Today, I was playing basketball at Lyon Park Community Center here in Durham, NC. It’s a weekly Sunday run from about 1pm-4pm. Moderately competitive. We usually get about 15-20 young basketball players, many of whom live in the community surrounding the center. I’d say the median age is about 20 years old – half high school basketball players and a handful of older heads who only get to run once a week. The Lyon Park Community Center is a First Calvary Baptist Church/Durham Parks and Recreation collaborative, so there’s usually no serious drama between players. Today was a rare exception. However, always looking on the bright side of things, I see it as an excellent opportunity to discuss issues of Black Masculinity in a larger context.
There’s no disputing the trials and tribulations that Black men face in this country. We’ve endured hundreds of years of being disenfranchised and emasculated, while at the same time being portrayed as vicious and barbarian. In the 21st Century, post-Obama, the majority of these negative stereotypes are still pervasive in the media. In some cases, Black youth embrace the stereotypes that are perpetuated in mainstream culture, and adorn a mask of what they think Black masculinity should represent. These disillusioned children tend to imitate the figures that they see in violent video games, movies and music videos in a futile attempt to find themselves.
In other cases, the conditions under which many young Black men live – in single parent house holds, under constant threat of harassment/brutality from the police and neglected in the classroom – nurture a hardened exterior that brothers use as a defense mechanism against the harsh realities of their lives. Whichever the case may be, the Basketball court is often a battleground for young brothers flaunt their masculinity.
This is not unique to the Black community. Competitive youth of all ethnicities and cultures have used athletics to flaunt their machismo. However, I believe that it plays a particularly unique roll among Black males. I’ve played basketball in just about every pick-up scenario one could imagine – and I have never seen more games that have ended in fights, obscene levels of trash talking, death threats or players leaving the court ball-in-hand, as I have seen with Black males between the ages of 16 and 24. I sometimes wonder if cats have a poster of Ron Artsest hanging on their wall at home.
The reason for this afternoon’s beef was a usual suspect for conflicts on the court: excessive foul calling. In a game with no referee’s, each contest is hinged upon a code of ethics, where players are left to police themselves. If a player believes that he or she were fouled, or if someone double-dribbles or travels and an opponent makes a call, the cardinal rule is to respect the call. Accepting a call, even if you disagree, is about respecting the integrity of the game and honoring your opponent. And the unspoken directive that underlies the entire structure of pick-up basketball is simple: death before dishonor. In many cases, if a brother feels like he’s being disrespected, his sense of masculinity won’t allow him to back down from confrontation. This Klingon/bushido system of respect by any means necessary often leads to arguments, and under extreme circumstances, violence.
Today’s outburst was charged with the threat of violence. Two competing players were arguing over a call and neither would back down to the imposing presence of their opponent. The confrontation was not just about basketball, it was about manhood. In addition to scoring points, rebounds, blocks and assists there were various other rewards at play including self-esteem, swagger, bravado and respect. As voices, tempers and violent gestures increased, it became less about a sketchy foul call, and more about whether or not someone who thinks he’s a grown man lets another supposed grown man talk down to him. At peak intensity, one of the older players opted sit on the bench with the game basketball, in lieu of an inevitable fight. After over 15 minutes of quarreling, the opposing team relented and the game came to an end a few baskets later. Phew – catastrophe averted.
What is it about brothers and basketball? Have we been so stripped of our manhood by an institutionally racist society that we take our frustrations and feelings of inadequacy out on each other? Or are there bigger issues at play?