories easily identifiable by the consuming masses to ensure profitability.  In essence, Blackness is hereby reduced to a number of aesthetic styles in which it, “becomes simply another resource appropriated by the colonizer” (hooks, 1994, p. 150). 

Furthermore, in the wake of the U.S. men’s Olympic gold medal in Beijing—where a formidable team of mostly Black men were portrayed as the embodiments of American superiority under the auspices of a new U.S. basketball structure—Howard is unfairly placed squarely in opposition, not only to the U.S. as a nation, but to his compatriots who, through their mediated representations (mainly by Nike), were depicted as shedding their overly ghettocentric individualism in order to come together as a team.  With such disdain for anyone seen in opposition to American ideals of patriotism, it is uncertain what will become of Josh Howard’s commercial identity or his career for that matter.  What this incident does make clear is that the current political climate, evidence of patriotism, and acceptance of opposition is drastically different from what it was even ten years ago.  As part of that contention, superficially cyclical commercial images and repressive representations of Blackness continue to create dissonance in the popular consciousness of U.S. citizens and have now become problematically enmeshed in a heightened sense of patriotic responsibility.   



Araton, H. (1996, March 14).  Sports Of The Times;An Issue Of Religion And Respect.  The New York Times.  Accessed from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E00E0DF1639F937A25750C0A960958260

Andrews, D. L. (1996).  The fact(s) of Michael Jordan’s blackness: Excavating a floating racial signifier.  Sociology of Sport Journal, 13, (2), 125-158.

Cole, C. L. (1996). American Jordan:  P.L.A.Y., consensus, and punishment. Sociology of Sport Journal, 13(4), 366-397.

hooks, b. (1994). Spending culture: Marketing the black underclass. In Outlaw culture: Resisting representations (pp. 145-153). New York: Routledge.

Kindred, D. (2004, September 6).  Team USA: Selfishness personified.  Sporting News, 228(36), 80.

Sandell, J. (1995). Out of the ghetto and into the marketplace: Hoop Dreams  and the commodification of marginality. Socialist Review, 25(2), 57-82.

Silk, M. (2007). Come downtown and play. Leisure Studies, 26(3), 253-277.

Smith, S. (2008, September 18). We know Howard can play, but there’s little value in what he has to say.  ESPN.com.  http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/columns/story?columnist=smith_stephen&page=jhoward-080918

Smitherman, G. (1994). Black talk: Words and phrases from the hood to amen corner. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Soar, M. (2001). Engines and acolytes of consumption: Black male bodies, advertising, and the laws of thermodynamics. Body and Society, 7(4), 37-55.


One thought on ““O’ Say Can You See” Racial Tensions and Sporting Nationalisms by Ron Mower

  1. Ron,
    Well written and compelling throughout . . . do you mind if I link this to my blog on the Freire Project website?

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