Looking at the buzz surrounding this year’s NBA draft, it was clear that the NBA is considered a hyper-Black, savage, and pathological space. It is marketed to this effect. For non-Black players to show the least bit of talent is considered a breath of fresh air. That being said, the hype surrounding draftee Jimmer Fredette, for example, is a little too close to hopes of Fredette triumphing as this sport generation’s Great White (American) Hope.
As I watched the draft with my husband, something else piqued my interest. Of the first ten (10) players picked, four (4) were international. Paired up with the conversations about newest NBA champion Dirk Nowitzki, also an international player out of Germany, I couldn’t help but think about how the steady presence of international players in American popular sports reflects a larger turn in the tides of what an American looks like today.
What does the popular sports narrative look like in the 21st century? Many folks would like to dismiss the still looming presence of race in popular sports to keep with the post-racial Joneses. But, like many 21st century American narratives, it’s complicated. Many of those same narratives are indeed racialized and still resonate as such. William Rhoden’s $40 Million Dollar Slaves (2006) and Thabiti Lewis’ recent book Ballers of the New School (2010), for example, look at how race impacts sports at the turn of the millennium and beyond.
Sports, like other genres of popular culture, are an accurate gauge of social-cultural attitudes in the United States. This is especially true when thinking about race relations, with sports cranking out many well documented battles about racial bias, prejudice, and misunderstandings that took place on and off playing fields. I’m thinking specifically about baseball. Heralded as “America’s favorite past-time,” America’s baseball was white and detached from African American and Hispanic experiences. Their fans were white and detached as well. African Americans struck back, however, with the Negro Leagues that produced some of the most prolific players in recorded history.
Sports, arguably, became an act of resistance against a blatantly white supremacist social outlook. And, in similar fashion to the United State’s sliding social-cultural and racial landscape, the role of sports in the contemporary American experience is shifting as well.
International players’ bodies in the NBA’s rotation further complicate American identity because they navigate both American and global identity politics by engaging in both customs simultaneously. Take, for example, the revolving door policy for international and American players. International players get put on in the NBA and American players get put on abroad. In a sense, these instances update the expatriate narrative to reflect voluntary displacement from the murkiness of current identity politics in the United States.
Another perspective, albeit a bit more historical, is the significance of international players’ experiences as an update to the immigrant narratives that played a significant part in the social history of late 19th and early 20th century America. With the steady wave of European ballers throughout the league, they are re-negotiating and blending how we understand American identity and expression. Are they simply searching for an opportunity or making a statement?
That being said, it seems the United States is in limbo with regards to this current state of social-cultural affairs. There is no longer a clean-cut understanding of what it means to be American, what an “authentic” American looks like, nor sounds like. Few markers shout “Hey! This means American!” Perhaps we can look to sports as a means to navigate through the dark and find some footing towards an understanding of 21st century American identity.