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Child’s Play?: Black Labor In The Sports-Industrial Complex

By Guest Contributor Theresa Runstedtler, cross-posted from her blog

[Author's Note: The voluminous press on “Linsanity” has not only exposed the “orientalist” visions of American society but it has also laid bare our basest racial assumptions about black athletes. This blog post (originally part of paper for the 2011 American Studies Association meeting) is an effort to build on William C. Rhoden’s analysis for the New York Times earlier this month. Rhoden argues, “African-American athletes faced and continue to confront negative stereotypes that militate against being invested with the type of universal character traits that are at the root of the Tebow and Lin phenomena.” In what follows, I look at why these “negative stereotypes” persist, and to what political, social, and economic ends.]

“On the floor of Shoemaker Center and other camps, hoop dreams flourish and youthful bodies are inspected and assessed in an atmosphere more meat market than training ground. It’s both the good (say defenders) and the bad (say critics) of our national sports obsession. It’s also big business, American style: a world where kids are the product, coaches the buyers, and event directors and hangers-on the middlemen who must work the system, know the right people and outhustle their opponents to succeed.” –Josh Chetwynd, “The Hoopster Supershuffle,” U.S. News & World Report, November 11, 1996.

How is it that a people who labored for hundreds of years as chattel slaves have now become the ultimate paragons of laziness in the eyes of mainstream America? At least some of it has to do with the hypervisibility of African Americans in certain types of employment that have been cast as “play.” Their disproportionate representation in sports (both amateur and professional) has become a frequent point of critique for white conservatives and certain members of the black middle class. There has been a tendency to blame black youth, particularly those from poor and working-class backgrounds, for their pathological “sports fixation.” Yet this narrow, individualist perspective ignores the structural forces driving black over-representation in the sporting industries.

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