Mario Balotelli, Black Athlete Fetishism, & Emotional Volatility

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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

Digital Image Impression: the amazingly talented artist Erik Ebeling. Check out his other work at ErikEbelingArt .

14 thoughts on “Mario Balotelli, Black Athlete Fetishism, & Emotional Volatility

  1. Hi mate…nice blog….why don’t we make an exchange of links? visit mine: stadiogoal.com and let me know if you like it…you find me on Twitter and facebook…have a good day and thanks again

  2. You are a saint sir, I’ve always wondered about this but never had the language tow rite it down. I have this very problem with my coach, allow me to attention whore for a second.

    I play right winger for my college and if I must say so myself, I have very good dribbling, and above average speed/pace yet my coach insists that I bulk up every day. Now I already weigh 175lbs yet he insists that I need more power and this is because the other african players on our team are built like tanks. No matter how many times that I try to convince him that I’m a finesse player, he insists that I should become power based. It’s very disheartning as I feel that there’s no reason for it since I don’t get knocked off the ball much and I have adequate muscle already.

    There, enjoy my rant.

  3. Zito-

    Knowledge of thyself is the most important, and its great you have an appraisal of your strengths. As a player, I myself preferred to fill the offensive tip of a midfield diamond as “enganche,” preferably backed up by Olisa, a brilliant defensive mid from Nigeria.

    However, now that I’ve shifted to coaching, I suggest you keep in mind one thing – one of the coach’s goals is to improve your weaknesses. One of the biggest questions about whether you will continue to advance is how you handle confrontation and adversity. When you are challenged, what do you do?

    If you have the tactical aspect and read the game, a focus on diet & physical conditioning is a walk in the park compared to players who can’t juggle more than 20 times with a left foot.

    Riccardo-

    I suspect you are a WP spambot. My email is in the contact box on the sidebar. But I’m not sure and prefer to publish comments. Email me if you are seriously interested; do nothing if you are a futuristic cyborg from the 22nd century sent back in time to kill John Connor and accumulate Pagerank.

  4. An extremely engaging and interesting article. You raise some very difficult points, not only in society but also how we discuss such issues. I’ll break the article in two if I may. In the first half as you note at times raising such topics be seen as hair-splitting and it is very difficult to know whether there is anything to be made of the fact that van Basten was a “swan” to Essien’s “Bison”. There are of course colour overtones but then there is also the way that each player moves. Essien is a superb player but the way he dribbles is very different to Leo Messi for example. This is partly just down to body type. Essien IS stronger and more powerful than Leo Messi. Messi dances and skips past players in a way that Essien wouldn’t be able to. A flea compared to a bison. So I feel that, while we must be aware of the issues, it must be said that this is at a level which is hard to discuss because we are dealing in such fine lines regarding language. Also I would suggest that your first paragraph, you might take the name Lee Bowyer or Joey Barton and it would read just as well. This is not to suggest that your point is invalid, just that it is not uniformly a problem faced by black players.

    The second half I would concur much more strongly on. There is the constant accusation that players (particularly for England in any given WC for example “lack passion”) but then we can criticise them for showing any ‘womanly’ traits. Diving especially, I feel in England is hated as it is associated with a lack of manliness. Raphael Honigstein’s book ‘Englisher Fussball’ deals with this issue brilliantly, I really recommend it.

    Anyway, this is a gut reaction to this article, I’ll go away and actually think on it some more. Excellent, thought provoking piece this.

  5. David,

    glad you found the article engaging!

    I can definitely see your point on the first part and the Van Basten/Essien issue – at some objective level, individual black players are certainly more powerful than other black players (or other players of different races). However, my question is in part about our brain’s initial snapshot – why focus on that power first? The second question is discursive (and subject to the hair-splitting response) – the adjective “power” can also be phrased as “balance” and “grace”, so why use the P word?

    Good points and thanks for engaging – I’m still afraid some “finger pointers” may try to sneak into the comments section.

  6. Youre trying too hard.

    Sometimes, an immature jerk is just that.

    Balotelli would have been an a-hole no matter the color.
    Same with Roy Keane.

    There are white a-holes (Van Bommel) and there are black ones (DeJong).

    I dont expect much from men who are emotionally and educationally stunted.
    I dont expect an intelligent debate from most,,… some like David James try a bit too hard but are the exceptions that prove the rule (ahhhh, hes black!!! I think.)

    Listen to Ricky Williams talk in the NFL. The quality and depth of the conversations are much deeper than your average NFL gangbanger.

    We know that blacks are better athletes and faster than whites but refuse to admit to it so we have people then get upset when the physical superioty which is evident is singled out.

    Drogba is a physical specimen, as is Balotelli.
    Torres, Berbatov and Crouch and so on. Not so much.
    We cant mention that?

    Black QBs in NFL vs White Ones? Which group is more athletic?

    Name me ONE athletic WR in the NFL who is white.
    Not crafty or experienced.
    So excuse me for calling Moss athletic but he is.

    Now stop using NFL as any kind of analogy to football.
    The groupthink mentality is something that you dont even see in China.
    Everything is done for the good of the team and organization and players are replaceable cogs. Yes, it sounds like football but there is something more Hitlerian Youth about the destruction of ego (there is no I in team) for the greater good.]
    A mentality made for a totalitarian state.

    Basketball is what you want to aspire too. Improvisation, magic, lots of points where both exceptional teamwork or one superior superstar can win it all.
    Basketball is like jazz. NFL is like marching band music. Football is like Manu Chao, a bit of this and that in all kinds of languages.
    Eff the NFL.

  7. Lovejoy-

    Interesting points. I think my criticism was not about labeling one race or another more or less athletic, but rather questioning why when we focus on black athletes, the terms we resort to are related to “raw power”, not “refined grace”.

    Here’s a counterexample – a few months ago everybody was fawning over Bale, who one would think is a “specimen.” However, announcer after announcer kept saying that what made “Bale different” is that he “lifted his head up” before crossing, as if his speed and strength were secondary attributes shared by thousands of people. Why the desire to focus on a “cerebral” aspect to compliment this “specimen”?

    I can definitely see your point about basketball being like jazz and the NFL certainly has its own unique (and commercially broken) beat distinct from soccer. However, I used the NFL to focus on how the media responds to these so called “jerk black athletes” – usually depicting them in misogynist terms.

    I agree that there are white players who are more emotionally volatile (or “jerks”) than others- but why is elder statesmen Antonio “alleged loose cannon” Cassano on his way into AC Milan with his “track record”, while the younger Balotelli left Inter for a UEFA Cup team? Antonio seems to have second chance after second chance, not to mention the “notoriously moody” Ibrahmovic.

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  9. i don’t think essien is called bison because of his tackles. it’s because he’s a one man bison herd going forward. but that doesn’t impair the validity of your point, of course.

  10. This was a WONDERFUL piece! Love it! You can readily see this latent but pervasive racism by the way the NBA and it’s stars are treated by the media in the US (and also ncaa basketball, like the xavier-cincy fight last week). This is also very interesting when I think it’s applied to nations and their national teams.

    All national teams, at least the best ones, are said to have an identity, like the cold, mechanically efficient Germans and free-wheeling, beautifully skilled if immature Brazilians. These constructions are race-based, built very much off the logic-emotion dichotomy of past white philosophers you mentioned. I think applying the logic of individual players to entire nations and the national game of soccer would be an awesome place to take this