– By Brandon Wallace
Brandon is a Master’s student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
While the divide between players and executives in the National Football League (NFL) has rightfully dominated media sporting discourse over the last couple of years, a similar dilemma is quietly emerging in the National Basketball Association (NBA) – although for a different reason. One of the most prominent stories of the first half of the NBA season has been the seemingly deteriorating relationship between players and referees. Players have expressed frustration with the referees for increasingly showing disrespect to players on the court and having a ‘quick trigger’ when doling out technical fouls, ejections, and flagrant fouls (fouls that refs deem unnecessary, excessive, un-basketball-like, or violent, which amount to player fines). This is not a problem exclusive to rank-and-file players; the stars have arguably been hit the hardest. Big names such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and others have all been ejected this season for transgressions that most agree did not warrant punishment that excessive. Referees, on the other hand, have voiced their frustration concerning players criticizing them on the court, sensing what they perceive to be a fleeting level of authority.
Public opinion has predictably been more critical of the players, who are on the sporting front lines as the source of entertainment, than the referees, who, by design, stay outside of the casual fan’s scope of recognition. The dialogue and behaviors of refs are not seen or experienced by anyone but those on the court, while every players’ spoken profanity and demonstrative reaction to a controversial call is replayed and sensationalized. Nevertheless, many fans continue to criminalize the players, calling them ‘out of control’ or ‘unruly’ for displaying behavior considered disrespectful to “authority.” Even more problematic, league and team executives have taken a similar stance. One anonymous team executive told Bleacher Report’s Ken Berger (2018, Jan. 19; p. 24): “The hammer has to drop from above. When you had [former League Commissioner] David [Stern] there, none of this stuff was going on because they weren’t going to put up with it.” Fans and executives alike are calling for players to be brought back under control.
This is a residual need for perceived control and disciplinary authority over black bodies by the NBA, which is nothing new to an African-American community that has historically suffered the repercussions of this rhetoric on a broader and more consequential scale. Just as the ceaseless tough-on-crime rhetoric in American politics was always a euphemistic dog whistle representing the regaining of control over bodies of color, the new ‘quick trigger’ of refs and discourse of regaining control of player behavior is another mechanism for reigning in perceived unruliness. And just like the tough-on-crime era that saw a skyrocket of harsh punishment accompany a plateau and fall in crime, the current NBA ‘crisis’ is driven by fear rather than facts. This season has seen no increase in technical or ejections. Through 648 games, refs have handed out 497 technical fouls, compared to 512 through the same point last year. There is neither an increase in ejections or a significant deviation in the amount of correct and incorrect calls this season (Berger, 2018). To further the tough-on-crime analogy, the current NBA player/ref dilemma is more symbolic than substantive, and its punitive effects arguably do not outweigh its potential benefits. Fines and suspensions are being distributed at a higher rate than ever, but there’s no evidence that it is deterring criticism of refs or emotional reactions. Even current League Commissioner Adam Silver admitted that “the fines…in many ways are more symbolic than anything else” (Bishara, 2018; p. 2).
If nothing has changed statistically, what explains this perception of unruly athletes who need to be disciplined? I believe there has been a change – at the cultural level, where quantifiable measurement is difficult to impossible. Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci viewed culture as a battleground between dominant and subordinate groups, where social values and relations are shaped, represented, and contested (Gramsci, 1971). The NBA has long been a cultural battleground. Ever since black athletes became prominent in the league, the NBA has attempted to accommodate yet control black culture just enough to render it palatable for white audiences. In a league that is increasingly “blackophilic” (seductively fascinated with the racial “Other”) but simultaneously “blackophobic” (fearful and dreadful of the racial “Other”), the league has used various tactics to control the discursively-constructed black body just enough to be able to exploit the fans’ fetishization of that black body for profit (Andrews & Mower, 2012).
Former Commissioner Stern tended to take a more authoritative approach. He did not shy from explicitly implementing mechanisms of control – such as the infamous 2005 dress code, which outlawed traditionally black style of clothing in favor of ‘cleaner’ and ‘more dignified’ apparel consistent with white America. Current Commissioner Silver, however, appears to be more player-friendly. He has collaborated with players on a number of issues previously considered off-the-table and has tended to be more sympathetic to their concerns than past administrations. In his handling of player/executive disputes, Silver has shown a unique affinity for considering the plight of players. Perhaps it is not the ‘crime’ of referee criticism that the ‘hammer’ needs to be dropped on; perhaps it is this shifting power landscape that many consider to be unruly.
The purpose of this post is not to choose a side between players or referees. I believe the game does need a strong and stable balance of respect for referees and tolerance for the manifestations of the game’s physicality and emotional nature. Rather, I found it necessary to deconstruct the growing myth of an unruly and disrespectful class of NBA players that needs to once again be brought under control. While referee criticism and emotionally-driven behavior can be detrimental to a sport, it is not exclusive to basketball – or black culture. In hockey, emotional outbursts and ‘unruly’ behavior leads to a dropping of the gloves, one of the sport’s biggest points of interest among fans and an action, if not encouraged, then tolerated among league executives. In baseball, the “rushing of the mound” or the tantrum by the manager are among the sport’s most memorable and jubilant moments. It is not the unruly behavior that is deemed dangerous, but the black body itself that is constantly eligible for further regulation. Criminality is and always has been subjective, and criminalization has almost always been reserved for those without the power to define what cultural behavior is acceptable and what is deemed unruly.
Andrews, D.L. & Mower, R. (2012). Spectres of Jordan. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 35(6), 1059-1077.
Berger, K. (2018, Jan. 19). “Why the NBA suddenly has no chill.” Bleacher Report. Retrieved from http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2754910-why-the-nba-suddenly-has-no-chill.
Bishara, Motez. (2018, Jan. 11). “Adam Silver listening to complaints from NBA players and refs.” ESPN. Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/22046032/nba-commissioner-adam-silver-admits-fines-doled-players-criticizing-refs-more-gestures-deterrents.
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence & Wishart.