The New York Times Whitewashing of the NBA’s Stephen Curry: The Audacity of White Privilege Amidst America’s Racial Anxiety
White privilege is so powerful and pernicious that it literally blinds us to history; it is a willful repression of facts that are pushed aside for a false narrative, which, in turn, becomes the truth. A whitewash, literally.
This is what I came away with after reading Scott Cacciola’s New York Times piece, “Even Ballet Dancers Are in Awe of Stephen Curry’s Moves” (Nov 24, 2015).
Can we turn Stephen Curry into something white?
How noxious is white privilege that it (a) prevents a professional from, well, acting professionally and doing his homework, which is what a journalist should do at the most basic level, and (b) likewise hobbles a huge media corporation, one of the most important in the world , so that it fails to do its job — to provide the truth?
I had nervous uncertainty right at the title of Cacciola’s article: the comparison of Akron, Ohio, native, Stephen Curry, an African-American NBA star, currently leading in scoring, 32 points per game, as well as leading the Golden State Warriors to a 16–0 start to the NBA season (after routing LA 111–77), to a ballet dancer, a type of performance dance that originated in the Italian Renaissance courts in the 15th Century and later developed into a concert dance from France to Russia.
My consternation came with the realization that the work of Cacciola’s colleague at The New York Times, sports columnist William C. Rhoden, namely his Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, was never considered for the article. Rhoden’s work must have fallen by the wayside, maybe even unknown to Cacciola, forgotten by The Times, certainly.
This, of course, is the highest form of callous indifference. It basks in white privilege — there’s no other way to look at this. It is pandering to a strictly white audience.
Can we turn Stephen Curry into something white?
The answer, according to The New York Times, is yes, we can.
Truth be told, though: Rhoden has already done the heavy lifting, showing how Style manifests itself in the black athlete in America’s-mediated sports machine. Yet the desensitized Cacciola thinks it legitimate to equate Curry’s physical gifts with the highest form of white art, negating any contribution to style made by African American athletes before Curry; also erased is the noted contribution to style made by African Americans outside of sports — dance itself, let’s not forget jazz, and, of course, literature, film and politics. We seem to have a president with plenty of style. What, Spike Lee is style-less?
Cacciola doesn’t even take into consideration the comments made by Misty Copeland, the first black female principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, which was also covered by The Times and thus adding even greater tragic irony to Curry’s comparison: “[And] I think that just because I’m now in this position as a principal dancer doesn’t mean all of a sudden I’m going to drop the fact that I’ve had all of these obstacles and so many are continuing to have it. Just because I’m here doesn’t mean racism goes away in the ballet world.”
Copeland’s comments to Caroline Modarresy-Tehrani, host and producer of Huff Post Live, create a dark double bind in Cacciola’s Curry article: on the one side, as already stated, Cacciola knows absolutely nothing about the contribution to style made by the black athlete — or he’s repressing it, which would be too hard to stomach at this juncture in American culture; on the other, he makes a comparison to an obstacle-filled, racist genre, the ballet world. How Cacciola is so blind to both problems is impossible to grasp — yet this is The New York Times.
What does Cacciola miss?
For starters, he misses that fact that in our racially charged times in the U.S., greater sensitivity is warranted, which means that slow is better than a mere byline; that great care has to be taken and the proper research has to be done to ensure readers have an accurate story.
If Cacciola would have walked across The Times newsroom or sent Rhoden an email — Hey Bill, what do you know about style and the black athlete in America? — he would have gotten a response.
Rhoden would have referred Cacciola to his chapter, in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, “Style: The Dilemma of Appropriation” where we find a young writer, “in the summer of 1963,” standing “in front of a black-and-white television, watching a baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the hapless Chicago Cubs.”
Here’s what Rhoden saw: “Willie Mays drifted across the outfield like Charles Coles, the great tapdancer whose footwork was so sweet and smooth that they called him ‘Honi.’ He arrived at his spot under the baseball with no apparent sweat, even though he’d had to run for what seemed like miles to get there” (147; italics mine).
That is Style. The comparison to Charles Coles could also have been used to describe Curry — “sweet and smooth.” But even if Charles Coles is a stretch for Cacciola, Gregory Hines would have fit perfectly, as would an even closer comparison with Savion Glover, who makes the most difficult seem effortless, and I dare say cool.
Rhoden continues, and here, as we read his description of Willie Mays’s catch, imagine Curry with the basketball, that grin on his face, the way he smoothly walks away after making a shot, the swagger, or an incredible pass that leads to a score, followed by an air of indifference, a “so what,” says his body:
“Then, instead of raising his glove to catch the ball, the way every other outfielder was taught since Little League to catch the ball, Mays placed his glove at his belt buckle, like a basket, and made the catch…He nonchalantly picked the ball out of his glove, tossed it back to the infield, coolly walked back to center field, flicked his sunglasses back up, and waited for the next play. His body language suggested annoyance that the batter hadn’t presented a greater challenge. This was the highest, subtlest form of putdown, an unspoken challenge to the other team — and to the sports establishment that still frowned on any hint of flash and couldn’t make sense of Mays’s ‘signifiying’ around this thing called ‘black style’- a way of acting and talking in a coded way, communicating through gestures and body language”(147–48).
After that catch, us kids tried desperately to place our gloves at our belt buckles, which was always followed by coaches yelling at the top of their lungs: Two hands! Two hands! Everything changed.
Here we see a direct line — ‘black style’ — from Mays to Curry, which includes Coles, Hines, Glover, also Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and so on. Which is to say that ballet is not the right place to see the ‘signifying’ of a black athlete. There is a rich history elsewhere.
Before Mays, there was Jackie Robinson who says Rhoden, “introduced a restrained version of the same soul to mainstream American sports by virtue of his pioneering role in Major League Baseball…Jackie Robinson had to watch every p and q, had to dot every i and cross every t, because he was the first and couldn’t afford to be perceived as flashy or arrogant or ‘some kind of dog.’ “
Rhoden tells us that, like Muhammed Ali a decade later and the musician Charlie Parker “a decade earlier, Mays was so far above the rest of the field that it seemed as if he were playing a new game.”
This is Stephen Curry, too. This is the history of black style that informs his signifying.
It’s best, here, to let Rhoden have the last word — and maybe Cacciola might learn something; hell, we might all learn something about “Soul on the Auction Block”:
“For all the emotional satisfaction that aggressive display of black style offer to black athletes and fans, the question, however, remains: Given all the benefits of black style — a style forged in the flames of discrimination, segregation, quotas, and dehumanization — brought to white team owners, universities, and leagues, did it do anything to enhance black power in the industry? Or was it just assimilated, albeit with some difficulty, into the existing power dynamic of white control/black talent? As black style became more popular, who really benefitted? Did this black style — carved out black suffering and creativity — ever become black power?…The fact is that black style was quickly commodified by white power, which became addicted to this other new form of black gold…Black athletes had become a vital commodity in the sports industry, which necessitated a full-service delivery system to identify, prepare, and carry black muscle to ‘market.’ That system is the Conveyor Belt” (168–69).
The Conveyor Belt takes the black athlete, at a very young age, and removes him and her from their respective communities, argues Rhoden; it alienates, which is what Cacciola is doing, alienating us, readers and sports fans, from the truth about Curry’s style, black style, which has a glorious and important history. Thus, the white community can only interpret the black body as a commodity.
At the end of his great, little book, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine, David Shields asks a profound question: “Who owns this body, this body of work?”
In the case of Stephen Curry, Cacciola does, The New York Times does, the Golden State Warriors. The tragedy — and we see this in many forms today — is that these powerful entities also own history.