Sterling and the Foundations of the Modern Basketball State
Somewhat under-examined in the Donald Sterling Shit Show of the past week has been Sterling’s rhetorical question asserting his creative importance as owner: “Do I make the game? Or do they make the game?” Though Sterling has appropriately been chastised, lampooned, and punished for these and other remarks as well as for past behavior, I believe he has also to some degree been scapegoated by other owners, league executives, the news media and fans availing themselves of the easy opportunity to distance themselves from the kind of extreme and easily quotable form of racism that, too often, is the only form of racism acknowledged to exist in sports and in this country more broadly. As Tim Marchman has put it, “Sterling isn’t some anomaly; he’s the perfect representative of his class.” Indeed. In fact, his claim that it is the owners, rather than the players who “make the game” expresses a key component of a myth that runs like a fault line back to the very foundation of the NBA.
Remember, after all, that though it was officially formed as a legal entity on August 3, 1949, the NBA itself celebrates its birthday on June 6, 1946. Why? Because that’s when a group of large-market hockey arena owners, looking to fill their arenas on off nights, saw the basketball talent commanding increasing public attention and gate receipts in the existing pro National Basketball League (NBL) and to decided to form a league of their own (called the Basketball Association of America or BAA).
Slowly over the next three years, BAA owners sucked the life out of the NBL, eventually absorbing a handful of floundering franchises and their superstar players like George Mikan into the newly formed NBA. Though it was largely NBL talent that sustained the NBA in its early years (as it remains the basketball playing talent that sustains the league today), the NBA itself, by officially tracing its birthday back to June 6, 1946 asserts the fantasy that the agents of its history are the franchise owners.
The idea that the owners, as Sterling pithily put it, “make the game” holds some currency beyond the League’s official publicity machine. In the Fall of 2011, when the owners locked-out the players during negotiations over the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, I was teaching my Cultures of Basketball class. As we discussed the lockout and possible solutions, I was struck that not a single student imagined the possibility of the players simply forming a league of their own. Indeed, when I suggested it myself, the possibility was fairly roundly dismissed as implausible, if not laughable.
That particular suggestion may or may not have been realistic at the time. But leaving that aside, I found the exchange indicative of the degree to which the capitalist ownership model in professional basketball had become naturalized in students’ minds—to the point that they struggled even with thought experiment of imagining a league owned and run by players. Alongside its effects inhibiting the imagination of basketball futures, the naturalization of this idea has also the effect of obscuring the historical fact that professional basketball (though certainly not the NBA) was indeed founded by players (pictured above) organizing themselves to elude the authority of the Trenton YMCA which in the 1890s sought to curtail, regulate or ban basketball play.
The NBA neither simply is or is not a “players’ league.” But, to the degree that it occasionally functions as such it is either because player interests coincide with owner interests or, more interestingly to me, because players assert their interests and forcefully threaten owners (as they did a week ago in threatening a boycott of playoff games, or as they did in the 1964 all-star game, in seeking recognition for their union) with exposing the reality that it is the players who make the game.
In my research, I’ve come to think of the institutional forms and practices that emerged (like the NBA) or gained ascendancy (like the NCAA) around mid-century to monopolize the production and consumption of basketball playing in the United States as “the Modern Basketball State.” The Modern Basketball State, on the one hand, bore idealizing aspirations to preserve eternally the basketball status quo. On the other hand, it emerged from complexly related and uneven, and sometimes chaotic processes.
In part perhaps to compensate for the fragile, contingent nature of its own emergence and of the forms of basketball play then prevalent, the Modern Basketball State began to spawn an interrelated complex of myths and myth fragments. These would come to suggest to the imaginations of many that basketball as produced and consumed within the Modern Basketball State was not only the best but the only possible state of affairs.
In another post, I showed how one of these myths–of James Naismith’s ex-nihilo creation of basketball—operates to efface those elements from that event’s history that express the essentially dynamic, changing nature of the game. That is, effaces those elements that—by their very dynamic character—threaten the “state” of the game, in every sense of the term “state.” Basketball’s Myth of Creation came to be intertwined with others, among them:
- the Myth of the Amateur Athlete driven by love of the game and guided by the (mythical) Benevolently Authoritarian hand of the Unselfish Teacher-Coach;
- the Myth of the NBA’s Birth to innocently meet an ostensibly previously unsatisfied market demand;
- the Myth of the Playing the Right Way, wherein the sport as, at its highest form, entailing the absolute sublimation of individual desire and creativity to the interests of the team, not only for tactically pragmatic purposes but as a moral imperative;
- the Myth of the Great White Hope, that Caucasian player who supposedly embodies and whose success restores the moral spirit of the Playing the Right Way, maligned and besieged by Others (as in the next myth)
- the Myth of the Dangerous Negro, that African-American player whose combination of “boundless innate talent” and equally “boundless undisciplined desires” threatens the tactical and moral purity of the sport.
Some of these myths would attach themselves to particular instances of basketball play. Some of them would combine, like bits of genetic material, with other myth fragments and then crystallize into narratives about particular players or teams or eras.
But all such myths find their their reason for being in the mid-century emergence of the Modern Basketball State and it is some version of basketball as it was organized and played within this state which they hypostasize as the timeless essence of the game.
The Modern Basketball State became thus a powerful entity, both materially and culturally. It came to control vast resources, reserved the right to enact and enforce complex laws governing the activities of its “citizens,” and generated self-idealizing cultural material that proved appealing to the popular imagination.
However, like other modern states, the equilibrium it appeared to have achieved was just that—an equilibrium in appearance that 1) bound together autonomous constituencies and dynamic forces often in uneasy tension with one another and 2) depended for its stability the complete exclusion of still other elements.
In the case of the modern basketball state these potentially “destabilizing” forces are numerous and include among others
- the initial de facto exclusion from, but eventual—under competitive and commercial pressures—incorporation of African-American players into the NBA, as well as the more gradual racial integration of the high school and college game;
- the various attempts on the part of basketball labor—first in the NBA but also eventually in the NCAA—to collectivize and assert independent rights;
- the parallel development of the sport’s popularity and the emergence of its own institutional forms internationally as well as that of women’s basketball in this country and abroad;
- the very success of the Modern Basketball State itself, and especially, of its associated commercial interests and the pressures these in turn exert on associations and leagues to alter and promote the game in particular ways conducive to the sale of every product imaginable.
In other words, despite the state of apparent equilibrium achieved at mid-century, forces constitutive of the Modern Basketball State, as well as individuals and groups within the game carried forward the inventive force and the plasticity with which Naismith had imbued the game, developing new forms.
These forms—whether developed in cooperation with, as a challenge to, or as entirely independently of the Modern Basketball State—had the effect of shattering the status quo and—like a player rushing the ball up the court on a fast break without a clear end in sight—pushed the game forward into a new era, itself constituted by ebbs and flows in the development of basketball and by fluctuations in the state of tension between the game’s mythic (or static) and its inventive (or dynamic) tendencies.