† 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, and author of The School-to- Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline and Racialized Double Standards, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Sporting Dissent and Racialized Double Standards
by nancy a heitzeg
Certainly by now the pervasive patterns should be clear: there is an undeniable double-standard of racialized social control that pervades all aspects of life — education, law, politics, policing, punishment, protest and sports. White men tend to have their transgressions minimized or at worst, be medicalized , while the tendency towards people of color is criminalization. The long historical record verifies, but examples abound from just the past weeks.
While 32 year old man-child Ryan Lochte was scandalizing Rio with lies to the police to cover his night of drunken vandalism and excess, this was described as mere “shenanigans”. Conversely, Gabby Douglas was attacked for failing to put her hand over her heart during the Pledge. And this was no intentional dissent. So imagine the media explosion when Colin Kaepernick protested with a sit-in during the National Anthem:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Well. We are now on Day 6 of an escalating frenzy that requires every dead/living former/current NFL player/coach/equipment manager (and random NASCAR driver) to weigh in one way or another. The central theme is patriotism, and claims of “bad timing” laced with a strong dose of “shut up and play”. Perhaps the reaction to Kaepernick is particularly volatile due to the deep links between football and militarism, – both literal and metaphoric – with the NFL as America;s War Game.
Although social media and loss of collective memory impels each of instances to be treated as new, they decidedly are not. Racialized double standard apply heavily to athletes as well in protest or just regular play. Several years ago in Requiem for a Lightweight, CI noted this:
“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.”
The same double standards are exacerbatedt in protest as the demands of “compliance and gratitude” are clearly denied, and entertainment only ethos of the fans is disrupted by the seriousness of the subject at hand. Hoodies Up.. #BlackLivesMatter. The Mizzou football strike.
And there will be more. Undoubtedly with the same backlash – but calls for justice expect no peace:
“America’s remarkable stability is the product of a structural resistance to fundamental change and its history is interwoven with racism that was once self-evident but now operates with winks and nods that few in power are willing to fight. To oppose racism is righteous. To deny its existence, no matter the reason, is cowardice. To treat a peaceful protest like an act of war against whiteness or America — notions used interchangeably in this debate, which is problematic — is hypocrisy.”