How to sell Black Athletes to a White Audience? The Representation of Blackness in the NBA from 1984 to 2005

Term Paper, 2017

24 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Basketball from 1891 to 1980

3. The David Stern Era
a. Bird, Magic, and Jordan
b. Ghetto Aesthetics and the Malice in the Palace

4. Summary

5. Outlook and recent tendencies

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The world of sports is often seen as “a bastion of fair play and equal opportunity” and “is often portrayed as a world free of racism” (B’beri/Hogarth 2009: 90). Some scholars even argue that sports help minorities to “assimilate into American life” (Boyle 1963: 100). Due to the overwhelming positive associations and leisure character of sports, most fans and athletes would argue that “politics should be kept out of sport” (MacClancy 1996: 2). While those statements fully apply to the actual sport basketball, it should be taken into account that the National Basketball Association (NBA) is first and foremost not a basketball league but a business (cf. Wollert 2009: 75). Therefore it operates with a different set of rules. The NBA is a business which, due to the functional differentiation of sports in the 20th century, highly depends on audiences and media coverage (cf. Stichweh 2005: 117). Before David Stern took over the league as a commissioner in 1984, the NBA had an image crisis which resulted in low viewership and teams not being financially profitable. The image crisis was mainly caused by disenfranchisement of the mostly White fans (B’beri/Hogarth 2009: 91), which could not identify with Black players and perceived the league as “[…] drug-infested and too-black […]” (Kiersh 1992: 28). Within the first 10 years of Stern’s leadership, the league experienced 1600% of growth in annual revenue (cf. Maharaj 1999: 232), which some scholars explain by hinting at a change of the league’s marketing strategy. That new strategy presented “Black men safe for (White) consumers in the interest of profit” and that the NBA’s success cannot be separated from the applied representation strategies (Hughes 2004: 164). Stuart Hall argues for the function of media to produce, reproduce, and transform ideologies but also the concept of race (cf. Hall 1989: 155). Jeremy MacClancy further argues that “[s]ports and sporting events cannot be comprehended without reference to relation of power: who attempts to control how a sport is organized and played, and by whom; how it is to be represented; how it is to be interpreted” (1996: 5). Applying those insights to the NBA, one comes to the conclusion that there are “finer racial issues”, such as White dominance of ownership, coaching and representation (B’beri/Hogarth 2009: 91). Black athletes in a sport controlled and consumed by Whites, constitute the trespassing of a symbolic border, which, according to Hall, is often interpreted as an attack on the entire hierarchy and the unwritten set of rules (cf. Hall 2004: 119). Such a trespassing usually results in a cleansing process and the restoration of the prior order. This however, is not compatible with the paradigm of equality attached to the field of sports. While “Blackness has come to embody a pollutant within the NBA”, one of the few strategies available, which does not make use of exclusion, is “surveillance and regulation” (Leonard 2006: 160). The power imbalance between the mostly Black players and White owners and officials is evident and omnipresent. Power in this context must not be understood solely as a physical or economic superiority but also as the power to represent certain people and/or groups and being able to create the dominant image or stereotype of that group in the public discourse (cf. Hall 2004: 145/146). This power predominantly articulates itself in “seemingly innocent decisions, league administrations, and fan discourse” aiming at “Black players to conform to the moral and ethical economy of the professional sports leagues” (B’beri/Hogarth 2009: 91). This leads to the conclusion that “[…] basketball is a contested space” (Andrews/Silk 2010: 1267), in which the “ongoing battle over representation of Black urban experience is fought” (Kelly 1997: 8). Some scholars argue that race in this context is managed through the proximity to Whiteness, which results in a separation into good Blacks, who are welcomed, and bad Blacks, who are condemned (cf. Hughes 2004: 164). It is almost needless to say that Black players are faster to be punished1 (cf. Lavelle 2010: 298) and that “NBA rules inherently and intentionally penalize a majority of its Black players” (Cunningham 2009: 40) and that those sanctions can be read as “power-plays between the White managerial forces and Black athletes” (ibid.).

After taking all those arguments into consideration, it can be stated that sports provide “sanitized snapshots that promote integration without equality, representation without power, [and] presence without the conforming possibility of emancipation” (McDonald/Toglia 2005: 248). Those sanitized snapshots however, feature multiple items which can be ascribed to the dominant ideology. Ideologies in this context bear the power to detach and reattach certain concepts with each other (cf. Hall 1989: 151), which is of particular importance when investigating the representation of Black players in the context of professional basketball. Further, ideologies bear the same reorganizational powers with regard to an entire discourse (cf. Hall 1989: 152). Therefore, this paper aims at finding and contextualizing those underlying ideologies in the field of professional basketball and the representation of Black players. It is very likely that the most fruitful temporal episode for such an investigation is the time of David Stern’s administration as commissioner due to the major changes Stern has induced. After taking the NBA over in 1984, Stern turned the NBA into a billion dollar business and said himself that “[…] race would not be an abiding issue to NBA fans, at least as long as it was handled correctly” (Maharaj 1999: 231). Ideologies have the tendency to go unnoticed and mask themselves as common sense (cf. Hall 1989: 152) while articulating themselves primarily through single actors. Hall states that ideologies are not created by people but people formulate their intentions within ideologies (cf. Hall 1989: 151). In order to detect those underlying ideologies, that accompanied and shaped the NBA over the decades, it can be sufficient to analyze the measures implemented by single institutions and actors. By determining how race is, according to Stern, handled correctly, it can hopefully be reconstructed which predominant mental images concerning Black athletes circulated and still circulate in society. In order to answer this question, this paper will give a brief overview of basketball’s history and how the NBA came into being. Further this section will illustrate and contextualize the problems David Stern was confronted with in 1984. After having given an overview of the developments of professional basketball, the illustration of Blackness in the NBA will be analyzed. Therefore, three major images of Blackness will be investigated and contextualized. It seems that the NBA always featured two major narratives of Blackness at the same time, which are then either replaced in the next episode or further refined. The three major images of Blackness which will be looked at in this paper are the exotic Blackness of Erving ‘Magic’ Johnson in contrast to Larry Bird in the 1980s, the hard-working and American value representing Michael Jordan (1984-1998), whose image has been continued by Kobe Bryant after Jordan’s retirement, and an episode which could be described as Ghetto Aesthetics (1998-2005). The focus of this paper is primarily on the self-created image of the NBA which is realized by rules, fines, and agendas. The communication of such images is often not linear but circular and depends on the ability of the producer of the message (NBA), but also the consumer (fan), to encode and decode the message/image according to the producer’s intentions (cf. Hall 2004b). The assumed aim of the NBA is to reproduce the dominant perception of Blackness in their respective times and thereby appeal to the dominant forces in society. The targeted consumer (fan) of the message then returns a message to the original producer (NBA), often expressed through affirmation or disapproval of the sports entertainment program, which then needs to be decoded, understood, and contextualized by the NBA. This paper tries to analyze the efforts of the NBA to create certain images concerning their players; ergo the focus is on the encoding process. However, due to the circularity of the messaging process the lines of this discourse are not clear-cut.

After having analyzed those three representations of Blackness in their respective times, it will be looked at the more diverse times from 2005 to 2012 (the end of Stern’s administration) and beyond, hopefully being able to find further tendencies and spotting fields for potential future research.

2. Basketball from 1891 to 1980

After James Naismith developed basketball as a gap filler for the winter season in 1891 (cf. Sahre/Pommerening 1995: 168), it became relatively popular through the networks of YMCAs and colleges, which resulted in the first professional league in 1898 and the first international tournament in 1919 (cf. Kränzle/Brinke 2003: 52). The first league which established itself more permanently was the National Basketball League (NBL) in 1925 lasting three years before it went bankrupt (cf. Kränzle/Brinke 2003: 72). The two teams which maintained long-term competitive during the early days of basketball were the New York Renaissance and the Harlem Globetrotters, the latter being founded in Chicago in 1926 by the Jewish business man Abe Saberstein (cf. ibid). The two teams were almost exclusively Black and provided a platform for Black players in the early years of the NBA in which Blacks were not allowed to participate. The NBA started in 1946 as the Basketball Association of America (BBA) and renamed itself after the integration of the National Basketball League (NBL) in 1948/49 (cf. Kränzle/Brinke 2003: 73). From 1950 onwards, Black players were allowed to play in the NBA and the Globetrotters primarily focused on showmanship and the promotion of American values, including race and international relations, during Cold War times (cf. Thomas 2011: 778). The rivalry between different leagues is also a competition over the best players and top talents to back up the claim to represent the best of basketball. In the 1950s, the NBA was able to establish itself as the most competitive league by having the Minneapolis Lakers and their superstar center George Mikan (cf. Rader 1990: 271). From 1957 to 1966, the Boston Celtics dominated the league and established guard Bob Cousy and center Bill Russell2 as superstars (cf. ibid.). Due to multiple rules changes, which according to Rudolf Stichweh make games more exciting (cf. 2005: 125), but also growing interest from society, viewership increased “from less than 2 million in 1960 to 10 million in the late 1970s” (Rader 1990: 272). The growing interest in basketball and the emerging opportunities lured competitors into the field of professional basketball. In 1967, the American Basketball Association (ABA) was founded and clearly distinguished itself from the relatively White NBA, which at the time featured later legends such as Jerry West3 or ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich. In fact, basketball was a largely segregated sport in the late 1950s and early 1960s (cf. Eitzen/Yetman 1980: 333), which made the ABA an even more attractive league for talented Black players. In direct contrast to the NBA, the ABA was considered the Black league; featuring stars such as Julius Erving (cf. Criblez 2015: 374). The ABA was able to maintain itself for 9 years in business and was then also integrated into the NBA. Also in the 1970s, Black athletes outnumbered Whites and salaries went up drastically4. The rise in salary can be explained by the emerging public interest but also by the competitive situation between the two leagues, which ultimately led the ABA into bankruptcy.

Inspired by the Civil rights movement and given the opportunity to speak publically, representatives of the more militant tendencies of the Black power movement gained visibility, for example in the person of Lew Alcindor, who converted to Islam and later renamed himself Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Generally speaking, the 1970s can be considered an “[…] era of Black power and white backlash” (Goudsouzian 2016: 2). That White backlash articulated itself in a decrease of viewership. However, this decrease also happened due to transgressions of multiple players. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the NBA had an image crisis (cf. Cady 1979: 15) and “[m]any advertisers saw the NBA as a drug-infested, too-black league with dwarfish Nielsen ratings” (Kiersh 1992: 28). The image crisis also affected the financial performance of the franchises as 16 out of 23 teams were not profitable in 1983/84 (cf. Nick 2009: 79). 1984 marks a turning point for the NBA as David Stern became commissioner of the league and turned it into a highly profitable entity. In the following, it will be analyzed how Stern improved the image of the NBA, whose players were and still are mainly Black. Stern however, is convinced that “[…] if everything else went right, race would not be an abiding issue to NBA fans, at least it was handled correctly” (Stern 1984 qtd. in Maharaj 1999: 231). With regard to Stuart Hall and his view on ideologies and power within the discourse, it will be analyzed which underlying ideologies are addressed, employed, and utilized by the correct way of handling race.

3. The David Stern Era

As outlined earlier, it was David Stern’s main concern to create a consumer-friendly and well-marketable league. Consumer-friendliness and marketability closely correlate with the concept of identification, in this case with certain teams and players. Identification should, if the product is designed perfectly, result in lower price sensitivity, more regular game attendance, and higher consumption of merchandise (cf. Meng/Stravos/Westberg 2015: 199). Allegiance towards teams arises from “success, peer group acceptance, vicarious achievement, nostalgia, and star players” (Funk/James 2006: 206). Over the years, Stern established multiple mechanisms (salary caps, drafts, etc.) and rules which should guarantee a well-balanced and competitive league because competition translates into higher revenue as for example with longer play-off series (cf. Caudill et al. 2014: 246). Even though the franchises and their performance on the hardwood can be considered crucial, the “NBA is [still] marketed around a limited group of individual stars” (ibid.). Stern tried and tries to connote those poster boys of the league with certain values, attitudes, and ideals hoping for an image transfer resulting in fans’ and sponsors’ affirmation of and identification with the product (cf. Gwinner 1997). As the following section will show, those attitudes and values remain constant during his years as commissioner. However, their enactment changes over time and sometimes those tendencies backfire as with the basketball-typical clichés of hip hop, the ghetto, and streetball.


1 Berry and Smith add to the discussion that there are limits with what a Black player can get away with (cf. 2000: 191). The power imbalance between the player and the administration in the background, which decides (almost as if they were parents) with what the (infantilized) players can get away with, is very present in Berry and Smith’s argument.

2 Russell, just as Lew Alcindor (later known as Karem Abdul-Jabbar), also toured through Africa in 1959 (cf. Witherspoon 2013: 1510). While Russell had relatively huge success promoting American ideas, the newer generation was less cooperative and was also less successful in the early 1970s (cf. Witherspoon 2013: 1508/1509).

3 Jerry West was not only a very successful basketball player but also the template for today’s NBA’s brand logo. This coincident brought him the nickname Jerry ‘The Logo’ West.

4 In 1970, the league was half Black and half white with an average salary of $35,000 per year. Ten years later, the league was 70% Black and salaries went up by 500% (cf. Criblez 2015: 373). The salary rise but also the ABA’s bankruptcy can be explained by the fact that the ABA had overpaid talented prospects for over a decade trying to outbid the NBA (cf. Simmons 2009: 9).

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How to sell Black Athletes to a White Audience? The Representation of Blackness in the NBA from 1984 to 2005
Bielefeld University
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black, athletes, white, audiences, representation, blackness
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Till Neuhaus (Author), 2017, How to sell Black Athletes to a White Audience? The Representation of Blackness in the NBA from 1984 to 2005, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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