“Think now, THIIIIIIIINK!”:
Media Mayhem, Racial Dissonance
and The Curious Rise of NBA “Djangos”
By Nicole Anderson Cobb, PhD
…“Think now, THIIIIIIIINK!”…
My mother would TRUMPET these words---with high-pitched emphasis on the final “think”---when she came across a series of ideas, news items, comments, or lived experiences THAT JUST DIDN’T SIT WELL WITH HER ….OR JUST DIDN’T MAKE SENSE TO HER.
This was her strategy to get my attention and get me to stop whatever I was doing or in the middle of the story I was telling, sit down, reason with her and DECIPHER EXACTLY WHY THE STORY DIDN’T ADD UP.
I can still see her tiny frame leaned up against the kitchen counter waving a spoon at me awaiting my response… or with a dish towel cocked on one hip with a knowing hand on the other, head to the side, quizzical mischievous look on her face, glint of disbelief in her eyes.
She’d recap the story and then ask: “Ok, now Nicole, wait a minute. Think now, THIIIIIIIINK. Does this REALLY make sense to you?”
Consequently, in this week marked by the ousting of LA Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling, my mother’s words---“Think now, THIIIIIIIINK!”--- have been the sobering through-line in this week’s circus of the stars.
Now, I think I get the narrative in its broadest strokes:
---Tapes are released of Donald Sterling allegedly saying less than flattering things about African American basketball players and fans.
---Social media works its magic transmitting the insults like a bad virus to any available host i.e. the American public.
---ALL HELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL BREAKS LOSE…SOCIAL MEDIA AND CABLE NEWS GOES BATS***-CRAZY as cyber-outrage spreads like wild fire regarding the comments
---The NAACP-Los Angeles chapter is harangued into withdrawing its support for Sterling at an upcoming awards event and other corporate sponsors begin to rescind support for the Clippers franchise because of the owner’s remarks
---NBA players---past and present---speak out against Sterling arguing that he “has no place in our sport and “shouldn’t own a team anymore.”
---The Clippers’ players themselves deposit their sweats center-court and wear their team uniforms inside out as a supreme act of disappointment and defiance against Sterling’s remarks.
---Then, NBA commissioner Silver decides to ban Sterling from the sport, Clippers’ facilities, games, etc.,. and levels a 2.5 million dollar fine against the billionaire for his deplorable speech.
---Consequently, Americans embrace, high-five, fistbump, cue the Pharrell “Happy” anthem as the nation delights in Sterling’s banishment from the sport.
---Mr. Sterling---comes out of his seclusion---to inform all that “he’ll see them in court.”…and the saga drags on.
…The thing is, though…from where I sit: there is plenty of blame to go around that does not rest solely at the feet of Donald Sterling.
Now let me be clear, I don’t know Donald Sterling and am not defending his beliefs in the least. However, Mr. Sterling seems to have been operating in a culture in which everyone tolerated him as long as they were getting paid.
So, between you and I: can we do away with all the outrage and moralizing? By the way, I have a few other questions if can indulge me for just a few minutes more.
Think now, THIIIIIIIINK!
Regarding the NBA players, where have all these players crusading for racial justice and tolerance been before now? How many of the offended players have been advocates for younger players who are trafficked into this playground-to-NBA pipeline (in the “best case scenarios”), yet continue to be undereducated, undercompensated (relative to university athletic programs, coaches and owners), emerge from families who make profound sacrifices and often bet family futures on the success of student athletes while college coaches make millions---from middle school through college---whether or not student-athletes ever “go pro”.
So---in the wake of some unfortunate remarks shared by an owner with a public history of problems with minorities---listening to the NBA elite wax philosophical about race & racism in the industry rings hollow for me.
It seems disingenuous for the players to participate in this national game of racial hot potato as Sterling’s blighted history deflects attention from the players’ relative silence on racism or disenfranchisement before now. Most NBA players public life consists of commentary on rings, bling, strategic philanthropy and expanding “their brands” with nary a mention of race…until now.
“Think now, THIIIIIIIINK!”
Furthermore, regarding the fans, where have all these fans crusading for racial justice and tolerance been before now? Turn on any NCAA or NBA game ANY day of the week and you will see a predominantly Black basketball squads entertaining predominantly white audiences with the exception of players’ family members and celebrities of color dotting the sea of whiteness that fills most basketball stadiums. Thus, Mr. Sterling’s concerns about Blacks being physically being present at “his games” seemed to be profoundly misplaced.
Furthermore, according to Nate Silver’s analysis in his report “The Clippers, Like Many NBA Teams, Have a Majority-Minority Fan Base (April 29, 2014; http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/the-clippers-like-many-nba-teams-have-a-majority-minority-fan-base/), African Americans view NBA games at rates 2-3times as high as other ethnicities via television---which affirms my observation that White predominate in the stadiums while Black predominate in homes, sports’ bars, etc.,
But I rarely hear basketball fans address this disparity publically beyond informal conversations in Black spaces.
So, I welcome NBA fans and players alike---now rabid for racial justice in the NBA--- to throw their energies behind increased opportunities for more diversity INSIDE ACTUAL basketball stadiums could be one of their projects.
Perhaps if these social-justice-oriented players can help fans by joining the fight for EQUAL PAY for women and minorities in America--- which might result in more of them being able to afford the cost of a ticket to an actual NBA game on a regular basis. That way women and minorities---and minority women more specifically---might not have to rely on the whims of billionaires to secure seats courtside in exchange for their compliance.
Think now, THIIIIIIIINK!
Finally, regarding that very community of folks loyal to the sport from outside its pearly white confines of NBA stadiums---I pose my final observations to MY FELLOW AFRICAN AMERICANS.
Why? Why? WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY do we as African Americans far too often find ourselves here time and again: swept up onto the social media tsunami without the first life preserver, raft or scrap of scuba gear to help get us back to the shore of contemplative reflection???
I do understand that it is nearly impossible to stop a moving train and that social media offers this heady, frothy mix of post, reposts, conspiracy theorizing, innuendo-vetting, breaking “news” and opportunities to attack the villain by way of word, song, meme, cartoonish renderings, etc.,
However, calling for Sterling’s head on a platter obscures the more serious questions THAT MUST BE ANSWERED:
---Again, what explains the predominance of White fans at NBA games across the board? What cultural, socio-economic factors drive the racial and economic segregation of the NBA fan base?
---Why are African Americans so concerned about an elite squabble between predominantly white billionaire NBA owners and their millionaire players? While I understand that many of the owners and players alike engage in community service and philanthropic activity to do good in many hoods of color, the income divisions between NBA elites and most African American fans is VAST---particularly given the struggle for survival among many African Americas.
Think now, THIIIIIIIINK!
---Furthermore, why do we---African Americans--- find ourselves wrapped up in the drama of the 1%---NBA players and owners. Meanwhile, most Black folks are suffering in under-resourced communities, negotiating under-employment and flat out unemployment, have yet to recover from devastating financial losses since the 2008 economic downturn, are relocating because of gentrification, are in the throws of multiple health epidemics related to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV AIDS, infant mortality, community violence and instability, domestic violence, gun violence, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental illness and internalized oppression, substance abuse, mass incarceration, racial profiling, …and the endless demonization of the African American community for American failings (and it’s African America president) as an American pastime.
Thus, with the brutal winds of 21st century blowing squarely and hardest in African American faces, let us not become too distracted by the bickering among the privileged class to ignore our broader plight.
Yes, I want respect and civility afforded to my brothers in the NBA. However, RECIPROCITY MATTERS. So if I am to lament “ their plight” with them, then I need them to also use their platform of privilege to address systemic inequalities impacting Black America across the board.
Think now, THIIIIIIIINK!
Hence, these are a few of my initial thoughts as I have waded through this week’s NBA v. Donald Sterling teleplay ---working not to let the potent mix of race, power, capitalism, celebrity culture(s) and the brutal 24 hours news cycle confuse my thinking on these matters.
In the title of this essay, I mention “Django” referencing the recent Quentin Tarantino film about an African American slave who partners with European bounty hunter to take revenge on his cruel slave owners and simultaneously free his lady-love from bondage. And those who know me, KNOW that I was a huge “Django” fan making my way to the film to see it four times while it was in theaters.
Thus, to watch all of these NBA players come forward to call for the ousting of Donald Sterling in an effort to eradicate racism from the LA Clipper organization reminded me of Tarantino’s “Django” (brought to life by Academy Award winning actor Jamie Foxx).
However---like Django---to kill one master did not dismantle the slave trade or the institutional racism that supported the slave trade for centuries.
Thus, as fans, players, owners and Americans more broadly, I hope we become as concerned and engaged with dismantling institutional inequality IN ALL ITS FORMS and seek racial equality, economic justice, safety, security and access to prosperity FOR ALL AMERICANS---not just celebrities in the NBA.
Nicole Anderson Cobb, PhD, is currently a visiting lecturer for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Department of African American Studies.
She is also the author of TANGLED, an award-winning play that examines gun violence in Chicago: http://www.lulu.com/us/en/shop/nicole-anderson-cobb-phd/tangled-a-dramedy-about-gun-violence-in-the-age-of-obama/paperback/product-20930899.html
Finally, she is also the convening playwright of The GunPlay(s) Competition 2013-2014, a competition focused on plays that examine gun violence in American life. For more information: http://www.samaritanroadproductions.com/contact-nicole-anderson-cobb-phd-at-samaritan-road-productions.htm