Manhood as Commodity: The NBA as Reinforcer of Black Masculinities
This essay examines the concept of masculinity as central to competitive televised sport. In post-civil rights America, the image of the Black individual, particularly the Black male, continues to be controlled by a predominantly white-owned media. The NBA exemplifies this as their executives are overwhelmingly white males and the majority of players are black. This works to perpetuate the image of the hypermasculine Black athlete: aggressive, violent, animalistic, and misogynistic. Black hypermasculinity is positioned as the deviant “Other”, reinforcing white hegemonic masculinity as normative. This form of hypermasculinity is used to sell a lifestyle of power, money, and women through the commodification of both male and female bodies. Ultimately, this packaging of masculinity works to generate profit for the NBA.
The game has ended and the TV is still on, cycling through a barrage of deodorant, power bar, Gatorade, and Ford pickup truck commercials. Then a segment starts – it’s the NBA TV’s Top 10 plays. Set against a synthesized hip-hop beat, two commentators lay out the ten best plays of the night. Each play is slam dunk after dramatic slam dunk. Words like “knifing through” and “killing that” are used to describe the actions of the players. The segment concludes with the number one play of the evening: Dwayne Wade, “the Steel” of the Miami Heat, launching the ball into the air in a seemingly uncoordinated attempt and heroically making the basket (“NBA TV”).
The Top 10 is a perfect example of what is celebrated in the NBA; it glorifies the spectacle of the athlete’s body, promotes toughness, militarism and violence as masculine ideals. These elements can be seen in further detail in the Toronto Raptors versus the Detroit Pistons game at the Air Canada Centre on November 5th, 2008. The spectacle of the players is included in an entire package of commentators, advertising, visuals and entertainment.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) is an American sports league that generates profit for itself and its 30 franchised clubs from ticket sales, media coverage, corporate sponsorship, and merchandising. Through its depictions and marketing of its players, the NBA creates and reinforces notions of a specific form of masculinity that conforms to ideals of toughness, aggression, violence, ignoring pain, militarism, fearlessness, and dominance over women. Since the NBA’s image is produced by predominantly white, wealthy, heterosexual male executives and a high percentage of NBA players are African-American, race becomes a factor in aggrandizing the spectacle of masculinity – the black athlete reaffirms hegemonic (read: white) masculinity through a hypermasculine exaggeration of its violent, misogynist aspects. The white hegemonic form of masculinity links with its colonial history and the “Other,”, particularly in the portrayal of the Black male athlete as a spectacle to be commodified. The questions of race, gender, and sexuality thus become intertwined in the discussions of the game as a site of commodification of Blackness and maleness in the corporate interests of the NBA.
The Televised Sports Manhood Formula
Messner et al’s article identifies young boys between the ages of 8 and 17 as the group that watches the NBA in the highest numbers. This age group is seen as highly impressionable, capable of being easily conditioned by the NBA’s portrayal of masculinity (Messner 380). The authors analysed a range of televised sports that are popular among young boys, including the NBA. They took into account commercials, commentator language, and visuals used during the game. From this data, they coined the term “Televised Manhood Formula,” which consists of specific factors displayed by the players, commercials, and/or commentators that make up “masculinity” (Messner 381).
The most prominent factors identified were militarism and dominance over women. Militarism is demonstrated through the use of war metaphors by the commentators, while dominance over women was seen in the depiction of women in commercials and the exclusion of women from actual game time (Messner 383). Messner notes, “Televised sports, and their accompanying commercials, consistently present boys with a narrow portrait of masculinity” (380).
Messner concludes that there is profit to be made from promoting the Televised Manhood Formula (385). The sports sphere provides a “safe haven” for men from the encroaching feminist discourse of the “outside world” in which bravery, risk taking, violence, and heterosexuality are celebrated. Televised NBA games play into the hegemonic quality of masculinity, promoting the rewards of sexist behaviour as a cornucopia of glory, money, power, and women (385). The goal of this particular form of masculinity is to increase the advertising power of corporations. The companies and commercials that are advertised along with the games exploit the insecurities of the viewer to sell products. Often, the commercials show athletes and/or muscled men using products that promise to make the consumer more “masculine,” products such as powerful cars, shaving items, and high-calorie “power” foods.
Black Representation by White Production
When talking about the NBA, it is impossible to not talk about race. Given that the players in the NBA are predominantly African-American, while the managers, coaches, owners, and consumers are predominantly white, the concept of masculinity is heavily rooted in white perceptions of Black maleness. As bell hooks explains, “It has really been mainstream white culture that both requires and rewards black men for acting like brutal psychopaths… Showing aggression is the simplest way to assert patriarchal manhood” (hooks 49). Thus, “Black masculinity” is seen as an aggrandized version of “White masculinity,” contributing to the perception that Black masculinity is more violent and brutal than its white counterpart.
In the Raptors game, it became obvious that the African-American players were being praised for their aggression. Former Detroit Pistons player Allen Iverson, notorious for his aggressive tactics, was cheered on by commentators while violently pushing aside an opponent to complete a slam dunk. “He is fearless!” shouted the announcer, adding, “This is why he is loved in Detroit!” (Raptors Game, 1st quarter). In comparison, when a Raptors player executed a lay-up, which requires less physical action but more technique than a slam dunk, the commentators did not look favourably on it, saying, “he allowed himself to hesitate” and “he’s gotta go up strong!” (Raptors Game, 2nd quarter). The African-American players were either praised or criticised based on the level of aggression in their playing. In comparison, the caucasian players did not receive criticism while being less aggressive than the African-American players. Additionally, the graphics used during the game reinforced the stereotype of “Black” aggression: when the player profile of then-captain Chris Bosh came on-screen, the image chosen was of him in an aggressive stance, holding the basketball in both hands, his face contorted in a yell. The language used by the commentators was also very militant – words such as “threat,” “defence,” “offence,” “attacking,” and “fray” were used to describe plays.
Although the commentators did not openly discuss race during the game, research into the NBA reveals tense relations between the bosses and their employees. In 2005, NBA president and CEO David Stern sent out instructions for all players and coaches to wear suits while off-court. Stern described this look as “business casual,” giving credence to the perception of the NBA as a business and revenue generator. Many felt that this move was racially motivated because many of the players in the NBA wore casual hip-hop style garb while off-court; it was seen as a move to “neutralize” the players’ aggressive image when they were not in uniform. Some fans felt that the move deliberately targeted previously mentioned Pistons player Allen Iverson. Famous for his aggression on-court, his personal style off-court was seen as aggressive as well; he usually wore loose-fitting layered garments, in stereotypical “hip-hop” style with large jewellery, often displaying his many tattoos (“Allen Iverson Dress Code”). The “tough” image that many of the NBA players embody is contained in games on-court. Messner et al writes about this disparity between representation and production, stating “the only Black commentators that appeared on the NBA shows that we examined were former star basketball players” (Messner 382), meaning that Black individuals represented off-court were an anomaly.
There appears to only be space for Black individuals in the context of being objects of spectacle, rather than active spectators. King and Springwood write that “mass-mediated spectacles return the white gaze to the black body” (106). The modes of production and consumption continue, then, to be predominantly white. As Wonsek writes, “Although the sporting event itself is dominated by black players, these images are undercut by the overwhelming predominance of white images” (454). This speaks to centuries of colonial history and the positioning of the non-White body vis-à-vis the colonizer body as the “Other.” Historically, Black and other colonized peoples have been cast as the opposite of the White colonizer – uncivilized, subhuman, infantile, even bestial (King 104). The image of the “Other” gave justification to many of the brutal practices of colonialism and shaped the perceived superiority of whiteness. Since the NBA is owned by predominantly white executives, they are in charge of producing (or controlling) the image of the athletes. In this case, Black maleness is defined by the use of their bodies, which are portrayed as physically superior but intellectually inferior to white males. Quoting a study of NCAA basketball games, Jackson observed that 77% of the commentary regarding players’ physicality were about Black players, while 63% of comments praising intellect were reserved for white players (King 11). This easily could be seen in NBA games, where players like Chris Bosh are evaluated in terms of aggression. Since Bosh’s move to the Miami Heat, he has been criticised and praised according to his performance of aggression. Writes the Sun Sentinel regarding a Miami Heat/New Jersey Nets game, “Bosh let out a yell and snarled after the dunk. Before that moment, he was almost invisible this season but alerted everyone of his presence” (Richardson). The visibility of Black maleness is marked by aggression of an almost bestial nature, embodied in Bosh’s “snarl.”
In the spectacle of the Black body, the historical view of the “Other” as the reverse of the White colonizer meant there was a perverse pleasure in this Otherness. Hypersexuality and deviance were seen to be part and parcel of the bestial nature of the Black body; King and Springwood argue that this has continued into contemporary media depictions of the Black male, stating that “in a post-civil rights America, African-Americans have been essentially invented, policed, and literally (re)colonized through Euro-American idioms such as discipline, deviance and desire” (101). Despite gains in civil rights and liberties, African- Americans are still subject to a specific image in the hegemonic media, one that plays to colonialist fantasies of the Black individual as a representation of fantasy and exotic Otherness. Furthermore, the number of African-Americans in the NBA is reminiscent of historical entertainment acts, which consisted of predominantly white audiences watching black entertainers. Wonsek notes, “Not only does this place the black players in a secondary and entertainment role, but it may also serve to reassure the white majority that its dominance is not really being threatened” (454). The image of the hypermasculine Black body functions as a means of controlling and marginalizing the African-American player. It does this according to the prescribed roles within the NBA, roles that do not threaten the dominance of white ownership.
Manhood as Hypermasculinity: Domination of Women
As mentioned earlier, the hypermasculine world can be readily applied to the NBA, where the extreme exertion of a narrow view of manliness represents a violent refusal of the increasingly feminised outside sphere.
Indeed, hypermasculinity is reflected in the subordination of women by the NBA. Women in the NBA are typically treated as sex objects, appearing only as cheerleaders or advertising characters. At the Raptors versus Pistons game, there were no women except for the cheerleaders and the women who appeared in commercials. Overall, in the NBA there are very few women reporters and commentators – it is as though women are being shut out entirely from this “man’s world.” The NBA, according to the Television Manhood Formula, creates a state of “hypermasculinity” in which violence, domination, and physical strength come into play as a reaction against the “feminized” outside.
During the Raptors versus Pistons game in Toronto on November 5, 2008, this treatment of women became very obvious. Although some NBA games have female “floor reporters” who give periodical updates from court level, this game did not have any at all. Women appeared most during commercials, often as sex objects. For example, a car commercial for Ford’s Dodge Ram pickup truck featured a man and a woman talking about the car’s “toughness.” The woman was dressed in a miniskirt and cleavage-baring top while gazing seductively at the muscular man. The commercial ended with images of a pickup truck driving through outdoor terrain, featuring the slogan “Ford: Built Tough” (Raptors Game Nov. 5 2008). This is a demonstration of several of the elements that Messner outlines – toughness, domination of women, and physical strength. The only women who appeared during game, the cheerleaders, were dressed in short skirts and sleeveless tops, dancing provocatively in formation.
This subordination of women translates to spaces outside the court, as well. In an article written for the Workers World Newspaper, Minnie Bruce-Pratt (2004) reveals the results of a systemized sexism: “In order to recruit top high-school prospects, college sports programs put on ‘sex parties,’ hire call girls, ‘escorts,’ and strippers, and lure young college women to serve as ‘hostesses’ to entertain the 16- and 17-year-old high-school players who come to campus expecting sex” (Bruce-Pratt). From the beginning of their professional sports careers, then, players are conditioned to treat women as sex objects. As an entity, the NBA appeals to male audiences and athletes by presenting opportunities to dominate women that are not as easily achieved outside this dimension.
The power of the gaze is deployed here: women in the sporting world are commodified for male consumption in order to reaffirm that group’s power. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s concept of the gaze applies in this situation: “Pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female… In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed” (Mulvey 19). In other words, men look at women as objects. In the male-produced world of the NBA, women are seen as passive objects for the male gaze, their image there to be used and dominated. This fact is emphasized by the lack of female voices in the NBA: The lack of female reporters and commentators means that women are seen and not heard, which in turn allows men to exert their masculinity by providing uncontested perspectives as the ones who gaze at the objects (women).
This objectification of women is emphasized through “Black masculinity”, which can also be seen within mainstream hip-hop music. Black men, especially Black athletes, have been historically viewed within American culture as sexual beings whose images are defined through their bodily use and perceived cultural suppression of women. bell hooks writes on this topic that “individual black males have allowed themselves to become the poster boys of brute patriarchal manhood and concomitant woman-hating” (hooks 51).
In the NBA, sexism is justified through white systems of black maleness. Messner writes, “The significance of this narrow image of women as heterosexualized commodities should be considered especially in light of the overall absence of a wider range of images of women” (384). In the NBA, women do not appear as anything except fetishized objects perceived through a male lens.
Televised Sports Manhood Formula for Advertising
As stated earlier, Messner et al hold that the purpose of the Televised Manhood Formula is to condition viewers to buy products that relate to masculinity. This is apparent during the Raptors versus Pistons game, as the products that were sold were related to factors such as toughness, strength, domination over women, and aggression. The largest swath of advertisements were delivered during the game itself, rather than during the commercials. Various brand names were displayed courtside through large flat-screen television units that changed images throughout the game. A pattern could be established among the types of companies advertised. Among the categories displayed were electronic brands (Canon, IBM, Playstation, Rogers), gambling services (Casinorama, Pokerstars.net, Super 7 lottery), food brands (Gatorade, Snickers, Mr. Sub, Tim Hortons coffee, Molsons beer, President’s Choice food brand), cars (Ford), and male cosmetic products (Speedstick deodorant). Although some of these companies are Canadian (Toronto hosted the game), they fit into prescribed notions of masculinity that could easily be substituted for similar American brands.
Toughness and domination over women are often the subjects of these brands’ commercials. One such example has already been discussed – the Ford car brand promotes toughness through images of a rugged landscape and sexualised women. The gambling services advertised correspond with the formula’s “fearlessness” element. The NBA applauds risk-taking players, which could easily translate into risks taken for gambling. Food products are displayed as a necessity for being tough and aggressive, such as the Snickers board that read “Fuel for what’s next.” The electronic brands can be seen as promoting rewards for conforming to masculine, hegemonic ideals; one aspect of the Televised Manhood Formula implies that masculinity comes with power, money, and women. The brands shown in the NBA thus condition the consumer to aspire to the privileges offered by these brands. Furthermore, the Black hypermasculinity mentioned previously serves as a cultural shorthand for pleasure and deviance; the collective memory of colonial history means that the targeted demographics of NBA advertising can instantly identify black masculinity as a commodity to be consumed.
The NBA reinforces and disciplines viewers using a specific idea of masculinity that is defined by aggression, militarism, and subordination of women. It is informed by perceptions of black maleness, particularly because white, wealthy males control the modes of production. Although there exist perceptions of “Black Power” which view multimillionaire athletes as empowered by their aggression and wealth, ultimately, they are employees working for the NBA. Messner et al’s Televised Manhood Formula describes the main aspects of this specific maleness through the notions of aggression, violence, sexism, heterosexuality, and fearlessness, all of which can be easily witnessed during a live NBA game. Athletes are praised or criticised based on their adherence to the formula, while advertising draws on the formula to sell products and objectify women.
Although Messner’s article is useful for understanding the masculinity promoted by the NBA and other sports institutions, it does not address the issues of race as thoroughly as it could. Munoz and bell hooks bring about a new level of understanding of black masculinity and sexuality that rounds out Messner’s piece. bell hooks and King and Springwood explain the white fascination with black hypermasculinity, through which misogynist white males act out their fantasies through the exaggerated image of the Black body, as evidenced in media depictions of NBA players.
Connected with this hypermasculinity is the objectification of women. This was seen in the NBA games which featured cheerleaders and sexualized portrayals of women in commercials. Messner points out the lack of female reporters and commentators and notes that women are portrayed solely as sex objects. Bruce-Pratt gives insight into the systemized sexism of the professional sports world by writing about the sex workers hired by college sports teams to entice new recruits. bell hooks gives further perspective, stating that white notions of Black masculinity are shaped by sexual domination of women.
Ultimately, the Televised Manhood Formula was concocted to generate revenue. Since young boys watch the NBA in the greatest numbers, they are being socially conditioned to accept certain concepts of masculinity. These concepts, especially as they pertain to Black hypermasculinity and its implied notions of spectacle and sexuality, have influenced and will continue to influence men and women alike in our ever-perpetuating consumerist culture.
Bruce-Pratt, Minnie. “Sexism and Sports: The Playing Field of Profit.” Workers World Newspaper. March 4, 2004. http://www.workers.org/ww/2004/football0304.php
Detroit Pistons at Toronto Raptors. National Basketball Association. Air Canada Centre, Toronto. RaptorsTV.com. 7:30-9:30pm. November 5, 2008.
hooks, bell. We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. Routledge: New York, 2004. Print.
King, Richard C. and Charles Fruehling Springwood. Beyond the Cheer: Race as Spectacle in College Sport. Ed. Cheryl L. Cole and Michael A. Messner. State University of New York Press: Albany, 2001. Print.
Messner, Michael et al. “The Televised Sports Manhood Formula.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 24. No. 4. (2000): 380-394.
“NBA TV Top 10 Nov. 5th 2008.” Retrieved at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7AapTP2L7Q&feature=related
Laura Mulvey (1975). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Screen 16 (3): 6–18.
Richardson, Shandel. “Aggressive approach key to Chris Bosh’s success with Heat.” Sun Sentinel. November 7, 2010. http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2010-11-07/sports/fl-heat-feech-1108-20101107_1_wade-and-james-new-role-aggressive
“The Allen Iverson Dress Code.” Blogger: Whatdaphuk.com. October 22, 2005. http://www.whatdaphuk.com/the-allen-iverson-dress-code/
Wonsek, Pamela. “College basketball on television: A study of racism in the media”. Media, Culture and Society. 14 (1992): 449-461.