BALLERS OF THE NEW SCHOOL: Race and Sports in America. By Thabiti Lewis. Chicago: Third World Press. 2010.
Sport occupies an interesting yet precarious position within American life. On the one hand, compared to a depressed housing market and record unemployment, sport does not rate highly on the importance scale. On the other hand, given the amount of time, effort, and money Americans spent on sport every year, it is obvious that sport plays an important role in our history and culture. Of course, no discussion of sport would be complete without injecting race into the conversation. Thabiti Lewis’ Ballers of the New School addresses how the recent generation of African American athletes handles the intersection of race and sport. According to Lewis, the goal of the book is to challenge “the notion that the modern institution and culture of sports are models of harmony and equal opportunity exempt from racism” (xviii).
The Ballers of the New School (BNS), as Lewis describes them, have a strong connection to hip hop culture, are individualistic, apolitical, and “do not know their place,” and it is the last two characteristics that cause problems for sportswriters and fans. Lewis presents background information on the Original Ballers, those men and women who were overtly political such as Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, and Wilma Rudolph and tracks how American society went from the Original Ballers to the BNS such as Kobe Bryant, the Williams Sisters, Barry Bonds, and Myron Rolle. The only downside for this section of the book is that the biographies of these athletes were brief.
Arguably the most fascinating and thought-provoking section of the book deals with college athletics. Lewis argues that the infusion of tens of millions of dollars in the collegiate athletes has led to the exploitation of college athletes and made a mockery of Division I schools’ non-for-profit status. Lewis outlines solutions to the NCAA’s problems including paying college athletes, severing the link between academics and athletics, moving collegiate athletes to the club level, and/or “strip the NCAA of its tax-exempt status—see it for what it is not in its current state: games played by kids who must return to class” (183). The propositions are bold and worthy of discussion.
Lewis ends by analyzing how African American men have been portrayed in sports films. Discussing how female athletes of color are dealt with in Hollywood films would have been a nice addition, especially since Love and Basketball was briefly discussed earlier in the book; however, since the number of films that deals with female athletes of color is so small the oversight is understandable.
Overall Lewis’ work is a hard-hitting and outstanding analysis of race and sport in the United States. You may not agree with all of his conclusions but you won’t be able to walk away from the book without seriously considering how we do and do not discuss the ways race and sports intertwine.
Lisa Doris Alexander, Wayne State University