CI: Requiem for a Lightweight

November 28, 2012 at 7:00 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Poverty, Prison Industrial Complex

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Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Requiem for a Lightweight
by nancy a heitzeg

“Hector Camacho, a boxer known for his lightning-quick hands and flamboyant personality who emerged from a delinquent childhood in New York’s Spanish Harlem to become a world champion in three weight classes, died Saturday in San Juan, P.R., four days after after being shot while sitting in a parked car. He was 50. ” 

~ Bruce Weber, NY Times

The death of Hector “Macho” Camacho late last week brought back some memories. In the days when i watched boxing  – on network TV no less, Wide World of Sports, “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat” — Macho was beyond compare. He fought the stars of his era — Roberto Durán, Julio César Chávez, Edwin Rosario, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini ( who had previously killed Duk Koo Kim in the ring right there on live television) and Sugar Ray Leonard. He beat them all before losing his last title fight to Oscar De La Hoya in 1997. At the height of his career, he held Major Titles in 3 weight divisions and eventually won 4 more minor titles at additional weights, the first boxer to become a septuple champion.

Whatever his many skills as a boxer, he was always the winner on style. “What Time is It? It’s Macho Time!” never failed to reveal a dazzling array of both speed and ring wear — leopard skin trunks, tasseled boots, mink capes, gladiator gear, head dresses and more. (see Slide Show).

One of a kind.

But his death raised the troubling old questions as well — questions about our collective love of blood sport and the fine line between “entertainment” and “crime”. Questions about our expectations of athletes on the field/in the ring versus off/out. Questions of course about race and class and the many cultural contradictions “sports” expose.

Like his heavyweight peer, Mike Tyson, Hector Camacho was “discovered” by handlers who could market their street fighting skills as sport. Moved seamlessly from juvenile detention centers to the ring. What could easily be deemed aggravated assault, attempted murder (i.e serious violent felonious behavior)  in any other context was highly valued in the context of the “sport” of boxing.  Mama Said Knock You Out no longer meant prison time but Pay Day. Fame, Adulation, Titles. And from the perspective of capitalist systems, perhaps the difference doesn’t matter; as Patricia Hill Collins notes,

“Athletes and criminals alike are profitable, not for the vast majority of African American men, but for people who own the teams, control the media, provide food, clothing and telephone services, and who consume seemingly endless images of pimps, hustlers, rapists, and felons.”

Boxing is less popular and visible now, relegated to pay per view cable, eclipsed by higher action kick boxing/extreme fighting, or shunned altogether by those who object to the unvarnished directness of the violence or the heavy toll paid by its’ “stars” such as Muhammad Ali.

But certainly there is no shortage of ultra-violence disguised as sport.  Football, our most popular spectator sport, is the most para-military of all contact games. Helmeted gladiators “march down the field”,  “throwing bombs” in the pursuit of territory, measured in 10 yards increments at a time. Of course, injuries occur in the wake of the high speed dope-fueled clashes, but since they are not the goal per se, the violence is considered a collateral consequence, never to be named explicitly. Other team sports, such as hockey, have etched theatrical opportunities into  the game to give the fans what they really have come for, an “Enforcer” dropping the gloves and the promise of Blood on the Ice.

The usual norms prohibiting violence are suspended because of course, “It’s Just a Game”, and the participants — well at least some, rewarded with $$$ and adoring fans. If, however, the same behavior that is encouraged on the field of play lapses over into other settings (as it often does), a hypocritical and resentful public never stops to consider how fine the line between crime and the game. Never stops to consider that the behavior they just applauded is just the same as that they now condemn.

We love Mike and “Macho” in the ring; out on the street, not so much.

Hector Luis Camacho was born in Bayamon, P.R., near San Juan, on May 24, 1962. After his mother, Maria, separated from his father when Hector was 3 years old, they moved to Spanish Harlem. He started boxing at 11 and eventually won three New York City Golden Gloves titles, though after the first one he found himself in a cell at Rikers Island, serving three months for car theft. 

~ Bruce Weber, NY Times

Of course race matters here. A long literature in the Sociology of Sport (yes there is such a thing) documents the role race plays in recruitment for particular sports and assignment of key positions;  racial stacking continues to this day, despite the fact that Blacks represent the over-whelming majority of players in both the NFL and NBA .  And racialized explanations of athletic prowess persist too, despite their direct links to the long debunked pseudo-science of eugenics.

Just ask Jimmy”The Greek” Synder.

For our purposes, the most relevant literature draws on the connections between race and class in what William C. Rhoden has dubbed “the sports industrial complex”. ( See $40 Million Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete for an outstanding analysis of the historical role of Blacks in a variety of sports, as well as their current exploitation).

Sports is presented, especially to Black and Brown youth, as a vehicle for upward mobility, a way out so to speak. The promise of Hoop Dreams is tantalizing and largely unattainable. NCAA statistics indicate that less than a fraction of 1% of high school athletes make it to the pros in basketball, football, baseball or hockey. Those few that do  may do so without the benefit of a completed college education and face short-lived careers without adequate – if any – pensions. The super stars – of any sport – are the extreme exception certainly not the rule. Nonetheless, as David J. Leonard and C. Richard King argue in Commodified and Criminalized; New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports, these used up too soon athletes “also function as an ideological and discursive commodity used to sell the American Dream and colorblindness in post-civil rights America.”

Those who do “make it” serve this larger ideological function. In Child’s Play?: Black Labor In The Sports-Industrial Complex, Theresa Runstedtler additionally observes:

Arguably, maintaining the prison-industrial complex and other types of racial caste systems in the United States (i.e. unequal education, healthcare, etc.) relies heavily on black hyper-visibility in the sporting realm. On the one hand, individualist and sanitized stories of black success in professional sports are offered up as proof that race no longer matters. On the other hand, the over-representation of black athletes at play (especially those who do not follow the prescribed “rules” of sporting etiquette, both on and off the court) reinforces the notion that black people must be properly managed, and if necessary, caged.

When that fine line between the rules of the game and the rules of society at large is transgressed, the reaction, well, that depends.  There is an on-going debate as to whether or not athletes are more likely to break the law than average citizens, and a similarly mixed literature on the consequences of that. Sometimes athletes  get preferential treatment;  at others, media attention and the insistence that they must be  “role models” produces harsher sentences than might be expected.

As it always is with criminal injustice, the backlash is often subject to racialized double standards.  Some latitude is given towards white players whose off-field deviations may be sympathetically framed and/or medicalized; their addictions described as self-medication due to “playing through pain.” Sometimes they are dismissed entirely. When, for example, Lance Armstrong finally fell – after ten years of accusation and mounting evidence — there were still those who denied that he blithely biked while swilling mixtures of testosterone and olive oil or that he had bullied his team into becoming an EPO injecting doper gang. We raise an eye-brow but hold doubts about accusations of sexual assault  and even in death, we treat the over-doses and suicides of white sports figures as “tragic riddles”.

This largesse is rarely granted for their counter-parts of color. Here, the sports industrial complex demands compliance and gratitude. The reaction to deviance, however minor, is often swift and extreme. We have no time for the insouciance of a Randy Moss or the defiance of a Latrell Sprewell, no tolerance for the “thug – life” attire of an Allen Iverson or a Carmelo Anthony (see the NBA dress code and After Artest: The NBA & the Assault on Blackness ). Jose Canseco was vilified for telling the truth about steroid use in baseball; Barry Bonds was tried and convicted for using the same. And despite having served a federal prison sentence and returned to the NFL, Micheal Vick will forever and ever and ever amen be remembered as the public face of dog-fighting.

And, so, it is unsurprising that most obituaries of Hector “Macho” Camacho began and end – as does the New York Times piece excerpted in exact order here – not with the moments of sporting glory, but instead with the long litany of trouble.

And the headline, “Hector Camacho, 50, Boxer Who Lived Dangerously, Dies.”


One More Time.

Rest in Peace Hector, at last.

As a teenager Camacho was a brawler, a serial shoplifter, an admitted drug user and a car thief, and he never put that part of his nature behind him. He was arrested numerous times on charges including domestic abuse, possession of a controlled substance, burglary and trying to take an M-16 rifle through customs. This year he turned himself in after a warrant charged him with beating one of his sons. A trial was pending at his death.

~ Bruce Weber, NY Times

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MODI 1 Like

Beyond previous comment, as a lifelong sports fan, I am in a constant state of struggle between loving sports while attempting to grapple with the violent toll it takes on athletes lives. The truth is that I do love boxing and football for many reasons, but I have yet to have that "Howard Cosell moment" to walk away as he had done in the 1980's in boxing. When I watch film of a young Ali, I see artistry on the highest of levels, but know that this can't be separated from his Parkinsons.


I search for ways around it (i.e., can we make football safer?), but realize that I am complicit in many ways. It is a personal struggle that continues. The only way a non-sports fan can understand this internal struggle is if they had to give up the music or art they love the very most.  


Okay, I will remove myself from the couch now! :-) 

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @MODI ha --  you can stay on the couch if you want.. It is very complicated and yes i do know what you mean..


i keep saying that i am done with NFL but then i am suddenly in NOLA in the middle of this --

MODI 1 Like

 @nancy a heitzeg funny how that happens! i am holding out for some new technology makes a helmet that prevents concussions, but my better sense tells me that this is scientifically impossible!

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @MODI it would be great.. bu everybody is too big too fast too specialized with too much heavy gear on now...


Old school football was rougher in some ways -- better in others


MODI 1 Like

Nancy, just a tremendous post, and thanks for sharing it with us at As a lifelong sports fan, I struggle with many of the points that you raise. Moving from childhood to adulthood, I have come to abhor the racial double-standards and the not so subtle impact and reflection of the racism endemic in our criminal justice system. The influence of sports media plays an enormous role in the normalizing the criminalizing of athletes of color.


While this has always been the case going back to Jack Johnson, I don't think that the influence of sports has been given its appropriate study within the academic community -- not say, as compared to say other mass cultural movements such as music whether it be Bob Dylan or Hip-hop or similar course that are routinely found at universities. that is why I am so appreciative to pieces like these and others who make the connection between sports coverage and the criminal justice system. I do see academia weighing in more and more on an individual level and hope that this translates more and institutionally at universities.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 1 Like

 @MODI Thank you!!! I appreciate the repost and seeing you here too


Agree -- the sports industrial complex is under-studied and a crucial parrt of so many systems of inequality..


More to come m-- thanks for your work and your blog!

rubyr 1 Like

Well, I am very late and I apologize. I was 

working some odd hours on Tues. and Weds. 


This is another amazing essay. Our violent 

society is not getting any better. Such a 



Thanks Nancy and Seeta!! 


I guess POC will be exploited and 

dehumanized to the end of time. 

It's awful. But people like yourselves 

are doing a lot to bring awareness and 

that is heartening. 



trashablanca 1 Like

I've given up sports, partly because of the violence, partly because of the greed of the owners, and partly because of owners' GOP politics. I used to love basketball, baseball, football and boxing, but the violence is too hard on the players, and it's a shame that Junior Seau killed himself, and that he shot himself in the chest, so his football- damaged brain could be studied.


I grew up a Dodgers and Lakers fan, and remember how freaking many times Steve "cocaine" Howe was given chance after chance, until he aged out of baseball. I don't think he ever did time, but he is a white man.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 1 Like

 @trashablanca With you..Tim Tiebow alone is enough..


Had almost forgotten about Steve Howe -- got better  treatment than Daryl Strawberry didn't he??



trashablanca 1 Like

 @nancy a heitzeg Yeah, funny that, huh? I have been at Dodger Stadium when both men played, during their drug-troubled times, and the boo birds attacked both mercilessly and impartially, to my ears, anyway.

KayWhitlock 2 Like

Nancy, this is such an important and essential essay.  Thank you.


I used to be a boxing fan; lost my taste for it by the 90s.  I became so uneasy about the unspoken idea that the guys in the ring - and now the women, too - are gladiators in a dominant culture.  


RIP, Hector.


This:  "This largesse is rarely granted for their counter-parts of color. Here, the sports industrial complex demands compliance and gratitude. The reaction to deviance, however minor, is often swift and extreme."


nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 3 Like

 @KayWhitlock thank you Kay..


yes i became uneasy with the gladiators around then too.. And the extreme damage.


Football and hockey are just as bad -- they disguise it slightly better with the teams and the outfits.. But just the same

KayWhitlock 3 Like
rubyr 1 Like

 @nancy a heitzeg  @KayWhitlock Wow!! I didn't even know there was a Bob Stevens. Sickening. 


I was exposed to cock fighting in Louisiana and it was one of 

the most barbaric things that I have ever seen. I almost threw up and I only got a glimpse. I do not understand how anyone could gain pleasure from that type of horrific activity. 

KayWhitlock 3 Like

 @nancy a heitzeg Yes, a clear double standard.  Bob Stevens is a good ol' boy, while Vick stands as the Mythic Criminal.  In fact, the dog fighting promoted by either is reprehensible - but let's get real about how this was covered.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 4 Like

 @KayWhitlock one more thing..


you know i am an animal rights advocate who abhors any sort of animal abuse, including dog-fighting..


But I have to say, the reaction to Michael VIck -even still -- was stunning..


He was used to further the myth that dog-fighting is some "urban event", while Bob Stevens -- the real face of dog-fighting -- still sells his books on amazon..


there is is..

Seeta moderator 4 Like

Really thought-provoking piece Nancy! i honestly didn't know much about Camacho -- but this is a must read for anti-racism advocates.  

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 4 Like

 @Seeta thank you Seeta.


.it was cathartic for me to write it..i'll admit -  i was a fan


Too many industrial complexes aren't there?