By Cat Ariail
The NBA season began with the dominance of the Golden State Warriors considered fait accompli. As the playoffs begin this Saturday, the Warriors seem poised to take the title they lost last year, with FiveThirtyEight giving them 59% title odds.
Yet, in the interim, we witnessed an NBA season that featured an array of debates, dramas, and basketball excellence, headlined by the emergence of a four-way MVP race between Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James. These developments combined to form a template for a season-long search for masculinity. From the cupcake-infused return of Kevin Durant to Oklahoma City to the intensified conversation about player rest to the impressiveness of Russell Westbrook’s triple-double extravaganza, each of these episodes has represented an effort to define modern masculinity.
Sport long has served as a space for establishing definitions of masculinity, with the likes of Jack Johnson, Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali, and Tom Brady highlighting this history. The NBA, more particularly, has established acceptable boundaries for black masculinity. As the league emerged from its 1970s nadir, new commissioner David Stern, in cooperation with a nascent shoe industry and complicit sport media, worked to present black players as models of desirable, controlled black manhood.
Sports studies scholar David Andrews, argues Michael Jordan acted as a “Reganite racial replicant,” describing him as “a black version of a white cultural model who, by his very simulated existence, ensures the submergence and subversion of racial otherness.” Sport sociologist Mary McDonald likewise has asserted, “An apparent devotion to ‘traditional family values’ serves to further distance Jordan from the stereotypical portrayal of Black masculinity as hypersexual, immoral, and irresponsible, the very demonic characteristics members of the New Right claim threaten the nuclear family and, by association, the very moral fiber of America itself.”
Through the early aughts, this model prevailed, exemplified by the fact that containing black masculinity, through the imposition of a dress code, assumed priority over addressing masculine violence, evident in the virtual non-response to the rape accusations against Kobe Bryant. On the court, Bryant and others continued to adhere to the alpha-male Jordan model, channeling all aggression into a obsessive dedication to winning. Being a man meant trying to be “like Mike.”
Since beginning of the 2010s, changing conditions in sport, media, and society have begun to complicate this hegemonic model. The rise of social media has given players greater control over their image, while also producing a much larger population of basketball interpreters (by which I mean the broader community of analysts, commentators, writers, and fans who offer their opinions on a variety of media platforms). This democratization has done more than unsettle the singular, dominant definition of black masculinity authored by the league and its corporate sponsors; it has re-articulated the ways in which masculinity is defined and to whom it is applied.
Rather than David Stern and his cronies constructing and controlling an idealized image of black masculinity, the NBA has become a site through which a still primarily white, but increasingly multiracial, population of male basketball interpreters seek to define modern masculinity, speaking as much to their own identity as to that of players. Supposedly objective analysis of players, games, and transactions serves as a way to advance their one’s own ideology of masculinity.
Instead of a pre-mediated text designed for uncritical consumption, the NBA is an always in-mediation text, constantly criticized as it is consumed. This process of mediation and criticism acts as a continual search for masculinity, whether the topic at hand concerns the merits of analytics or the use of “hack-a.” Thus, the NBA as a meta-narrative that foregrounds blackness but involves masculinity, as described by Andrews and McDonald, has been replaced by one that foregrounds masculinity while still involving race.
This new reality has become fully realized during the 2016-17 season due to (like everything!) the election of Donald Trump. Masculinity is always in crisis. The rise of Trump and the empowerment of the masculine detritus that surrounds him has made the current crisis particularly acute. Not only does a revanchist white racist and patriarchal masculinity dominate American political culture, but, in reaction, a reinvigorated, intersectional feminism has emerged. This paradigm leaves a limited, uncertain cultural space for a modern, liberal masculinity. The NBA, as the most progressive professional sports league with a primarily young, urban, and multiracial male fanbase, thus serves as particularly productive site for thinking through viable models of masculinity that contest retrograde Trumpian manhood without conflicting with the prerogatives of contemporary feminism.
Kevin Durant signing with the Golden State Warriors launched the season-long search for masculinity. More than LeBron James’s decision to take his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010, Durant’s decision to join a seventy-three-win team that included the twice-defending MVP and two other all-stars represented a rejection of the Jordanian alpha-dog model. Durant’s reported priorities, such as playing in a movement-centric system and enjoying Bay Area tech culture, inspired a mix of opprobrium and admiration. He was understood as either abdicating his manhood, castigated as a coward and cupcake, or presenting a new model of masculinity, one more concerned with overall personal happiness than individual athletic glory.
Racial difference, of course, is not irrelevant to the masculine meanings derived from the NBA. By choosing not to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder, with its predominantly white fanbase, Durant provoked responses characterized by both implicit and explicit racial biases. In short, mostly white fans desired, or even demanded, the loyalty of a black player, often without regard or respect for his preferences. So while seeing Durant as an example of cowardice or conscientiousness does not necessarily speak to racially-specific ideas about masculinity, the context with Oklahoma City means that racialized expectations inevitably color criticism or endorsement of his decision.
The debate about player rest also juxtaposes perceived cowardice and conscientiousness, while introducing more complex racial dynamics. Whether or not players should rest goes beyond determining if a player is “soft” or “smart.” Biometric models, trainers, and coaches often make these decisions for players. Thus, data produced and possessed by primarily white figures of authority determines the athletic choices for primarily black players. For general managers and owners invested in the long-term viability of a player signed to multi-million-dollar, multi-year contract, resting players is a prudent financial decision. In contrast, the dictates of capitalism give the league, as well as its television affiliates, different incentives. Increasing the value of the league requires extracting the most value from players, making player rest (especially during a nationally-televised game) a losing proposition.
For players themselves, their desire to rest or play depends on ever-changing, often-contingent factors. Rest can represent a luxury, indicating the degree to which a player has earned the right not to run his body ragged during an eighty-two game season. Or, it could seem like an unnecessary precaution that prevents a player from making his own decision about his body. For example, after taking a two-week South Beach sabbatical during his first year back in Cleveland, LeBron James has been a basketball yeoman this year, smarting at the occasional rest games imposed by general manager David Griffin and coach Tyronn Lue.
Therefore, in positioning oneself for or against rest, a basketball analyst, commentator, writer, or fan, must contend with a variety of competing and contradicting factors. Ultimately, however, staking one’s flag in a respective rest camp and providing a rationalization for this decision, represents a prioritization of a particular definition of modern masculinity, whether it privileges the authority of science, the demands of capital, the agency of players, or the rights of fans.
The variety of other contrived controversies that dotted the NBA season also served as episodes for defining and redefining masculinity. Yet, the MVP debate has emerged as the richest rhetorical arena through to articulate various visions for a liberal-leaning masculinity. Here, four black men and their athletic performances are used as text for thinking through the boundaries of modern masculinity. Instead of the corporatized construction of five-time NBA MVP Michael Jordan as a limited model of black manhood, various signifiers and priorities of (still white-defined) masculinity are read onto Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James in a democratized discussion by basketball interpreters.
The crux of the debate hinges on the interpretation of the word “valuable,” with the way in which one chooses to determine “value” correlating with certain characteristics of masculinity. Reviewing the cases of the four contenders and the meanings they are understood to communicate illuminates the ways in which ostensibly objective basketball analysis always involves and intertwines with subjective interpretations that then produce justifications about a player’s MVP-worthiness that, more than anything else, establish a model of modern masculinity.
Russell Westbrook’s MVP case most adheres to a more traditional model of the alpha-male athlete. He is a modern-day gunslinger, entering every battle with no reserve. Saddled with subpar surrounding talent, he has willed the Oklahoma City Thunder to a solid playoff seed, turning a team that otherwise would struggle to win twenty games into a tough playoff out. By not only averaging a triple-double but also setting the single-season record for triple-doubles, Westbrook also fulfills the conventional standards of basketball greatness, accumulating an array of self-evident counting stats that clearly convey his MVP case. His willingness to style himself as the loyal solider unfazed by the fact that his fellow superstar decamped for Golden State augments his brand of unapologetic masculinity.
Westbrook is not a millennial but a man. As such, it proves unsurprising that the majority of former players (not exactly a bastion of progressive or alternative gender ideas) have endorsed his candidacy. More interestingly, members of the more modern, liberal basketball intelligentsia who favor Westbrook cloak their case in stats-based justifications, selectively choosing the metrics necessary to rationalize the viability of more traditional masculinity in modern basketball.
James Harden is a basketball hacker, disrupting the traditional precepts of the game in route to a historic season. After establishing himself as a superstar since arriving in Houston, Harden’s unique skillset has been further unlocked by his pioneering, unconventional coach, Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni’s system, aided by the analytic thinking of general manager Darryl Morey, privileges efficient basketball, eliminating mid-range jumpers in favor of three pointers or points in the paint. Such priorities suit Harden, an above average three-pointer shooter and Euro-step extraordinaire with a preternatural ability to draw fouls, either when shooting and driving. His foul seeking creates an aesthetically unpleasing brand of basketball, as he seems to bludgeon way to line by attracting “cheap” fouls. But his style and strategy, while disdained by the untrained eye, is appreciated by the basketball sophisticate.
Celebrating Harden requires understanding the nuanced way in which he expertly has taken advantage of, or even exploited, the rules of the games, with his stunning stat lines a testament to his effectiveness with which he maximizes his efficiency. Akin to the ways in which an aspiring Silicon Valley developer seeks to reinvent an industry, Harden rearranges the rules the games. He offers a entrepreneurial version of masculinity that requires one to rethink and re-evaluate heretofore unquestioned assumptions about “good” basketball.
Kawhi Leonard has replaced the retired Tim Duncan as the San Antonio Spurs’ reliable metronome. Although product of the Spurs’ vaunted corporate culture, he also has exceeded it. Leonard methodically has added facets to his game each season, transforming from a tenacious defender without much offensive expectation into an efficient and effective offense threat who still stands as one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. He is the definition of a two-way player, adding value to his team on both ends of the floor (a trait that separates him from the defensively specious Westbrook and Harden).
Leonard evokes a modernized blue-collar sensibility, willingly to devote time and effort for the greater good of his team like the ultimate company man. Steady, stoic, and un-tempted by the spoils of NBA superstardom, he embodies a more conventional masculinity, without the its excesses. He offers an un-self-conscious, and, therefore, subtly self-assured, masculine model, encapsulated by his no-nonsense cornrows.
Although the Cleveland Cavaliers have stumbled since the All-Star break, James still stands as the undisputed best player in the world. For some, that very fact should earn him the MVP award. Furthermore, the way in which he imposed his will on the last three games of the 2016 NBA Finals remains seared in the minds of all (to use James’s preferred term) witnessed it, tangible proof of his greatness. In his fourteenth season and approaching 40,000 regular season minutes played, he has turned in one of the most impressive of his career. And his squad’s shambling struggles when he has not played this season only further accentuates his value.
James has expressed his desire to become a corporate titan, citing Warren Buffett and Jay-Z as models. Already, James is understood as a CEO-like figure in the NBA. He has a strategic mind, remaining focused on the ultimate goal (playoff success) throughout the fluctuations and randomness of the NBA regular season. He communicates total control, surviving during times of chaos and thriving on the biggest stage. James most offers an image of black masculine autonomy, with an endorsement of James’s MVP case an expression of support for the material power of the league’s primarily black players.
Regardless of who wins the MVP, the masculinity they communicate will not become the hegemonic model. Most likely, it will inspire rationalizations and protestations about why the winner did or did not deserve the award. In short, it will only further spur the search for masculinity. Playoff performances will color these evaluations. For the playoffs, with their raised stakes and prominent stage, ostensibly prove which players possess masculine bona fides.
The idea of a “real man” rising to occasion, however, introduces the limitations of the NBA’s search for masculinity. While a productive process that contests a singular idea of modern liberal manhood, the search for masculinity still privileges heteronormative masculine representations. Because of the long-standing, deeply embedded gender paradigm that governs American sport, interpretations of the NBA only stray so far from the conventional masculinity. However, despite these limitations, the constant articulations and re-articulations of the boundaries of modern masculinity portends the possibility of more, alternative masculine models that better contest retrograde white masculinity and complement contemporary feminisms.
Cat Ariail is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the University of Miami. She researches gender, race, and nationalism in mid-twentieth track and field. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 David L. Andrews, “Excavating Michael Jordan’s Blackness,” in Reading Sport: Critical Essays on Power and Representation, Susan Birrell and Mary G. McDonald, eds. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000), 174.
 Mary G. McDonald, “Michael Jordan’s Family Values: Marketing Meaning, and Post-Regan American,” Sociology of Sport Journal 13, no. 4 (December 1996): 346.