When you hear the name “Mario Balotelli”, what terms come to mind? On the positive side, the words “powerful”, “strong”, and “muscular” ring around the room. On the negative side, we’ve all read about his “volatility” and “outbursts” and “immaturity.” Yet why do we tend to focus so heavily on terms of power when describing black male athletes, when the discourse of grace also applies? Why do vocally dissident black athletes get fed to the sharks?
The first discourse is a dishonest and disempowering “black athlete fetishism,” the second reflect subtle misogynist underpinnings – reason, the province of the white rational male, must trump emotion.
Let’s deconstruct both these ideas, shall we?
At the outset, this is not a finger pointing game of “he’s a racist/she’s a racist/not it!” Rather, I desire a nuanced look at how language and prejudices shape one another, like two strands of string tied together. In that respect, biases have shaped my own bi-racial life. When I’m early to a meeting for work, its my proudly punctual anglo-saxon roots. When I’m a half hour late to a social event, its my subtly cool Latin sensibility. In seriousness, these daily snap-decisions and internalized modes of thinking require reflection then rejection, not head-butting recrimination.
The terms used to describe Balotelli’s game generally revolve around physical attributes of the brute variety: his strength, his speed, his acceleration, his jumping ability. The black athlete is painted as the powerful and majestic “black stallion,” a sheer force of nature. But can’t these same attributes be depicted in terms of grace, balance, and agility? One may say they are two sides of the same coin – but why does the coin always come up tails when we read and hear commentators praise black athletes? Balotelli is not alone in this regard.
One of my favorite EPL players, Michael Essien, is nicknamed “the Bison.” Granted, the man from Ghana has put in quite a few crunching tackles. But can’t we ascribe this quality to anticipation, timing, and reading of a game? When Essien leaves his feet to spear a ball, why not describe the tackle as if a soaring Eagle dove suddenly to pierce its prey?
While, duh, we watch sports because the athletes are super athletic and an athlete can be both powerful & graceful, why was Van Basten “a swan” yet Essien “a bison”? The alternative, of course, is to acknowledge the reality that Essien is a ballerina.
When Essien fends off two defenders and surges forward, it has nothing to do with the diameter of his thighs or his bench press. Rather, his toes deserve the credit. The Ghanian delicately crescendos to a brilliant forte, like a well choreographed swan lake.
While this may seem like splitting hairs over compliments, in American Football, this fetishism’s focus on “the physical” retarded the advancement of African Americans. While black players succeeded at highly skilled positions like running back and wide receiver, doubts lingered about the “cerebral positions” of quarterback and coach. This myth was popped by Randal Cunningham’s brilliantly spontaneous runs, Donovan McNabb’s mastery of the West Coast offense, and Tony Dungy’s even-headed firmness, decades passed before reality trumped prejudice.
Even if we accept that Balotelli is really Michael Flatley incognito, rejecting black athlete fetishism, a second discourse clouds our heads: subtle misogyny. Balotelli’s temper tantrums probably reflect the normal workings of supremely gifted teenager, yet why does the media latch onto these comments? Why does expressing displeasure with management or co-workers come as a shock?
Granted, white players that express their emotions and frustrations to the press also get their share of stick. Antonio Cassano of Italy is a prime example in soccer, as is Jeremy Shockey of New Orleans in American football. Yet the subtly sexist reasoning still applies: emotions are weak, expressing emotions is bad. Only the humanist prototype – the white male philosopher – is acceptable.
Many blindly argue based on “privacy.” Concerns about management decisions and teammates should be “behind closed doors.” These issues are a “family matter.” Why? Why should it be? Was domestic violence a private matter in the United States in the 1950′s? Why is stating one’s case, exercising First Amendment rights, and using the media to apply pressure a negative?
Let’s take a look at an example from American football: Randy Moss. For the unfamiliar, Randy Moss if a future hall of fame receiver. His speed, balance, and soft hands set him a class above everyone else. Yet he also “runs his mouth.” At the start of the season, he made some critical comments about his organization, the New England Patriots. They promptly let him go. How did the press react?
They applauded the Patriots’ actions. I wont get into nuts & bolts of management decisions, but the “crazy girlfriend” analogy by both Jason Whitlock & Bill Simmons bordered on a satire of itself. Could they both be so superficially misogynist? Below the surface of the “women as chattel” language, why associate emotions and “volatility” with women? Why depict emotions and their verbal expression as negative?
The answer is simple.
In the early 1900′s, a bunch of classically trained white academic male philosophers decided (1) reason and emotion were opposites and (2) reason must conquer emotion. Always. This same dynamic has emerged in the recent twittergate saga of black EPL players Glen Johnson and Ryan Babel. Did both manifest their hurt feelings in childish ways? Yes. But middle school ad hominems only overscore a point: these professionals take pride in their job. Should we expect less?
So we ask of Balotelli, the dark “Italian stallion” of the 21st century, can his white coach harness his bestial talent & tame his feminine volatility? Will Babel and Johnson forever trade twitter for foursquare? Or do we?
Photo credit: Vanity Fair