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More than a Game: Black Labor in the Sports-Industrial Complex

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Abstract:

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.” Indeed, 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 both the historical and current structural forces driving black overrepresentation in the sporting industries.

This paper will first trace the historical conditions that contributed to the hypervisibility of black professional athletes by examining the case of black boxers. 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. 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. Indeed, 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. Because of pervasive racial discrimination in the labor market, they 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.

Building on this historical examination, the paper will then turn to explore the current conditions driving black hypervisibility in the sporting industries. In looking at the case of NBA hopefuls, it will expose a fundamental paradox. Young black boys from the urban ghettos, criticized by mainstream society for being shiftless and sports-obsessed, form the highly disposable and largely unpaid labor force that drives the profitability of the sports-industrial complex. Many scholars have critiqued the child labor involved in the manufacturing of sporting products overseas, but few have analyzed the laboring of African American youths as they climb the athletic ladder. I want to suggest that these phenomena are essentially two sides of the same coin. Using the documentary Hoop Dreams (1995), alongside a critical assessment of the aggressive efforts of corporations like Nike and the NBA to recruit future talent at younger and younger ages (through camps, leagues, and other initiatives), I argue that black youth are actually performing a kind of child labor with marginal returns and many risks. Indeed, both Nike and the NBA benefit from young African American boys’ lack of access to good quality education and diminished job prospects in the postindustrial United States. For the sports-industrial complex, exploiting the vulnerability of black youth for the sake of profits has become business as usual.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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MLA Citation:

Runstedtler, Theresa. "More than a Game: Black Labor in the Sports-Industrial Complex" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509392_index.html>

APA Citation:

Runstedtler, T. "More than a Game: Black Labor in the Sports-Industrial Complex" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509392_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: 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.” Indeed, 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 both the historical and current structural forces driving black overrepresentation in the sporting industries.

This paper will first trace the historical conditions that contributed to the hypervisibility of black professional athletes by examining the case of black boxers. 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. 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. Indeed, 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. Because of pervasive racial discrimination in the labor market, they 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.

Building on this historical examination, the paper will then turn to explore the current conditions driving black hypervisibility in the sporting industries. In looking at the case of NBA hopefuls, it will expose a fundamental paradox. Young black boys from the urban ghettos, criticized by mainstream society for being shiftless and sports-obsessed, form the highly disposable and largely unpaid labor force that drives the profitability of the sports-industrial complex. Many scholars have critiqued the child labor involved in the manufacturing of sporting products overseas, but few have analyzed the laboring of African American youths as they climb the athletic ladder. I want to suggest that these phenomena are essentially two sides of the same coin. Using the documentary Hoop Dreams (1995), alongside a critical assessment of the aggressive efforts of corporations like Nike and the NBA to recruit future talent at younger and younger ages (through camps, leagues, and other initiatives), I argue that black youth are actually performing a kind of child labor with marginal returns and many risks. Indeed, both Nike and the NBA benefit from young African American boys’ lack of access to good quality education and diminished job prospects in the postindustrial United States. For the sports-industrial complex, exploiting the vulnerability of black youth for the sake of profits has become business as usual.


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