New Jersey Wrestling Saga and the Policing of Black Athletes, Culture, and Style (By: Zach Draves)
The prophetic soul genius Marvin Gaye lyrically stated in his iconic anthem of social consciousness “What’s Going On” a principled critique on respectability politics. He stated “who are they to judge us, simply because our hair is long”. In other words, people who embrace a certain style whether in the form of fashion, hair, or overall presentation that is outside of the mainstream should be heard and not judged and policed for their choices. Those words can most certainly apply to recent incident at a high school wrestling match in New Jersey where a referee forced a young black male wrestler to cut off his dreadlocks or to forfeit the match. The young man had to have the trainer take a pair of scissors and actually cut off his dreadlocks in front of everyone in order for him to continue. The reaction on social media was palpable and the outrage was legitimate. The act committed by this referee was racist and reflected white supremacist attitudes and behaviors. Then to add insult to injury, it turns out this particular referee had a history of racist actions such as using the N-word when referring to a black referee. The referee has officially been banned from his position, which is justified. The next questions is, what comes next? What can be done to prevent this? Those questions need to be answered and social workers in the sports world need to be part of that process to change policy and attitudes. The first step we can take is to recognize that this is not an isolated incident and to familiarize ourselves with the history of how institutions, companies, schools, and athletic settings have implemented subtle, and not so subtle, policies that have been aimed at punishing and policing the African American community, including African American athletes on the basis of fashion, hair, aesthetic, and culture.
Going all the way back to slavery, the dominant society and culture has been hell-bent on suppressing African Americans in many facets such as civil rights through various systems and institutions beginning with slavery, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration. What has also occurred has been the various ways in which there has been an effort to take away the right of black people to express themselves and represent their cultural identity. Many companies will punish black employees for certain clothing choices. Many schools have expelled black children for wearing cornrows or braids. There have been endless campaigns telling black teenagers to “stop sagging” and “pull up your pants” and somehow they will succeed. Another case would be if Trayvon Martin hadn’t worn a hoodie at night while carrying Skittles and ice tea, he would be alive today. If Walter Scott had just paid his child support and now run off, he would be alive. If Sandra Bland hadn’t talked back to the officer, she would be alive. If Tamir Rice, hadn’t played with a toy gun, he would be alive. The list goes on and on. This called respectability politics, where if people just “acted appropriately” they would have an easier time finding a job, getting an education, and staying out of trouble. However, for black Americans, these narratives only reinforce racist stereotypes and do nothing to shatter structural and systemic racism that is prevalent in our society. After all, many middle to upper class African American men and women with significant income, have a high power career, and who may wear “proper attire” can still be pulled over by the police. Unfortunately, these practices have found itself in the world of sports.
As far back as the late 1960’s and early 1970’s during the height of the Black Power movement where many African Americans started to wear their hair naturally in the form of Afros, wearing African clothing such as Dashikis, and declared to the world as James Brown sang “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, black athletes who embraced these revolutionary ethos were subjected to that system of policing by the dominant society of their style. Muhammad Ali, who essentially was the first black athlete to embrace the politics of black power, converted to Islam, changed his name from Casscius Clay to Muhammad Ali, and was stripped of his title for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. Not only was his title unjustly taken away for three and a half years, but his style of boxing, his eloquent use of poetry, and his outspokenness was subjected to white rage and that white rage tried every effort to suppress his speech and make him out to be “arrogant” as if taking pride in one’s heritage and community and being unapologetic somehow defines arrogance. Bill Russell, who proudly wore Dashikis, wore a full grown beard that was perceived as menacing to white society, stood by Muhammad Ali, and was a fierce advocate for civil rights endured harsh treatment by the city of Boston and whose home was vandalized. Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul Jabbar, converted to Islam, boycotted the 1968 Olympics, spoke out frequently on racism, and wore his hair naturally was subjected to those same suppressive critiques. Hank Aaron, as he broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974 was very stoic and soft spoken, advocated for black management and ownership in Major League Baseball, fought to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as he was in a struggle with Bowie Khun on the schedule for him to break the record was also perceived as “arrogant” and that he was “nothing like the Babe”. He was also subjected to hateful death threats as he was pursuing the record.
Finally, as the NBA started to become a predominately black league by the late 1970’s, the style of the game was more in line with the aesthetic of improvisation, individuality, charisma, behind the back passes, and the slam dunk. Black players such as Julius Erving (Dr. J.), Oscar Robertson (The Big O), George Gervin (Iceman), Earl Monroe (The Pearl), Artis Gilmore (The A-Train), and David Thompson (Skywalker) were asserting themselves and instilling self-confidence and pride on the basis of their skills and capability on the court, which in and of itself is a form of black power. This turned off white society who were quick to describe the NBA in very demeaning terms and accused the players of being heavy drug users. The truth was, they didn’t like seeing black athletes standing up for themselves and succeeding on their own terms and choosing to embrace a style and fashion that made them assert cultural agency.
In the 1980’s, as the War on Drugs exploded, income inequality was growing, deindustrialization ran amok, and civil rights gains were being rolled back, what came out of that as a form of cultural rebellion created poor black and brown young people in the Bronx, New York that came be known as Hip Hop. Hip Hop became the outlet for many who felt abandoned and ignored where critiques of institutional and cultural power were expressed through lyrics, rapping, break dancing, and DJing. These new cultural forces scared off dominant mainstream society but was embraced by many including black athletes. The first team to embrace Hip Hop culture as a means of self-expression and identity through sport was John Thompson’s Georgetown Men’s Basketball team who became the 1984 NCAA champs. The Hoyas aggressive style of play, wearing dark blue Nike shoes, which was not seen at that time, and them being an all-black team led by an outspoken black head coach didn’t find much praise in many traditional white communities. The Hoyas were perceived as “thugs” which became a new loaded and coded word. They can’t use the N word anymore, so they tried something else that can be seen as less offensive by some, but reinforced the same degradation as the N word did. At the same time, the NBA had a brand new rookie from North Carolina named Michael Jordan who was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in ‘84. His style of play mirrored that off the players from the 1970’s and his choice of footwear also sparked a cultural revolution. The Air Jordan, created by Nike, was first introduced in 1985. The first pair were black shoes with red features. This violated the NBA’s rule on footwear that pairs of sneakers had to be white or have some white in them and as a result, they banned the Air Jordan. The NBA at that time most likely couldn’t come to terms with the fact that black style was becoming mainstream and that their league would be composed of black players who embraced the politics of cultural pride and so they tried everything they could to not lose white fans through these kinds of policies.
In the 1990’s, Hip Hop started to become more popular than ever and the fusion between hip hop culture and sports was starting to become more visible. On the basketball court, the Runnin Rebels of UNLV that featured players like Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, and Stacey Augman mirrored Georgetown in that they were a predominately black team that embraced a style of play that came from the inner cities that had a Hip Hop style. Even though they won the NCAA title in 1990, they were also called “thugs” by the mainstream press and their intelligence were questioned. When they lost their chance to repeat as NCAA champions in 1991 to Duke led by their star Christian Leattner, who happened to be white, many college sports purists supported the victory of a team who embraced a style that was appropriate and traditional over a team that embraced a style that was seen as “in your face” and “thuggish”. The racial component was there. A year later, a group of five freshman stepped onto the campus of Michigan; Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson. They become known as the “Fab Five”. They became famous for wearing baggy shorts, black shoes, black socks, and playing a style of play that paralleled the hip hop streetball style. They were subjected to relentless criticism by the dominant society. They received racist letters from Michigan alumni. They were told that they didn’t represent what college sports should be about. They were judged because they listened to Hip Hop. They listened to EPMD, Naughty by Nature, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and others. Mahmoud Abul Rauf, formerly known as Chris Jackson, was one of the NBA’s best known shooters playing for the Denver Nuggets. He converted to Islam and became famous for not standing for the National Anthem and would later pray in traditional Muslim style of prayer during the anthem as a form of compromise with the league. This was at a particular time when many in the hip hop community including many athletes embraced the religion of Islam, especially as it relates to black pride. The reaction was swift and he was eventually blacklisted from the league. This was an attack on a black athlete who embraced the religion of Islam that was viciously judged and still is to this day.
In the tennis world during the mid to late 1990’s, two young black women from South Central Los Angeles walked onto the courts of the professional ranks named Venus and Serena Williams. They changed the way the game was seen and how they game was played. They played with an emphasis on power in terms of their serve and volley. They also came into the game wearing various colored beads in their hair they were hard to miss. This particular hairstyle was familiar in the African American community, but not to White America who dismissed it as some sort of oddity and furthermore saw it as disrespectful to the game of tennis. Never mind that those critics probably never watched the game of tennis and don’t know the history of tennis as an elitist white sport where many country clubs would not accept African Americans. They sought to project this narrative that the Williams sisters were an insult to tradition and the beads in their hair were symbolic of that. The tennis establishment tried then and now to make examples of the Venus and Serena. During one match, a strand of beads came off of Venus’s hair during a match and the referee responded by robbing Venus of a point. Recently, Serena has fell victim to WTA policies that said that she couldn’t wear a specific loose fitting outfit known as the “catsuit” which helped her with blood circulation after complications during to the recent birth of her daughter in which she suffered blood clots. Her ranking as the top player was stripped due to her time off to care for her daughter, which raises the broader question on maternity leave. Eventually, the WTA recently revoked these policies, but Serena is still made to be an example by the tennis establishment. Finally, who can forget the U.S. Open in September in which Serena was subjected to unfair treatment by the referee for supposed violations that would have never been leveraged at a male player, even John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors wouldn’t have been treated that way. The policing of Venus and Serena is emblematic of the treatment black women and girls in many facets of American life.
In the early 2000’s until the present, we a saw a new surge in the policing of black athletes fashion and style. In the NBA, we saw the presence of Allen Iverson, who solidified the relationships between basketball and hip hop in every way imaginable. AI had cornrows, wore do-rags, wore tattoos, wore hip hop clothing, associated with rappers like Jadakiss, and openly challenged respectability politics. The NBA was coming out of the Michael Jordan era and were looking to fill that void, which was impossible. They knew that AI wasn’t what they had in mind. Michael was perceived as perfection by NBA standards. He was a black male athlete who crossed over into mainstream society in a way never before seen by a black athlete. He was also apolitical and didn’t rock the boat. He set the example of putting brand and image before social and political beliefs. AI on the other hand was not MJ. He redefined the role of the point guard, but he would never be mentioned in the same sentence as Michael because of what he represents or what they perceived he represented. Contrary to popular belief, the people who knew AI the best recognize how generous and humble he was and that he was being his authentic self. The league tried to do everything they could to make him less of himself such as erasing his tattoos on the cover of a magazine to make him appear less menacing. AI was able to crossover, no pun intended, just for being who he was and the fans embraced that no matter how much the league and media tried to discredit and suppress him. If anything, AI showed that the urban black male who embraced hip hop is what makes the NBA marketable and that league wouldn’t be what it is without them. He essentially showed America that the urban black male is here to stay and know matter actions are taken, the urban black male is going be heard one way or another.
A few years later in 2004, we saw the infamous Pistons-Pacers brawl also known as the “Menace in the Palace.” Ron Artest (Now Metta World Peace), Stephen Jackson, Jermaine O’Neill, and others were punished by the league for their actions, particularly Artest who was suspended for the remainder of the season. In response to the outcry from the media, especially talk radio and racists like Rush Limbaugh, the league then led by Commissioner David Stern, implemented a dress code policy. The players had to wear a shirt and tie when they arrive for games and baggy clothes, jewelry, throwback jerseys, or anything associated with hip hop culture was not allowed and they would be fined if they wore any of that. The policy was an absolute joke and it didn’t do anything to fix any problem associated with the brawl. All it did was try to not scare off white fans, please the major companies, advertisers, and TV networks, and to racial profile their own players. Eventually, the league has now allowed for the players to embrace their own individual style, whether with clothing or footwear, as now Commissioner Adam Silver has allowed for the players to be themselves. Finally, in the NFL, Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem back in 2016 to protest racial injustice certainly caused a major discussion on athlete activism, but many of the critics of his protest focused on his hairstyle. Michael Vick, who is a convicted dog fighter, said that Colin needed to get rid of his afro in order for him to get a job in the league. The logic behind that doesn’t exist. Others ridiculed his clothing choices along with his hair. Colin, if anything, was simply embracing his natural hair and wear in the same tradition as the Black Power movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The point being of all this is to put this incident in New Jersey into a much broader historical and cultural context. There is a need for us to understand how racist policies that are geared to suppressing and policing fashion, style, hair, and other aesthetic features associated with blackness have no place in sports or anywhere else. This idea of respectability politics needs to end because people end up getting hurt along the way. There are many things that we social workers who work with athletes can do to change policy and to change attitudes. Some suggestions include:
1. Implement programs, host workshops, and educate athletic directors, coaches, teachers, fellow social workers, and others on explicit/implicit bias.
2. Follow the NASW Code of Ethics, particularly the principle of the dignity and worth of the individual
3. Advocate for the abolishment of policies aimed at policing dress for a certain group of people
4. Engage in Cultural Competency
5. Create spaces where athletes can simply be themselves.
Use this case as an example of what cannot happen in sports and to create a safe and supportive environment.