Sports Law Blog
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Monday, March 31, 2008
much ado about . . . ?

Perpetuating stereotypes is nasty business. One of the more prevalent and damaging stereotypes in collegiate and professional sports in that of the criminalized African-American athlete. According to Kinesiology Professor Damion Thomas at the University of Maryland, “Images of black male athletes as aggressive and threatening ‘reinforce the criminalization of black men.’” Almost weekly now, stories of athletes being arrested for criminal mischief dominate the news cycles. Cue the latest stereotyping controversy:

The April 2008 cover of Vogue Magazine features LeBron James and Brasilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Editors of Vogue hailed the cover as an historic moment as James became the first African American male to ever grace its cover. Unfortunately for Vogue, this historic moment has come under fire as commentators and pundits decry the photo as perpetuating racial stereotypes. According to some, the cover conjures an image of “King Kong” and Fay Wray, perpetuating the idea of a criminalized black man.

Magazine analyst and critic Samir Husni believes that the Vogue cover was intentionally provocative, deliberately attempting to perpetuate the stereotype: “It screams King Kong. . . . [W]hen you have a cover that reminds people of King Kong and brings those stereotypes to the front . . . it is not innocent.” Husni continues that magazine covers, particularly for publications as influential and prominent as Vogue, are not rushed into without careful deliberation.

For his part, James is pleased with the cover claiming that he was just trying to show “a little emotion.”

Still, critics claim that this type of stereotyping, criminalizing the black athlete, is nothing new. Memorable magazine covers in the past have portrayed black athletes in unflattering ways. To wit:

No one would or could reasonably argue that black athletes are more inclined to break the law than are white athletes. Still, troubling images only lend themselves to perpetuating unfounded stereotypes.


From an article about the Barkley cover.

Mr. Barkley responded by saying, "America assumes that black people are [like] black athletes. Black athletes are really rich. Black people are struggling. Black athletes are not black America. Black people are really struggling. Everybody is not going to like the picture, but you will get over it." Mr. Barkley said that after the photo session, he discussed the cover before its publication with friends who advised him it was a bad idea, but he didn't appear to regret it.

I've not found much on the Rodman cover other than the photographer picked up 50 different awards for that photograph.

Rodman, Barkley, and James almost assuredly had final approval agreements on their photographs and do not seem to have an issue with how their likeness was used.

Personally I think people are stretching to make their point.

Barkley's photograph illustrated an interview where he went on at length about breaking free of the chains of poverty and what had to happen for others to do it.

Rodman's photograph merely reinforces the crazy image he worked hard to cultivate with tattoos, piercings, dyeing his hair, wearing a dress. I'm sure he saw that as a valuable photograph that reflected the success of his personal branding.

James' photograph, I don't see the King Kong reference. I see a young man celebrating that he can have it all. Fay Wray was terrified. Gieselle seems to be enjoying the time.

Blogger Mark -- 3/31/2008 3:20 PM  

So the only thing that this commentary has to do with sports law is breaking the law?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/31/2008 3:32 PM  

Anonymous...many areas of "sports law" have little to do with actual laws which govern sports. I.e., unions and labor law, criminal law, racial stereotyping and other issues in the sports realm, constitutional freedom of speech issues (Native American Mascots, etc.). Sports law is more aptly discussed as the intersection of any other body of substantive law with the sports world.

As for the cover, I can see both professor cummings' point and mark's point. I tend to lean towards Mark's view as seeing this as a man who can have it all. And Gieselle really appears to be enjoying the circumstance depicted by the photograph. For that matter, couldn't women attack the cover as degrading of women or perpetuating gender stereotypes of the male as dominant and the female as helpless/sbuservient?

Just my thoughts. Like I said, I understand why some are aggravated, but I struggle to appreciate the concern, but maybe that's because I don't readily see the comparisons others are making.

Anonymous Travis -- 3/31/2008 3:42 PM  

But see Larry Elder, Stupid Black Men: How to Play the Race Card -and lose (2008).

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/31/2008 3:48 PM  

I am sure that the good liberal minded folks over at Vogue did not intend for their photo to perpetuate a negative stereotype. However, this photo reveals that even members of white America that consider themselves to liberal and socially conscious need to be educated on matters of race. Especially, from the perspective of minorities.

I am an African American male and I have been accussed by liberal whites of being "hypersensitive" or "blowing things out of porportion" (probably a lot more behind my back) whenever I point out images in the media that depict African American men negatively and inaccurately.

How can an image seem offensive to me but not to my white brethren? I think the answer is simple. Historically, negative stereotypes have been used to demean African Americans. In effect, these negative stereotypes became apart of the collective white American conscious. Therefore, African Americans were viewed as a monolithc group and were thought to behave and act alike.

Perhaps my white brethren have been negatively stereotyped. But I am certain that they have not been affected by negative stereotypes in the way that I have. The criminalizing of black men in the media and by society at large has affected my life in a way that is substantial and profound.

I dare to dream.....I look forward to the day where I can go to a store and not be followed by the sales clerk because he thinks that I am going to steal. I wish that white women would not grab their purses whenever I am around. I long for the day where I do not feel anxious when I am near a crime scene because I am afraid that I might become a suspect. I am sick of proving that I am competent, even when I have proved I can do the work.

So the reason why my white friends cannot see why an image is offensive to me is because they have never been victimized by negative stereotypes. In fact, they have the luxury of not thinking about race, until they are the only white person around. And that rarely happens.

Perhaps the next time Labron, Charles or Dennis gets pulled over for DWB (Driving While Black), they will think about how the criminalization of African American men impacts their lives.

Anonymous B.Hoop -- 3/31/2008 11:06 PM  

I find it odd that once the threshold question "does the cover evoke a racial stereotype?" is answered in the affirmative, the only logical conclusion is "the cover is racist." There are plenty of reasons an artist may choose to tread on such themes - perhaps ironically, to hold a mirror to society, etc. Assuming the James/Gisselle cover had racial overtones, that should be the beginning, not the end, of the discussion.

Blogger Dave -- 4/01/2008 2:08 AM  

B.Hoop, what image can you display that does not offend SOMEONE?

James isn't offended and approved the image.

When the NCAA issued its nickname and mascot edict, the Seminole Tribe's response was that they were offended by the NCAA's action to "protect" them from being offended.

Offense is an inherently personal matter. In a nation of 300 million and a world of over 6 billion offense cannot be avoided.

Therein lies the beauty of the First Amendment guaranteeing the right speak or create images that offend some, many or nearly all and guaranteeing the right to respond (maybe not in the venue of choice, but at least in some venue).

Blogger Mark -- 4/01/2008 10:09 AM  

Mark, you are right. In a world that is so diverse it is hard to find a phrase, picture, or even a word sometimes that doesn’t offend at least one person. No doubt. However, my problem lies with people who do not know what discrimination truly is but yet talk about it like they are experts. Has anyone ever told your parents "Get out of our country" or purposely been rude to them because they have accents? Do not minimize the discrimination by hiding it behind the First Amendment because a group of people, like Bhoop and my parents, are faced with this issue on a daily basis. It is always easier to be on the outside looking in than on the inside looking out.

OpenID Smovie99 -- 4/01/2008 5:18 PM  


I never stated that the Lebron/Gisele photo was offensive because it perpetuates a negative stereotype. In my view, I am not sure if the photo evokes an image of "King Kong" or it reduces Lebron to that of a savage, in the way African American men have been portrayed historically.

However, my point is that negative stereotypes affect members of a minority group much more substantially than it does for white America. Particularly, a negative stereotype that characterizes African American men as criminals.

The American media produces a multitude of images that criminalize African American men. These images provide the basis for the inaccurate presumption that all African American men are predisposed to engage in criminal behavior. This is the way a negative stereotype is born.

We live in a society where whites possess the power. Unfortnately, many whites believe that African American men lack intellect and are prone to violence and crime. So this is why African American men are pulled over by the police for no reason and this is why we are denied job opportunties when we are qualified.

I was not discussing whether or not the photo is offensive because it perpetuates a negative stereotype; but, I offering first hand experience on how negative stereotypes affect African American men.

I believe part of the reason why people will not entertain the possibility that the photo does criminalize African American men is because they are unaware that African American men have been portrayed as savage beasts (a la King Kong)and people that lack self control. I think if people knew the way African American men have been portrayed in the past and compared it with the photo, they would be able to see the merit in the argument that the photo perpetuates a negative stereotype.

By the way, the fact that Labron approved the photo does not mean that it cannot be offensive. Labron is young and may not be completely enlightened on this matter. Also, I am sure that he had a team of people telling him that it was o.k. Labron or any one black person is not the voice of Black America.

The fact that there are some black people that would particpate in perpetuating a negative stereotype is a totally seperate issue.

Anonymous B.Hoop -- 4/01/2008 7:40 PM  

I find the whole thing patronizing and condescending.

LeBron James is a wealthy adult but he needs people to protect him by saying he should be offended?

There is no hiding behind the first amendment in saying the fact that any image will offend someone.

Honestly I don't see James appearing, hostile, aggressive, or beastly or any other term that has been thrown around, I see a pro athlete having a great time because he's got it all. The photo to me shows success and integration into society.

The critics seeing the awful things probably say more about the shortcomings in their world view than they say about James, the photographer and the editors.

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