Excavating the Archaeology of Oppressive Discourses — Blackness and the Sports-Industrial Complex
A friend asked me to problematize a gossip column released by TMZ concerning a recent event at a UCLA sporting facility.
I’d like to highlight the work of Theresa Runstedtler (cf. her American University profile), specifically her 2011 paper on black labor in the sports-industrial complex. From the abstract, the following paragraph — which includes my interjections and framing — highlights some of the more structural criticisms I have with what I insist on calling l’américain folâtre la scène—the American sports scene.
Runstedtler “[traced] the historical conditions that contributed to the hypervisibility of black professional athletes by examining the case of black boxers.”
She found that,
“[the] growing demand for black prizefighters (who often supplemented their income through stage exhibitions) beginning in the late nineteenth century was intimately connected to the expanding, transnational trade in white supremacist entertainments that accompanied the intensification of Western imperialism and capitalism.”
As it pertains to post-Foucauldian terminology about negotiated bodies in spaces where biopower is a factor, she argues,
“Their racialized bodies proved to be valuable commodities as they performed largely for the amusement of white spectators and for the financial gain of white promoters.”
“[Fight] promoters were known to troll the rail yards in search of black vagabonds desperate for employment and hoping for success. These young black men were part of a highly disposable and mobile workforce that drifted in and out of the underground economy.”
A conclusion of hers is,
“Because of pervasive racial discrimination in the labor market, [black youth] often found themselves forced into boxing booths, sporting arenas, and playhouses out of financial necessity. Not surprisingly, black boxers/performers came to embody the apotheosis of play. Although their training was incredibly regimented, to white spectators they seemed unsuited for capitalist discipline.”
The following are all very preliminary thoughts, but one of the ways that we can begin to understand this is as a serious perversion of Johan Huizinga’s notion of “homo ludens,” or “playing man.” I’m referencing Runstedtler’s piercing analysis in the paragraph above, in particular: “Not surprisingly, black boxers/performers came to embody the apotheosis of play.” This is a topic I’d like to investigate in the future.
Not getting into the info-tainment factor of TMZ or how the valorization and elevation of the private lives of celebrities is a problematic discourse in and of itself, I don’t see this particular conflict as taking place on an individual level.
I see this as a collision of white privilege with the (perhaps tenuously legitimate) concerns of a father.
On the individual level, it’s not my place to say what or how Justin Combs is feeling, nor is it my place to say what exactly happened or is happening between Sean Combs, Sal Alosi, and Jim Mora — the latter two being white men.
I will be accused of being both poetic and an invoker of racial animosity when it is allegedly “needless.” But, as a historian, I have a fundamentally unshakeable problem with the image of an institution ignoring a father’s criticism (in a “pluralistic” society; regardless of the father’s wealth or fame) of a white coach “riding [one’s son, who is black] badly.” In light of Runstedtler and many other’s research, we have to have the conversation about unpaid athletes of color in the undergraduate sports-industrial complex. It has an uncomfortable resemblance to twentieth century white entertainment predators preying on the fiscal insecurity of black youth who are thenceforth demonized by society as being “lazy,” or “naturally playful.”
For students of race and justice issues, thinking about the cultural anthropology of the literature produced during Second-Wave Imperialism, with all its references to black jungle fever, tree-climbing, and the sportive-eagnerss of black men and the corresponding discourse of the fertility of black women, it’s hard not to see how events like this, and especially how the media choose to frame them, inculcate and reintroduce the dehumanization of Africans as inherently violent, sports/play-obsessed people. The discourse must change; only then will the mentalité begin to phase out narratives of implicit or inherent deficiency in blackness and black culture.