2.05.2007

FreeDarko Book Club #2: Of Frank Obsequious Necessity



Now, please gather round for what might prove to be the most arduous of all these FreeDarko Book Club exercises. The second reader on this accursed thesis of mine is none other than John Hoberman, author of the daunting Darwin’s Athletes. When I spoke to Hoberman on the phone for the first time and attempted to explain FreeDarko, I came away with the distinct sense that he thought I was an idiot. As it turns out, our entire project is just a slightly more palatable version of his chief ideological target. Underlying all of FreeDarko is the assumption that athletic exploits have meaning beyond themselves, and that they have some sort of positive relationship with race and class in this country.

Hoberman’s book—and Hoberman himself—would insist that this is contrary to giving race any real political oomph. When he told me to consider the Romanticism/realism, I’d thought this was a question of aesthetics vs. socio-cultural concerns. Now, I’m fairly certain he’d consider our interest in race and class tainted, itself an attempt to remake politics in the image of style-centric athletic performance. Which would presumably be either absurdly naïve or vacuously postmodern.



For the record, the basic argument of Darwin’s Athletes goes like this: mythologizing sports leads to a gross over-estimation of their societal worth, and ignores the pernicious effect the have had on the black community. Kids want to be athletes, who ultimately are not that special or interesting and are stuck in a white-controlled business venture. Few of them will get to become one of the pros they emulate, so they’ll have effectively forfeited their future. Compounding the problem are black intellectuals, who see sports as a meaningful cultural contribution. Comparing sports to jazz is an example of this. Seeing sports as a meaningful vanguard of racial harmony is another; this is also a tactic employed by white liberals who like their politics anthemic. There’s also a ton more about the intersection of race, sports, science, and prejudice, but I think we’re immune to those accusations.

I want to preface my self-defense by pointing out the obvious: there has been a lot of FreeDarko written, some of it on the fly, much of it in the irreverent spirit that pervades these interwebs. If some of it has no choice but to submit to the ironic/pathetic diagnosis, I’ll at demand that you recognize these as kind of fun. And perhaps illustrating the bind we’re in: how does a critique of traditional fandom lead directly to a new kind of fandom? Silverbird is fond of the phrase “liberated fandom,” but aren’t we still talking about a form of fandom? I want to say that we’re advocating a more enlightened way of viewing the same sport-object; Hoberman would argue that this does little to spur real justice, in sports or in the world that looks to them.



After having spent the better part of an airlift grunting over this, I’ve come up with what follows. I’m not convinced that sports can make a difference. At the same time, very little of FreeDarko smacks of real world triumphalism. I can’t recall any of us seriously suggesting that the NBA is proof of a better day—or even that it provides a clear model for a solution. What I do think, however, is that today’s NBA can provide us a heightened, dramatized version of the socio-cultural issues we all swim in daily. Fine, players are incredibly wealthy and lucky, and yet they still find themselves in a workplace where very mundane black/white issues come up. Hoberman cautions against viewing sports as a theater of social progress; most of the time, I see it mostly as a theater of vulnerability and dysfunction—social, cultural and personal. Or, put simply, you can read the world onto the NBA, but you can’t read the NBA back onto the world.

All our talk about style doesn’t mean that style can save the children. But if the NBA is understood as a fiction, and its players cast as larger-than-life parables, why can’t there be an added element of fantasy? Our political usefulness comes in our insistence that, through the NBA, we can be compelled to frankly discuss race. Our release comes in embracing style, which is a byproduct of a very particular situation. There’s nothing that says I can’t both hanker for entertainment and be aware that this entertainment occurs in a politicized context. The flighty gospel of competitive style is its own reward, one that happens to have an aesthetic component we'd classify as "black." On the other, anyone worshipping Avery Johnson is practically forced to expect his more “real” success have some bearing on the real world.



Prince’s halftime show was an absolutely tremendous feat of entertainment, but it also had unmistakable political implications. I don’t think that his bringing the house down did anything to change attitudes about race or gender identity. It was an artistic statement, plain and simple, and its production can be measured only in those terms. But as Mr. 5000 pointed out, having Prince strut out there suddenly threw into sharp relief a lot of the latent political (catch-all term there) assumptions that the Super Bowl, and the NFL itself, tend to make.

Not to give the sport of my choice too much credit, but the NBA doesn’t need Prince for a whole mess of social issues to jump out and bite you in the face. Maybe it’s the seeing of faces, or the smaller teams, or the room for expressive play, or the high pay. . . whatever, anyone with half a brain can’t watch a half of Association play without remembering how many unsolved conundrums our great nation still has. That’s not because Allen Iverson actually is poor, or discriminated against in any spine-sharding way. However, what we see, and the way its dealt with by media and the fans, is certainly an effective metaphor for situation he would face if he didn’t ball.

Hoberman himself actually has some priceless example of this. He wonders “how many African-Americans look past [Rodman’s] antics and find themselves engaged in the spectacle of his loneliness and psychic pain?” And it’s suggested that Kevin Johnson’s “evil alter ego” Mevin could be a case of “black athletes acting out the social schizophrenia that is an integral part of the African-American experience.” I don’t point these out to undermine Hoberman, or to suggest that he’s prefigured FreeDarko. It seems to say to me, though, that there are forms of myth-making that can serve a political purpose without offering a false hope or loopy directive.

36 Comments:

At 2/05/2007 11:21 PM, Anonymous danny said...

Good post BS. Surely one of the things about FD is that you are also - via the new media paradigm - engaged in calling together a community of people against whom you test your assertions in a meaningful way, e.g. we get to leave comments which you might engage with rather than the "watch or change channel" mode of print/broadcast. Therefore, there is an ethics of engagement being staged here which is different than making a final, presumptive reading of "what the NBA means", which is Hoberman's M.O. So even where I might have more in common with Hoberman's conclusions (or interests) than FD on some of the politics of style, the fact remains that you put stuff out and engage in dialogue about it, rather than banking on it being "right".

 
At 2/06/2007 12:27 AM, Blogger The Assimilated Negro said...

nice call with the JB.

 
At 2/06/2007 12:43 AM, Anonymous paper tiger said...

there's several different types of shit that surface here, but i'd say at least half of the good ones are expressly about recognizing the "pernicious effect (sports) have had on the black community." so, in that sense, it's a form of fandom that not only avoids hoberman's pitfall, but actively confronts it. "half of several" should surely be enough to hang a hat on.

 
At 2/06/2007 9:10 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

one more thing. dr. lic said the following in an email exchange yesterday:

"proud mary" and "all along the watchtower," songs written by white people, but completely blown the fuck out the park by the african-americans who covered them. then reimagined by prince. and then the utter destruction of a mainstream standard in that foo fighters joint.

my point would be that yeah, this is true, but that doesn't make it into a viable survival strategy. in the same way, lots of nba players have made an originally "white" game "black," but that's an aesthetic point (or a politics of aesthetics one). not a practical political one.

 
At 2/06/2007 10:36 AM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

Great post, BS. I would further add that the NBA, as a theatre of cultural interaction, is at the forefront of the next looming sportsculture/American values clash - namely, homosexuals. D-Wil has a post on his website about the upcoming announcement of a former (minor) NBA player's homosexuality. This could be interesting, as the NBA has, for a long time, had a underbelly of sexuality that hasn't been delved into, at least not in any real mainstream media way. Going back to the rumors of Magic & Isiah sexual romps, or Magic's supposed bisexuality, to the recent rumors surrounding Vince Carter... I doubt this will be a big deal, but when the day comes for a gay athlete to make a cultural impact, I see the NBA as the likeliest venue.

As for Prince, I'll just add that "utter destruction" of the foo fighters song ("Best of You") was simply a pay back for their cover of "Darling Nikki", which Prince was supposedly none-too-happy about. What better way to send a message about covering his songs then to absolutely crush a foo fighters song in front of 140 million viewers? Prince is a genius.

 
At 2/06/2007 1:05 PM, Blogger Tragic Johnson said...

I don't mean to be a thorn, but there are aspects of your post (and perhaps the blog more generally) that I don't understand. I've been considering blogging about these aspects on my own site, which may still happen, but for now I leave you with some comments.

"What I do think, however, is that today’s NBA can provide us a heightened, dramatized version of the socio-cultural issues we all swim in daily."

To a certain extent, what you're writing here doesn't even need to be said; it's obvious. The NBA, like forms of art (e.g., literature, film, drama), reflects and give meaning to the larger social world in which we live. Who could argue with that? A later comment, however, gives me pause:

"But if the NBA is understood as a fiction, and its players cast as larger-than-life parables, why can’t there be an added element of fantasy?"

What troubles me about the post begins here. I don't understand your use of the word "fiction," nor do I know what "an added element of fantasy" means or implies.

Does "fiction" simply call up another analogy of bball as art (i.e., what I inferred from the previous passage quoted)? We might assume art has "an added element of fantasy," if that's what you mean. I might imagine, for instance, the illicit sex between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale despite Hawthorne's decision not to depict it. Is that what an "added element of fantasy" means to you?

I fail to understand, however, the ways that "added element" might be "politically useful" (more vague terms from your post). If I were to give a conference paper about my fantasy of the sexual encounter between Hester and Dimmesdale -- arguing, say, that their coitus reflects antebellum anxieties about white slavery -- I'd be laughed off the podium. My fantasies, in other words, have no relevance to a viable interpretation of Hawthorne's art (unless, perhaps, I were explaining why Hawthorne chose no to show them coupling). Those fantasies cannot be grounded in anything the artist provided.

Which is all to say, if bball is like art, a "fiction" as you put it (or "theater" elsewhere in the post), who authors it? That is, I fail to understand how the game itself "provide[s] us [with] a heightened, dramatized version of the socio-cultural issues we all swim in daily." The NBA might do that -- with its media, beat reporters, sideline interviews, commissioner, etc. -- but the game doesn't.

So, where does "style" come into play? The players perform with particular styles, but I'm not sure we can talk about the NBA having a style.

 
At 2/06/2007 1:13 PM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

stopmikelupica, that's an interesting point. In some ways, too, the "values clash" of homosexuality in sports could be more impactful than integration of black players into sports. Because while there was (and is) a lot of prejudice about a black men, there was never a question that a black man is still a man. There are many ignorant associations of male homosexuality with the feminine--a gay man is considered "womanly." And in sports, which contains the locker room mentality of tradition masculinity and community, as well as the macho he-man attitudes of competition, when a very good and openly gay player is performing in a league, all sorts of social changes and perceptions--good and bad--are going to start happening. To really get into this would require a much longer comment than I'm willing to write here, and the folks at outsports have already delved into some of these areas better than I could. But you are right on in noting the issue, and I will be interested to see which sports league has the more progressive attitude in this area.

BTW, the only music I listen to with any consistency is showtunes, but Prince has made me want to look into his music. I don't know what that means.

 
At 2/06/2007 1:19 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

TJ--

I'm going line-by-line with this, out of thoroughness and not bitchiness.

To a certain extent, what you're writing here doesn't even need to be said; it's obvious. The NBA, like forms of art (e.g., literature, film, drama), reflects and give meaning to the larger social world in which we live.

I don't think other sports do this. Note that you said "like forms of art."


"But if the NBA is understood as a fiction, and its players cast as larger-than-life parables, why can’t there be an added element of fantasy?"

What troubles me about the post begins here. I don't understand your use of the word "fiction," nor do I know what "an added element of fantasy" means or implies.


I should have been a little less vague about that. There are two kinds of fantasy: idyll and prophecy. Here, I definitely meant the first. And probably should have said "touch of. . ." or used the word "recreation."

Does "fiction" simply call up another analogy of bball as art (i.e., what I inferred from the previous passage quoted)?

I meant that there is enjoyment and creativity that doesn't necessarily relate to the socio-cultural significance. I can say that the NBA is about race without it meaning that "black dribbling" is a meaningful comment on society.

I fail to understand, however, the ways that "added element" might be "politically useful" (more vague terms from your post).

It isn't. That's the point. Another example: a hardcore show in the eighties as EVENT is a politcal statement, even if the music isn't.

If I were to give a conference paper about my fantasy of the sexual encounter between Hester and Dimmesdale -- arguing, say, that their coitus reflects antebellum anxieties about white slavery -- I'd be laughed off the podium.

Right, but that's because you're discussing something that has no textual authority. It's undeniable that Kobe does a 360 and that we like it; the question is, what kind of meaning to we imbue it with?


Which is all to say, if bball is like art, a "fiction" as you put it (or "theater" elsewhere in the post), who authors it?

In retrospect, "fiction" was a terrible choice. It's a heightened realism with fantastic, escapist touches.


The NBA might do that -- with its media, beat reporters, sideline interviews, commissioner, etc. -- but the game doesn't.

Right. The context does, but not the substance.

So, where does "style" come into play? The players perform with particular styles, but I'm not sure we can talk about the NBA having a style.

Nor am I. Why would we need to?

 
At 2/06/2007 1:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Underlying all of FreeDarko is the assumption that athletic exploits have meaning beyond themselves, and that they have some sort of positive relationship with race and class in this country."

forgive the long comment below. It's my attempt to define the above quote.

The only empirically proveable contribution to race and class that sports viewing has ever given me is the ability to talk with a complete stranger about how Player X is doing. I read this website because I like to read literate people talking about how the game can be improved. I find that the forays into divining the social implications of basketball are usually failures, but noble failures. The discussion, however, is a huge positive that should not be underestimated. Discussing the sport has tremendous social implications when someone on "your" team is from another race or class, thus contributing to a shared identity which trancends race or class.

It can transcend sport when someone like Magic Johnson contracts AIDS, and then people start having debates about this problem in a public way, adding to public knowledge, and improving the perceived status of an individual AIDS patient, who is now no longer considered Satan's spawn.

But the campfire talk is nothing but entertainment when when our so-called cultural icons are not willing to take the lead in delivering truths to the public at large about anything other than whatever basketball shoe they happen to be shilling. Writers cannot do it for them. Thus, LeBron is a breathtaking entertainer, but his celebrity and personal story contributes zero to the world in terms of social justice. Imagine if he tried to take a Muhammed Ali type stance and risk his whole career because he was protesting against the war, as Ali did. Thus, his cultural impact will not, and never will, extend beyond the pitch for kicks to kids who are getting some kind of status symbol at their local foot locker.

Gilbert's contribution of "hibachi" is a fantastic and inspiring display of needed individuality, and is hugely entertaining. His personal life growing up and his dedication in reaching his goals are also inspiring. But it tells me nothing about the "unsolved conundrums" in society such as why by the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind.

Nor does it contribute more to any one person than when Gilbert quietly helps a fourth grader to learn to read. Contributions in entertainment are enormously important to society---including the creation of some form of shared identity and awareness---but lets not overstate their sphere of influence to issues of race and class.

 
At 2/06/2007 1:38 PM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

Shoals, you really don't think other sports can "like forms of art (e.g., literature, film, drama), reflects and give meaning to the larger social world in which we live"?

I find that claim pretty preposterous. Just because basketball is the sport that speaks to you most clearly does not mean that other sports are inherently prosaic.

 
At 2/06/2007 1:47 PM, Blogger Tragic Johnson said...

BS,

"I'm going line-by-line with this, out of thoroughness and not bitchiness."

Me too. Always.

"I don't think other sports do this."
"Another example: a hardcore show in the eighties as EVENT is a politcal statement, even if the music isn't."

I'm confused again. Why is an 80s hardcore show a political statement but sports other than bball aren't? I guess my confusion begins with how you're defining political. If it's the event that garners the label "political" -- by virtue of assembling a community or "polis" of sorts -- wouldn't we have to call other sports political as well. Shit, we'd have to call my cousin's ballet recitals political.

"It's undeniable that Kobe does a 360 and that we like it; the question is, what kind of meaning to we imbue it with?"

The 360 itself has zero meaning. Or, if it does, it has the same meaning as a triple axel in figure skating: it's a demonstration of the limits of human agility and strength. The respective 360s are given more precise meanings by their contexts (i.e., Kobe's 360 means one thing if he does it in his driveway and another if he does it in a game).

Is that what you meant by the following statements: "Our release comes in embracing style, which is a byproduct of a very particular situation. There’s nothing that says I can’t both hanker for entertainment and be aware that this entertainment occurs in a politicized context." In other words, the "very particular situation" is what makes style meaningful? The "byproduct" of the 360 and the situation is a certain meaning?

So, then, 360 + situation/context = meaning.

360 + driveway = goofing around.

BUT

360 + the NBA on ABC = political meaning.

Am I following?

 
At 2/06/2007 2:02 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

vv and tj--

in america, the nba brings out issues of race and class in a way that other sports don't.

tj--

i think that an illumination of context is a political act. or at least a political meaning. that the nba exists, and exists as it does, makes us think about social realities. it does not, however, tell us what to think.

i'd say that:

(nba on abc)=meaning
dunk=byproduct of sporting event staged by nba on abc

 
At 2/06/2007 2:05 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

maybe i'm going too far in saying that other AMERICAN sports don't have any socio-political to them. but the nba definitely does it a lot more. it's just a lot more dissonant and heterogenous.

 
At 2/06/2007 2:52 PM, Anonymous MaxwellDemon said...

A propos of everything, we now turn to swag (courtesy LAT):

'The Hawks tried calling time outs to stop him. On one of them, Bryant pulled out the windshield wiper [finger wagging gesture].

"It's swagger," he said. "That comes from the playground. Playing at the park, having fun. It just makes the game fun."'

 
At 2/06/2007 3:21 PM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

There's massive socio-political in other sports. I don't know that the NBA brings it out more so much as the NBA brings it out in different ways--ways that fit the FreeDarko mission better than the other sports. I don't want to write an essay on how race and class play into football (why does race have anything at all to do with the quarterback position?) or baseball (like the massive influx of latino players that fit into a sport full of tradition and unspoken rules--most of them devised in a white history), but it's there. Basketball perhaps brings it out more clearly and puts more emphasis on individuals.

 
At 2/06/2007 3:26 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Basketball perhaps brings it out more clearly and puts more emphasis on individuals.

I'm fine with this. In baseball and football, you have to be of a certain mind to see these things. In basketball, it's kind of hard to miss them; name one sport that invites racist commentary like basketball?

 
At 2/06/2007 3:52 PM, Anonymous paper tiger said...

"maybe i'm going too far in saying that other AMERICAN sports don't have any socio-political to them. but the nba definitely does it a lot more. it's just a lot more dissonant and heterogenous."
not that he needs comrades, but i'm with shoals on this. and i think it's obvious, even if only for the visibility of it all. arenas full of white people watching, cheering, judging half naked black men. the extreme fetishizing of (black) bodies, which in other sports is related to skill (the five tool player in baseball) but in only basketball is it specifically about bodies (exception: left tackle in football). that this shit is all so visible in basketball, run by white owners and largely for white audiences, just brings it to a head in ways other sports here don't touch. relative roster size plays a role, as well (every twelfth man is white?) in making this stuff smack you in the nba in a way you have to maybe dig a little deeper for in other leagues (though, obviously, depth is in the eye of the digger.)

 
At 2/06/2007 4:02 PM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

I'm willing to concede perspective is important here. As a socially conscious and analytical person, I feel like I can't help but see the social ramifications of football--but I don't know that means the social ramifications are just sitting out there for everybody to see, as they are in basketball.

 
At 2/06/2007 4:09 PM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

Actually, if anything, I'd say coverage of race in football is simply behind coverage of race in basketball. In some ways, coverage of race in football and baseball still focus on the pioneering/civil rights/historical aspect (the FIRST black coach to win a Super Bowl, etc.). Or it focuses on an issue like "affirmative action" (the Rooney rule and push to get more minorities in front office and coaching positions). It's not like there aren't more issues there, but this is the type of coverage we always get. Those aspects don't seem to get the same significant coverage or importance in basketball. Basketball goes beyond thoes ways of thinking--ways that have been the same for decades--and takes a look for meaning in newer ways that are more socially conscious of the moment, not of history.

 
At 2/06/2007 4:20 PM, Anonymous Freddie said...

Can we all agree that Prince is the most underrated guitar player ever?

 
At 2/06/2007 4:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

can someone tell me why you are all riding prince's jock?? can't you see what ridiculousness this is!! purple rain ferchrissakes! it's 2007 people!

 
At 2/06/2007 5:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although not exactly about the game itself, and maybe a little off topic, I just read this article about the NBA's program to educate kids on african-american history. I think its a nice complement to this discussion.

http://www.nba.com/pistons/community/black_history_students_070206.html

 
At 2/06/2007 5:56 PM, Blogger GentleWhoadie9000 said...

This post has crystallized something for me. I think FreeDarko bears a lot of parallels to detached behavioral studies of play, in humans and in animals. However, humans have formalized play as a part of a general western social trend in which we postpone adolescence in a very profound way (see: college, shaved punanny). FreeDarko exists at the margin of this trend, observing at once the animation of undiluted human essence characteristic of youth and also the obvious paradoxes which arise out of such an unnatural arrangement.

Did that make any sense?

 
At 2/06/2007 6:20 PM, Anonymous Tinns said...

most of you dudes are probably on to it already, but that Arenas Stevenson video is some good stuff.

 
At 2/06/2007 6:21 PM, Anonymous Tinns said...

yeah, and that's real nice up there Shoals. peace.

 
At 2/06/2007 6:23 PM, Anonymous Tinns said...

oh yeah, and that ICE photo is one of the best I've seen up here. don't know where you come up with these goods.

 
At 2/06/2007 11:35 PM, Anonymous amphibian said...

Can we all agree that Prince is the most underrated guitar player ever?
That's a long list to go through, but I'm pretty sure Prince is not at the top.

 
At 2/07/2007 1:44 AM, Anonymous eauhellzgnaw said...

Football and baseball also highlight race to a considerable degree and invite racialized and often racist commentary. Golf, tennis, soccer, hockey, NASCAR (hell, all sports, really) also highlight American race relations. Basketball is not unique in this sense.

Baseball has its own dynamics and coverage often highlights the increase in Latin and Asian players and the (tragic) decrease of American-born black players in MLB.

The NFL mirrors the NBA in terms of race and class issues; however, football has a racialized position issues that the NBA doesn’t and most of the stars who play QB--football’s money position--are still white. That makes the NFL slightly, not completely different.

As others have noted, the NBA is different from the other two major American sports leagues because of:

1) the visibility of the players’ faces and bodies
2) the relatively few numbers of players and stars
3) the fact that the vast majority of the stars are (at least perceived to be) young, black and ghetto.

Still, I don’t think the NBA is categorically different.

The commentary on the NBA is changing a little because of the influx of non-American players and the perceived decline of American-born white players, but it’s still basically the same as it was in the 80s.

 
At 2/07/2007 6:49 AM, Anonymous Kaifa said...

Don't want to interupt an interesting discussion, but here's an interesting ESPN piece on the psychology of Shaun Livingston:

http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?page=espnmag/livingston

 
At 2/07/2007 7:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's not complicate the matter. If you want to have a fun site that talks about the NBA, that's fine but I don't see how any larger meaning can be drawn from it. Get involved with charity or become active politicaly if you want to do something. I mean, come on now. Isn't this just a bunch of fun jacking off?

But I do love it... keep up the great work.

 
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