“We Ball Harder”: Talking About Sports, Race, Gender, and Pleasure

July 25, 2013
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By Tamura A. Lomax, David J. Leonard, Darnell L. Moore, Heather Laine Talley, and Monica J. Casper

basketball2A few months ago, at the exhilarating height of college basketball season, the university at which one of us teaches won an important game. Right after the big win, the university’s Facebook page screamed, “We Ball Harder!” The comment received hundreds of likes and comments, including some discussion of—and enthusiasm for–balling harder. Surprisingly, nobody seemed to notice that the phrase “we ball harder” might connote a certain flavor of masculine sexuality.

This seemed somewhat problematic, and so a higher-up at the university in question was promptly contacted via email. This official, in charge of marketing, wrote back: “I totally agree with you about that headline. I spoke with _____, who is the assistant VP for University Communications. Facebook happens on his watch. I shared my concerns with him but so far the headline remains.  If you feel strongly about it, I suggest you email him directly.”

No direct email was sent to the VP for University Communications, for a variety of reasons including the strong likelihood that nothing would come of it on a campus that values its sporting teams. But the incident prompted one of our engaging, provocative behind-the-scenes-at-TFW email conversations.

Take a look…

Tamura:  I get the problematics. However, I think there is complexity for me here in terms of the usage of language and image. So this is sexist as hell, on one hand. Very. However, I’m thinking it’s a teaching opportunity, on the other. Language is so tricky.  It’s so damn unstable. I have two boys who are avid “ballers.” Not only do they play on teams, they are good! They both play three grades up–against other boys twice their size (literally, sometimes over six feet). This is what makes them “ballers,” which I believe is AA slang, as opposed to simply bball players on a team. To be a “baller” is to be chiefly skilled at handling the ball. This can be sexist, depending on how it gets read, but not necessarily. And “balling” isn’t gendered. It’s most often a compliment. So, I’m wondering if there’s a way to say something here that acknowledges the fluid nature of language while critiquing everything else (e.g. balls/home team/hard v. visiting team/soft).

I’d love to engage further here. Perhaps we can also bring David [Leonard] and Theresa [Runstedtler] into the conversation since each do work on sports. I really have difficulty here. My boys love sports, namely basketball and football. They’re athletes. I see where they gain so much from it. More than we can give them, truth be told. And because they’re black boys with talent in private (mostly white and wealthy) schools, much of their identity is constructed in athletic spaces–because they’re often made invisible until their athleticism is revealed.  Yet sports are dangerous, marginalizing, macho, etc. etc.  I always enter the sporting arena conflicted…

David:  Lots of meaning here; “balling” is a common hip-hop expression, if that adds anything to discussion. Tend to think of it as any instance where someone is excelling, dominating, and otherwise securing excellence. To me, it is about mastery. So when I think of the term and its origins on the basketball court, I think of someone who is so entrenched in the game, who is in the zone that she/he has become at one with the ball itself; mind and body both working in concert with the ball so much so that the player is the ball. Given the ways that sports profits and promulgates from destructive forms of masculinity, and the sexualizing that takes place on and off the court, its usage needs to be considered. I say this especially in terms of advertisements whereupon the layers and the linguistic history are seemingly erased.

Darnell:  Thanks for sharing your thoughts, all. I’ve been trying to think through my response, but what you’ve written captures my sentiments. ”Baller” is a term with varied meanings, for sure. It is used in the way that you described and as a term used to describe those “ballers” flowing in cash and other things (thinking of 50 Cent’s song on “balling”). 50_cent_in_concert1

And, as you’ve noted, in the sports context it is used to describe those with skills. I’m thinking of my nephew here…folk use it to describe his talent on the court. :)

It’s interesting, though, to think about the ways “balling” can also be read as a gendered descriptor…and in the case under discussion, a potentially sexist one. I think a conversation on “balling” as a contested term with varied meanings (and, therefore, multiple ways it is read and felt by others) is useful.

Monica:  This is interesting, all of you. “Balling” is a nuanced term, and I love your thoughts, Tamura, about your sons’ athleticism and interest in balls…I like the idea of this as a teaching opportunity.

Tamura:  The other thing I just thought about is that “balling” (in terms of sports, because it has others meanings as well) also represents socio-economic transcendence. It’s often believed to be a “way out” and a way of acceptance for many inner city and rural youth, regardless of race or gender.

David:  Tamura, most definitely. When we talk about a “baller,” we are often talking about someone who has secured a level of wealth or at least is flossin with the right sort of material possessions. It is interesting to think about how the two spaces that it is most used – rap and sports – are also celebrated as spaces where the American Dream is increasingly possible.

Heather:  Layers of meaning, for sure. The complexities of “baller” are critical for making sense of what is happening here, and I’m appreciative especially to hear some about your boys, Tamura!

When I look at this, it’s the “We _______ Harder” too that conjures masculinity and sexuality in potentially problematic ways. It’s hard for me to zero in on this exactly, but my initial reaction is that this branding construction only works because it plays on notions of, for lack of a better word, fucking–and a particular kind of fucking at that. Given its reference in relation to a site of masculine athleticism and the always persistent problems around college athletics, sexual violence, and the intersections therein that work to cultivate a kind of hegemonic masculinity, there’s an issue for me with this brand regardless of whether they use “baller” or not.

Maybe I’m having my own Freudian moment, but there’s a lot going on here.

Monica:  I love this dialogue. It seems so important to have these open-ended conversations that don’t actually seek resolution but rather raise questions—as with our conversation about violence.

Tamura: It’s an interesting and necessary conversation, I think. I’ve always felt conflicted over being a feminist sports mom, especially when the boys are playing football. It seems to have more contradictions than other sports. Football is extremely masculine. So…it’s like having two heads at times, and I cannot reconcile the two. I’m the mother who’s raising feminist conscious sons who also runs along the sidelines, yelling at the top of my lungs when my “baby” makes a touchdown or shoots an unexpected three pointer during basketball season! In these moments, and at this age, I’m a proud momma who happens to be feminist, too.

il_fullxfull.90068873Simultaneously, I understand how masculinity (and ultimately sexuality)…and race…and class are being constructed, too. There’s a lot here. And these private-school programs are a whole different animal. Typically, the coaches (and each team has at least 3-4) are former professionals or Division 1 players, so they are not only intense but highly visible. Scouts are always present, especially at the high school level. And the facilities are on par with many universities. I will never forget visiting my eldest son’s football practice and seeing him surrounded by grown white men, some of whom were varsity coaches, with cameras. I was livid!! They somehow “heard” about his speed and wanted to send footage of him to some professional athlete. Of course, my eldest thought it was a compliment and way cool, as they shamelessly asked him to sprint, jump, catch, etc.  It was like a scene from Mandingo!!  Needless to say, it ended immediately.

Still, I cannot ignore the pleasure my boys receive from competitive sports. They love physicality. Any kind. I’ve got to nurture that.

What of the politics of personal pleasure?

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18 Responses to “We Ball Harder”: Talking About Sports, Race, Gender, and Pleasure

  1. janjamm on July 25, 2013 at 10:15 am

    I am so tired of the aggression and arrogance of sports that I can barely enter this conversation. “Balling” is fucking. Simple. “We ball harder” is an undisguised way of using the term for a sexual act that culturally epitomizes a “real man.” If it weren’t about fucking, it would have no power. Athletes are valued when they are balling everyone, as their role demands. And they are in an orgiastic state when they are able to loudly declare “We Ball Harder,” because we are “real men.” Not.

    • Equality on August 7, 2013 at 7:07 pm

      I am a 26 yr old who has played my fair share of team sports and I have never in my life heard the term “ballin” used to reference anything having to do with gender or sex. I mean, it could, but only in the sense that the word “awesome” can be used for sex. eg. “that sex was awesome.” If you go to UrbanDictionary and search for “ballin”. Only 1 out of the first 100 results mention sex. I guarantee you, 99% of people do not use the word in a sexist or even remotely sexual way. I also agree that sports are a sort of war in disguise, but often, sports are a way to scratch that competitive itch without causing harm. Many warring tribes have switch to sports in order to preserve peace.

  2. janjamm on July 25, 2013 at 10:15 am

    I am so tired of the aggression and arrogance of sports that I can barely enter this conversation. “Balling” is fucking. Simple. “We ball harder” is an undisguised way of using the term for a sexual act that culturally epitomizes a “real man.” If it weren’t about fucking, it would have no power. Athletes are valued when they are balling everyone, as their role demands. And they are in an orgiastic state when they are able to loudly declare “We Ball Harder,” because we are “real men.” Not.

  3. janjamm on July 25, 2013 at 10:15 am

    I am so tired of the aggression and arrogance of sports that I can barely enter this conversation. “Balling” is fucking. Simple. “We ball harder” is an undisguised way of using the term for a sexual act that culturally epitomizes a “real man.” If it weren’t about fucking, it would have no power. Athletes are valued when they are balling everyone, as their role demands. And they are in an orgiastic state when they are able to loudly declare “We Ball Harder,” because we are “real men.” Not.

    • browsmacker on August 12, 2013 at 3:30 am

      I was wondering how that definition of “Balling” seemed to go completely unacknowledged… I mean, seriously? maybe it’s a generational thing (I’m fifty-ish) but I can’t imagine NOT thinking of “balling” meaning sex, above all else, for all that I understand it’s also become associated with basketball, with other sports, with living large…

  4. Cassie Wright on July 25, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    I’m thinking Dr. Thabiti Lewis’ Ballers of the New School” would richly add to this conversation. Thanks for taking the time to dialogue about these issues!

  5. Cassie Wright on July 25, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    I’m thinking Dr. Thabiti Lewis’ Ballers of the New School” would richly add to this conversation. Thanks for taking the time to dialogue about these issues!

  6. Cassie Wright on July 25, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    I’m thinking Dr. Thabiti Lewis’ Ballers of the New School” would richly add to this conversation. Thanks for taking the time to dialogue about these issues!

  7. Cassie Wright on July 25, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    I’m thinking Dr. Thabiti Lewis’ Ballers of the New School” would richly add to this conversation. Thanks for taking the time to dialogue about these issues!

  8. Cecilio Rodriguez, Jr. on July 26, 2013 at 12:16 am

    Tamura. I can see the conflict regarding sports where most are, as has been noted, simply war in disguise. The intrinsic male orientation& sexual overspill is seen in the behavior of athletes, who are so often accused of rape & even the fans when they hit the streets after a game & go about the enthusiastic overturning of cars & setting them on fire…raping & pillaging, enjoying the spoils of war. I am 63 & attended many a “Women’s Lib” meeting. I have always believed in equality & to this day I am frequently called Mr. Simon as I did not wish for my wife, my partner, to lose one iota of her identity by taking on my name. In the very interest of awareness equality, however, I must ask a questions based on: “I will never forget visiting my eldest son’s football practice and seeing him surrounded by grown white men, some of whom were varsity coaches, with cameras. I was livid!! They somehow “heard” about his speed and wanted to send footage of him to some professional athlete. Of course, my eldest thought it was a compliment and way cool, as they shamelessly asked him to sprint, jump, catch, etc. It was like a scene from Mandingo!! Needless to say, it ended immediately.” Had the men surrounding your eldest been black, would your reaction have been any different? If yes, why so? If not, then why mention color?

  9. Cecilio Rodriguez, Jr. on July 26, 2013 at 12:16 am

    Tamura. I can see the conflict regarding sports where most are, as has been noted, simply war in disguise. The intrinsic male orientation& sexual overspill is seen in the behavior of athletes, who are so often accused of rape & even the fans when they hit the streets after a game & go about the enthusiastic overturning of cars & setting them on fire…raping & pillaging, enjoying the spoils of war. I am 63 & attended many a “Women’s Lib” meeting. I have always believed in equality & to this day I am frequently called Mr. Simon as I did not wish for my wife, my partner, to lose one iota of her identity by taking on my name. In the very interest of awareness equality, however, I must ask a questions based on: “I will never forget visiting my eldest son’s football practice and seeing him surrounded by grown white men, some of whom were varsity coaches, with cameras. I was livid!! They somehow “heard” about his speed and wanted to send footage of him to some professional athlete. Of course, my eldest thought it was a compliment and way cool, as they shamelessly asked him to sprint, jump, catch, etc. It was like a scene from Mandingo!! Needless to say, it ended immediately.” Had the men surrounding your eldest been black, would your reaction have been any different? If yes, why so? If not, then why mention color?

    • Tamura A. Lomax on July 26, 2013 at 9:45 pm

      I would have been livid regardless because they did not have parental permission to even engage my son, let alone video tape him. However, my anger was indeed heightened by the racial dynamic, which makes the issue of spectacle fall along racial lines rather than sheer athleticism. I had seen that scene one too many times before.

  10. Cecilio Rodriguez, Jr. on July 26, 2013 at 12:16 am

    Tamura. I can see the conflict regarding sports where most are, as has been noted, simply war in disguise. The intrinsic male orientation& sexual overspill is seen in the behavior of athletes, who are so often accused of rape & even the fans when they hit the streets after a game & go about the enthusiastic overturning of cars & setting them on fire…raping & pillaging, enjoying the spoils of war. I am 63 & attended many a “Women’s Lib” meeting. I have always believed in equality & to this day I am frequently called Mr. Simon as I did not wish for my wife, my partner, to lose one iota of her identity by taking on my name. In the very interest of awareness equality, however, I must ask a questions based on: “I will never forget visiting my eldest son’s football practice and seeing him surrounded by grown white men, some of whom were varsity coaches, with cameras. I was livid!! They somehow “heard” about his speed and wanted to send footage of him to some professional athlete. Of course, my eldest thought it was a compliment and way cool, as they shamelessly asked him to sprint, jump, catch, etc. It was like a scene from Mandingo!! Needless to say, it ended immediately.” Had the men surrounding your eldest been black, would your reaction have been any different? If yes, why so? If not, then why mention color?

    • Tamura A. Lomax on July 26, 2013 at 9:45 pm

      I would have been livid regardless because they did not have parental permission to even engage my son, let alone video tape him. However, my anger was indeed heightened by the racial dynamic, which makes the issue of spectacle fall along racial lines rather than sheer athleticism. I had seen that scene one too many times before.

      • Cecilio Rodriguez, Jr. on July 27, 2013 at 12:18 am

        Thank you for your honest reply Tamura. It is quite understandable. I too was a very good athlete in H.S. which did not seem surprise anyone, as it fit the stereotype of the Latino. Forgotten was the fact that I was also National Honor Society. I understand about parental permission. I must explain that I often push to re-assure myself that whatever cause I join (or re-join, & whoever I ally myself with is honest & worthy. Very often our own emotional flooding over past experiences lead us to generalize in terms of color, gender, race, or creed and overblow what could have been an innocent action or comment. Thus are planted the seeds of racism & bigotry. I am a gentle man…a man of peace. Yet for some reason, almost as if by some cosmic joke, my destiny has put me in the position of interceding & defending friends, mostly (but not limited to) women from abusers, both sexual and physical. Sometimes, as much as I’ve tried for it not to, it has come down to violence. Always I am saddened, never elated or pumped up full of power, by the fact that it came down to that, as I fear becoming in any way like the monsters that I’ve fought. Again, I thank you. You’re a good person & you had every reason to be livid. It’s ok to get pissed. All the best.

  11. Cecilio Rodriguez, Jr. on July 26, 2013 at 12:16 am

    Tamura. I can see the conflict regarding sports where most are, as has been noted, simply war in disguise. The intrinsic male orientation& sexual overspill is seen in the behavior of athletes, who are so often accused of rape & even the fans when they hit the streets after a game & go about the enthusiastic overturning of cars & setting them on fire…raping & pillaging, enjoying the spoils of war. I am 63 & attended many a “Women’s Lib” meeting. I have always believed in equality & to this day I am frequently called Mr. Simon as I did not wish for my wife, my partner, to lose one iota of her identity by taking on my name. In the very interest of awareness equality, however, I must ask a questions based on: “I will never forget visiting my eldest son’s football practice and seeing him surrounded by grown white men, some of whom were varsity coaches, with cameras. I was livid!! They somehow “heard” about his speed and wanted to send footage of him to some professional athlete. Of course, my eldest thought it was a compliment and way cool, as they shamelessly asked him to sprint, jump, catch, etc. It was like a scene from Mandingo!! Needless to say, it ended immediately.” Had the men surrounding your eldest been black, would your reaction have been any different? If yes, why so? If not, then why mention color?

    • Tamura A. Lomax on July 26, 2013 at 9:45 pm

      I would have been livid regardless because they did not have parental permission to even engage my son, let alone video tape him. However, my anger was indeed heightened by the racial dynamic, which makes the issue of spectacle fall along racial lines rather than sheer athleticism. I had seen that scene one too many times before.

  12. Tamura A. Lomax on July 26, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    I would have been livid regardless because they did not have parental permission to even engage my son, let alone video tape him. However, my anger was indeed heightened by the racial dynamic, which makes the issue of spectacle fall along racial lines rather than sheer athleticism. I had seen that scene one too many times before.

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