FD Guest Lecture: Roots Like Brutal Beards

Today's Guest Lecturer is Brian Phillips, the mind behind The Run of Play. Soccer enthusiasts no doubt already hail Brian and his work; if you don't know the first thing about the sport, be advised that RoP is the closest FD gets to a sister site. Or blood brothers across time and space. Earlier: The PED/NBA debate, and a chance to buy a few of my records.

Here's the contrast that's keeping me up at night: European soccer and the NBA both have racism problems, but they manifest themselves in almost exactly opposite ways. Obviously Europe and America are different societies, variables diverge, math unrolls like a carpet, and nothing can be said about the subject that looks strict in the light of science. But it's a problem I can't stop speculating about, particularly given that so much else about the two sports—Kobe is friends with Avram Grant!—seems to be sloshing in the belly of the same whale.

In the NBA, racism is a substrate, a sentence that only makes sense if you know the words' etymologies. It's something you can talk about, not something you have to talk about, which is why it's so insidious. It's part of the interpretive structure, a deniable anxiety in the atmosphere (Is it a little cold? No. Shiver.), a form of judgment whose assumptions are disconnected from the thought process of the people who pursue it. That is, the suavities of Donald Sterling aside, it's largely covert and unconscious; it stays vague, informing descriptive categories (the "intelligent" player vs. the "athletic" player) and the periodic outrage that inevitably breaks out in a league in which black players are tacitly perceived as dangerous to white fans. It's a fundamental component of the culture of the game, but it doesn't overwhelmingly or frequently run afoul of the swirling taboos that regulate the same forces in society.

Contrast that to soccer in Europe, where it's still not uncommon for fans to throw bananas on the pitch and coordinate monkey chants to taunt black players. This isn't a narrative of progress, in which the NBA has absorbed and begun to resolve conflicts still wild and at large in soccer, because, at least at the level of categorical interpretation, soccer almost certainly has less endemic racism than basketball. It's just that the expressions of racism (and its worldly twin, ethnic hatred) that do occur tend to be obliteratingly direct. Ajax fans in Holland have appropriated Jewish iconography in recognition of the fact that their stadium used to be located near a Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam. Their opponents' fans hiss in unison to simulate the sound of the gas coming down at Auschwitz.

Which actually opens onto one of the likely reasons for the dichotomy. The agony that's soaked into the rock in soccer isn't race, as it is in the NBA, it's nationalism. In the NBA—let's widen that into American sports in general—the defining figures and moments are generally encoded in the history of race: you have Louis vs. Schmeling, the Jackie Robinson breakthrough, the Globetrotters, Ali and Bill Russell as divergent possibilities for the civil rights movement, Magic and Bird as the salvific dyad of the 80s, Iverson and the mainstream threat of hip-hop paired with the Spurs and the emergent disciplinarian cult of the bounce pass. In soccer, by contrast, you have a litany of nationalist conflict: Mussolini co-opting the 1934 World Cup, FC Barcelona as the posed flagbearing orphan girl of the Catalan resistance to Franco, the '64 European Nations' Cup final between the USSR and Spain as the late last battle between communism and fascism, Rangers and Celtic restaging the Irish Troubles in Glasgow every season, Ajax fans singing about the bombing of Rotterdam, Zidane and the '98 French World Cup team as the expiation of postcolonial resentment.

Unlike American racism, which can be seen as an internal social problem transformed by changing attitudes within one overarching culture, the history of European nationalism was decided by relatively recent battles between armies whose sources of legitimacy were external to one another. Thus, to forestall the unanswerable shame that attaches itself to overt expressions of prejudice in American sports (Rush Limbaugh on Donovan McNabb, even Shaq when Yao first came into the league), prejudice in soccer can fall back on the dim memory of concrete populist ideologies. That's not to say that the shirtless gentleman holding the corner of the "Filthy Gypsy" banner is a learned proponent of any identifiable right-wing philosophy, but there's at least a vaporous sense that attitudes like his loathing for Ibrahimović were not long ago articulated by governments and embraced by respectable people. Which is enough to give them a perverse air of community justification, even when all the institutional forces in the sport are consciously trying (again, much more emphatically than the NBA) to eradicate racism and sectarianism from the game.

Obviously, there are other, simpler factors at work as well—the lack of diversity in certain parts of Europe, the natural territorial rivalry of political entities in condensed space. But I think this internal/external dynamic is important, partly because it points to a psychological possibility for the future of the NBA. Up till now the Stern-powered drive to globalize the league has been felt by American fans as essentially a phenomenon of intake: the best players coming from other parts of the world to play in our league. We know from recent Olympics that the game is being played at a high level in a lot of other countries, and we know from T-Mac at the airport (and I wasn't paying attention, but I'm guessing nine million trend reports in the New York Times Magazine) that it's "getting big in China." And we can see that foreign players like Ginobili have influenced American players to some degree. But so far that feels more like a side story than like a power that will transform our own perception of the sport.

What if it does, though? In European soccer the talent-import channel is wide open: the best leagues in the world are all European, and there's deep business in buying up the youth of Africa and South America and caravaning them to the big clubs' academies. In the last couple of years Arsenal has actually fielded teams with no English players. But the global popularity of soccer has combined with modern media overload to create its own anxieties.

The English Premier League now has several times as many fans outside England as it does inside it. A league that belongs to one country but is ardently followed by dozens of others ceases, in a sense, to belong to anyone. Local meanings wash out of the game, which in some ways impairs its social function, and jealousies mount up on the periphery. It's possible to try to ignore that, but doing so has practical consequences in a world where elite leagues exist in multiple countries: Real Madrid's recent attempt to lure Manchester United's star winger Cristiano Ronaldo to Spain almost certainly took courage from the fact that the Portuguese player had been blithely caricatured as a villain by xenophobic English tabloids. So how do fans react when they realize that someone is always watching them? The forms of hostility in soccer have grim historic precedents, but they can also be seen as the overwhelmed fan's furious attempt to blot out the rest of the world.

If the NBA really does become a global league—and there are people in soccer who think it can't be stopped—then what becomes of our relationship to the sport when American history is no longer the orb at the center of the game?

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At 3/08/2009 8:23 PM, Blogger The Till Show said...

Great post. You're dead on about the underlying racism in the NBA and the veiled movement to deny the "Iverson" era of hip-hop in the Association, if you will. I don't know a whole lot about soccer, but I do know of how public the displays of racism are. I didn't know that they were politically based.

It will be interesting to see how us Americans take the imminent globalization of the NBA. But more so, it will be interesting to see what will become of the elite overseas Leagues.

At 3/08/2009 8:46 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I have a healthy amount of skepticism about this quote:

"because, at least at the level of categorical interpretation, soccer almost certainly has less endemic racism than basketball."

and the veracity of that claim seems to have a large bearing on the rest of the essay. Say what you want about racism vs. nationalism in soccer, but there have definitely been instances where fans have insulted British-born black players based on their race, not their nationality.

This site talks about the amount of British-born blacks playing in the professional leagues there. 13% of the pro players in Britain in 99/00 were English blacks. The same site has data on arrests for racial incidents, and while they don't have data for 2000, given the numbers for the other years available, it seems likely that there were a fair number of arrests for racist commentary. It seems to me a reasonable assumption that there were other racial incidents that went on without arrest. It's almost statistically impossible that a fair amount of those racial taunts were directed at British-born black players.

You're claiming that soccer's numerous overt issues with racial taunting stems more from nationalism than from racism, but there are two large issues with that. First, white players from other nations don't get anything like the taunting commentary that black players do. Second, the insults directed at black players are directly linked to their race - the insults are not jokes about South Africa or Brazil, they are jokes steeped in traditional racist imagery against blacks in general.

This is not to say that the NBA doesn't have a racism problem; I think it absolutely does. But claiming that soccer's problem is more of a nationalist issue gives far to much credit to the racist assholes who use soccer matches as an excuse to act out their neo-Klan hatred of people with darker skin, and it also avoids some of the issues of racism in European societies, which from what I've seen tends to be either buried deeper in people (European upper classes) or far more obvious (European lower classes) than racism in America, which seems to occupy an uncomfortable middle ground between deep concealment and blatant obviousness.

At 3/08/2009 9:20 PM, Blogger Brian Phillips said...

You're misreading me. I'm not saying racism in soccer is actually about an English fan's prejudice toward a player from Germany. "Nationalism" as I'm using it doesn't mean a prejudice toward a person from a different nation. It's an ideological construct. Fascism is a form of nationalism, for instance, that contains explicit racist elements, and neo-fascism is not always but very often in the implied background of soccer racism. I'm arguing that that's one of the reasons why racism in soccer is so overt: because it's drawing on a cultural memory of articulated racist ideology, whereas racism in the NBA is based on a more diffuse hostility.

Of course racism in soccer is about race. The point is that the history of nationalism, largely via WWII, goes deeper in soccer than the history of race, and gives racists a certain degree of (false, stupid, arguably unconscious) cover.

At 3/09/2009 2:22 AM, Blogger Graydon said...

I like that you hit on the idea that white basketball players are often called "intelligent" and "coachable" while black players are often called "athletic." They are excellent examples of the quiet ways in which our prejudices seep into our use of language.

As a basketball blogger committed to discussing the game in a progressive manner, I recognize that certain metaphors have a historical context that makes them highly problematic (for instance, using animalistic language when you are talking about a group of mostly black men). But in an intense, contact sport, sometimes that language seems to be the best in order to describe a game or player vividly (for example, some guys just come across as "beastly," even if that beastliness has nothing to do with their blackness).

Then you've got Kevin Garnett getting on all fours and barking like a dog and everything goes to hell.

Either way, it's a hard problem to navigate when oftentimes your employment of the term is incidental to its racialized context (what if a white player really does have a high basketball IQ? What if a black player really is most valuable because of his superior athleticism?)

Brian, Do you ever suffer from similar problems when trying to describe soccer players? Are there any easily identifiable, racially-influenced cliches in soccer, like "intelligent vs. athletic" in basketball?

At 3/09/2009 6:58 AM, Blogger Brian Phillips said...

Actually, that's what I meant when I said that soccer has less racism at the level of categorical interpretation. There are fewer of those sorts of coded expressions, at least in English-language commentary. It's something you really notice as an American when you first start following the game. The announcers will start talking about the blistering speed of a white player or ascribing Elway-like qualities to a black midfielder without the least hint of self-consciousness, and you realize how seldom that happens in American sports.

That's not to say there's not any covert racism in soccer, and what there is is arguably worse, because where we tend to divide up the good qualities and give some of them to each race -- "athletic" and "intelligent" are both things an athlete would like to be -- covert racism in soccer tends to assign positive qualities to white players and negative qualities to everyone else.

One of the words that this happens with is "naive," which is usually used to describe bad team defense. But it's applied so selectively that when I asked for submissions to a parody soccer glossary on my site multiple readers sent some variation of: "Naive: An African team that has just conceded a goal."

You also see it with "hard," the word used for scary physical toughness, which is almost always assigned to white players. And you see it even more strongly in the northern European assumption that southern European and Latin American players are divers, i.e., that they flop in the box in order to win penalties.

There's a really weird set of value judgments going on in that one, because the hatred of flopping is much, much greater in soccer than in the NBA (probably because the consequences are so much greater when it works), and yet the media will completely overlook the diving of English stars like Steven Gerrard and fixate on the diving of foreigners like Cristiano Ronaldo.

At 3/09/2009 12:01 PM, Blogger Your Earless Reader said...

This was a great post. But I just wanted to put out there one possible factor at play behind the more overt and hostile displays of racial and ethnic hostility in European soccer (as opposed to American basketball). Americans, having had a Civil War which was at least largely about racial relations, and having had our long and ugly and well-documented Civil Rights movement so near in our history, have not only been forced into at least a kind of confrontation of our own racism in our recent history, but have internalized at least a little bit of shame about racism. That doesn't mean we're not racist - or that our sports aren't tinged by institutionalized and internalized racism (after all, America loves goofy, slow-footed, lily-white, "coachable" players and loves to demonize explosive black athletes, and sees absolutely no gray area between the two - but rather that Americans feel impelled to look past race (or at least sublimate considerations directly related to it, sometimes to such an excessive degree that we'll even deny and whitewash the racism of others). Europeans, and here I'm generalizing horribly, are so busy clapping themselves on the back for a sort of stylized cosmopolitan "progressivism" - Vespas, proportional representation, universal health care, turtlenecks - that they feel no internal pressure to examine and challenge their own endemic racism. As the original poster (much more eloquently) hinted, this can always be draped with the mysteriously-more-socially-tolerable cover of nationalism or quaint regional saltiness, when what it really is is flat-out racism. (Oh no, the dreaded double-is.)

It's like the guy who thinks he's tolerant of homosexuality because he watches Queer Eye and uses liquid body wash, then uses the word "gay" as a derogatory term when one of his drinking buddies steps out of line. That's Europe: that guy.

I'm probably full of crap. Mostly I'm just salty from newborn-child-imposed sleep deprivation.

At 3/09/2009 2:13 PM, Blogger ohkeedoke said...

the "intelligent" player vs. the "athletic" player

I think this has had a trickle down effect to LeBron. LeBron's progress is sometimes frustrating because he seems to WANT to prove he's crafty - a skilled, and smart shot maker (a la Kobe). He needs us to know he's skilled in basketball, not just a great athlete. The same problem plagued Wilt.

At 3/09/2009 2:21 PM, Blogger Your Earless Reader said...

I think you're exactly right, wondahbap: this certainly plays a part in the peculiar and infuriating phenomenon of explosive athletes like Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, and even LeBron (to a lesser extent) falling in love with their jump-shots within a couple of seasons of entering the Association (and lighting it up with drives to the basket). It's got to be at least part of the reason why VC hasn't attacked the basket in roughly 62 years: there's that drive to validate himself to a media and a culture that values explosive finishers as spectacle but mythologizes crafty, lead-footed shooters as somehow truer basketball players. So basketball fans have to suffer the horror of endless 22-foot bricks, tinged with the added bitterness of knowing they're coming from a guy who could easily slash to the basket for an and-1 bucket.

This is closely related to the Donovan McNabb Phenomenon: a gifted black quarterback with the foot-speed, agility, and vision of a premier punt returner deliberately molding himself into an immobile (and less-dangerous) pocket passer, as a way of seeking validation from a culture that sees electrifying running quarterbacks as entertaining sideshows, and precision passers as demigods.

At 3/09/2009 3:20 PM, Blogger Graydon said...

Although I believe that hatred of flopping is greater in soccer than in the NBA (the reason you give seems legitimate), it is highly criticized in basketball as well.

And, like in Europe, critics target certain types of players (foreign players) and ignore the flopping of others (Americans). Manu Ginobili and Anderson Varejao are both highly criticized for flopping but frequent floppers such as Chris Paul or Steve Nash (actually Canadian but white and North American) don't face nearly as much criticism.

Really, at this point it is hard to delineate between floppers and non-floppers. It is an epidemic. But people still focus their ire on foreign players and I think it speaks to certain prejudices in Americans.

Interestingly enough, those prejudices seem more similar to the mode of prejudice you ascribe to Europeans, i.e. prejudice that is draped in nationalism, even if it is the America's peculiar brand of nationalism.

At 3/09/2009 4:04 PM, Blogger Brian Phillips said...

Some of the difference may just have to do with the existence of a tabloid culture in the European media that doesn't really have an offline counterpart in America. England's largest newspaper openly caricatures Cristiano Ronaldo as a preening, effeminate, cheat in a way that's hard to imagine being echoed by USA Today.

I definitely think you're right about the xenophobic basis of the American reaction to flopping. Bill Simmons sometimes takes that a step further and actually blames soccer, on the grounds that foreign players brought flopping with them from soccer countries and spread it through the NBA.

At 3/09/2009 4:58 PM, Blogger Graydon said...

Bill Simmons is completely wrong. Far before there was an influx of foreign-born players into the NBA, guys like Bill Laimbeer, Karl Malone, and Dennis Rodman (all supposedly "tough" players) were flopping all over the place. Citing the genesis of flopping in the increased amount of international players is just historically inaccurate.

Hell, Red Auerbach made an instructional video criticizing flopping way back in the 70s. You'd figure a shameless homer like Simmons would remember that.

At 3/09/2009 8:55 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

Great post. I'm not sure if I agree with your central conceit that "America" is one culture and all frictions of various sub-groups and sub-cultures are necessarily "internal", while "Europe" is a collection of separate beehives. I am reminded of this recent article from The Economist describing the spread of a pan-European English-language critical community...

At 3/09/2009 10:02 PM, Blogger Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

Smart write up...layered and reflective.

It makes me think about Balibar and Wallerstein's seminal text Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities

chauncey devega

At 3/10/2009 1:06 AM, Blogger ronald james davis said...

not to distract, but the "kobe in china" story on the local postgame news in la was insane. an english translation of his exclusively chinese blog might be crazy. and a reality show?

as a side note, china is going to be fucking tight at basketball on an international scale soon if the statistics they quoted about how many people play or watch basketball there are accurate

At 3/10/2009 7:54 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Football/soccer is arguably the only truly global game. Its appeal stems from simplicity and a deep-rooted history as the "working man's sport". The downside to this is that the sport lends itself to extreme tribalism which will never go away.

At 3/10/2009 9:34 AM, Blogger Your Earless Reader said...

It's interesting that Simmons comes up in the discussion anyway, especially since we've touched on the subject of the stereotyping of "coachable" white players versus "athletic" black ones. One of the (many) problematic things about Simmons's basketball writing over the years is his own blind spot regarding these stereotypes: for example, he falls in love with Kevin Love's basketball smarts, coachability, and low-key personality, and then rips Greg Oden for not being athletic enough.

I'm not trying to sidetrack the discussion - and I'm certainly not trying to call Bill Simmons a racist (he's not, let's just get that out of the way) - but rather just underlining the fact that in American society, the racial stereotyping that goes on in our sports is extremely well dug-in, to the extent that even those who are aware of it are still nonetheless influenced by it.

At 3/10/2009 9:11 PM, Blogger O said...

i've always seen free darko as a basketball/intellectual reflection of what only built for cuban links was to hip hop. This post was on some illmatic shit.

good read.

At 3/10/2009 11:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

one of my biggest pet peeves in american sports has been hit on a couple times - all comparisions of players are made down racial lines. not only is it effed up in a racial sense, but it takes the actual goal of comparing them out of play aka to compare some new jack to someone everyone can relate to whereby a better understanding of the player's game is gained.
that's why we gotta get grassroots and stop this madness. and i'm starting with this year's draft because three of the most well-known prospects all remind me of certain players...and none of them are racially matched, something people initially have trouble seeing the similarities.
tyler hansbrough has always reminded me of atwawn jamison, but without the touch (making two threes in game doesn't count, psycho t). both can get a shot off in the midst of madness, and its not because they've got serious hops or something. unique shot angles and adjustments, good off hands, use of the glass, etc etc etc.
stef curry is mos def a young steve kerr. when they shoot, no matter how fast they're sprinting around a screen, or how their backs are to the basket the moment before they release, they go up with it square the hoop. i have this image of both kerr and curry - shoulders perfectly square and true, legs seemingly dangling in the air below them as the lower body catches up with their torso. thing of fucking beauty.
and finally thabeet as mark eaton. beasts in the middle that are straight enormous. and can you imagine how bad bron-bron is gonna wanna dunk all up in his mixture?!?!?!

At 3/16/2009 12:50 PM, Blogger Mr. Miller said...

Wonderful post but I must quibble with the gratuitous Limbaugh/McNabb mention.

Rush said that McNabb was "overrated ... what we have here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback can do well—black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well." How is that an expression of "overt prejudice"? Indeed, I think Rush agrees with you about the substrate nature of American sports racism.

At 3/18/2009 8:06 AM, Blogger Ethan Sherwood Strauss said...

Love the post. I'd like to hear more about the racial paternalism involved in NBA related sports punditry. I think it runs rampant. There seems to be a consensus that a higher age limit, and the dress code were/are good things.

At 4/19/2013 12:37 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Racism should be eradicated from sports.
bookmaking sports are really against it and It should be like that.


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