The Black Athlete: An Analysis of the Harmful Stereotypes Reinforced by Love and Basketball and He Got Game.

By: Dawn Smith and Chad Youmans

For as long as anyone but time itself can remember, black men have been viewed as hypermasculine, hypersexual, and the peak of athleticism. In Media Portrayals and Black Male Outcomes by the Opportunity Agenda, they argue that, “In the world as depicted by the media, blacks frequently excel in sports, and more general are associated with physicality and physical achievement – as well as the aggressiveness that usually goes along with this type of success” (Opportunity Agenda, 2020). In many ways, these traits have come to define what a black man is and it means to be a black man in the eyes of much of society. To serve the purpose of exploring them and the harmful ways that they influence public perception of the black community, we will analyze the 1998 film He Got Game, directed by filmmaking icon Spike Lee, and starring the equally iconic Ray Allen as Jesus Shuttleworth, and the 2000 film Love and Basketball, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Omar Epps as Quincy McCall, and focus on the ways they they use the “Black Athlete” stereotype.

Jesus Shuttlesworth

The Black Athlete stereotype is often characterized by the traits mentioned at the start of this paragraph. In the stories featuring the stereotype, the characters who embody the stereotype have hegemonic masculinity thrust upon them by their fathers, and are pressured to “be a man”. They view women as objects and prizes, as opposed to three dimensional people with thoughts and feelings not too dissimilar from their own. They engage in hypersexual conquests in order to present an image of themselves to the public that they presume is the one the world desires. They allow their lives to be consumed by sports and dedicate their entire existence to reaching peak athletic prowess; not because they are driven by their love for the game, or seek personal fulfillment through athleticism, but because they believe using their athletic ability is the only way out of the disenfranchised situation they were, and that uncountable black men every day are, born into. In order to show this, we will look at the ways the aforementioned central characters of He Got Game and Love and Basketball are affected in their characterization by the black athlete stereotype, and how such characterization sets a dangerously limiting precedent for black men everywhere.

Quincy McCall and his father

Quincy and Jesus were both born with basketballs in their hands, and spent what seems like the entirety of their lives, up to the conclusions of their respective stories, religiously dedicated to the sport. During this upbringing, both men experienced a luxury that many black men are not afforded: a two parent home. Despite the fact that both mom and dad were present for Quincy and Jesus’ childhood, their fathers are the parents that take center stage, with their moms often feeling like nothing more than background dressing at times. Central to both of these paternal relationships is pressure placed on the sons by their fathers to “be a man.” In Love and  Basketball, Quincy’s father encourages him to be strong in the face of adversity, which doesn’t seem entirely wrong on its own, but uses phrases like “can’t isn’t in a man’s vocabulary” that equate the strength and resilience he is trying to instill in his son to manliness. We see a similar relationship in He Got Game. In the film, Jesus’ father is shown pushing him around both physically and verbally on the court in order to make him, in his eyes, a stronger and a better man. Once again, the father has attempted to instill unrelenting resilience in their son through methods that are harmful and dangerous to their children, all in the name of manhood.

Denzel Washington and Ray Allen as Jake and Jesus Shuttlesworth.
Jesus Shuttlesworth and his father

Throughout the stories chronicled in the films, Quincy and Jesus spend their entire adult lives attempting to live up to those values placed upon them by their fathers. These lessons of strength steeped in masculinity bestowed upon them by their fathers come to be central parts of their identities. According to the Fujioka study that concluded that media portrayals both positive and negative influence viewers stated, “when first hand knowledge is not present, television images have a huge effect on viewers’ perceptions” (Punyanunt-Carter, 2008.) This is then a dangerous method of storytelling for young black men who see these films and choose to identify with or aspire to live like Quincy and Jesus, and by the lessons they learned. Many young men without fathers could look to stories like this for inspiration, comfort, guidance, in order to fill the whole their missing fathers have left. Thus, if they identify with Quincy and Jesus, the values their fathers imprinted on them, and the way they chose to, will affect them. Just as Quincy and Jesus did, they may find themselves viewing strength as a trait they must force upon themselves. They may find themselves coming to believe that strength is a value so important that being cold and abusive is a worthwhile way of teaching it. They may find themselves hiding any sign of pain and sadness to “be the man” they believe they’re meant to be. One can then conclude from all of this that such relationships on screen could lead to an unknowable amount of young men shutting themselves off from their emotions in unhealthy ways in order to be strong and associate strength in any form to their masculinity, and, because of the way strength’s importance is emphasized by these characters fathers, even let it control their self worth.

Ray Allen's character Jesus Shuttlesworth gets a taste of college life while on a campus visit. He gets to participate in a "threesome " with some more than amenable and willing college female students. I think I'll re-enroll in college ..............don't know what I'll study but I think it only appropriate to sample some of the pleasures that were made available to Jesus Shuttlesworth . Wha' d' you think ?
Scene from He Got Game

In contrast to masculinity being portrayed as synonymous with strength, nobility, and endurance, women are often portrayed here as objects of desire and symbols of success. In He Got Game, Jesus is almost immediately flocked by women on his first trip to the big university that serves as a symbol of success for him to strive toward, and it only takes till sunrise for him to find himself waking up in bed with two women he has only just met. These women serve no narrative purpose other than to pleasure Jesus, and the scene is depicted in a way that focuses solely on said pleasure. They are rewards for Jesse. He’s been working very hard, so now *obviously* he deserves some sex! What else might he even want after all? The way these women throw themselves at Jesus is meant to display his success and value through showcasing approval from the outside world.

We can also see this same idea being reinforced in Love and Basketball, where a young Quincy is seen involved with a number of different women. These women serve as nothing but accessories and plot devices to portray the popularity and “coolness” Quincy has among his peers. Hypersexuality is seen as the possession of the successful man. The “cool” man. The man who, as Quincy and Jesus’ father instructed, has not put his mask down, and has lived by the words “can’t isn’t in a man’s vocabulary.” If sex is treated as a symbol of success, though, a dangerous precedent is being set that equates sex with masculinity, and implies that a man cannot prove he is a “real man” unless he is racking up a body count like a coroner. This idea could in turn send impressionable young boys out into a world of sexuality that they are not quite prepared for, because they want to be a real strong man like the men they watch on the screen.

Jesus Shuttlesworth

Speaking of success, films with the black athlete trope often depict life for the men that inhabit said trope as almost prison-like. A constant cycle of pain and disenfranchisement that, like a prison, can only be escaped through a true Hail Mary of a plan. That Hail Mary is, in this case, making it to the professionals. Jesus’ story is a near perfect example of this. He is born into the kinds of pain that would normally traumatize and follow untreated people for most of their lives. As a young man he must cope with the death of his mother, the absence of his father who repeatedly found himself in and out of jail, and the abuse he inflicted upon Jesus during the times he *was* present. For Jesus, The shining light at the end of that dark pit is basketball. Through it all, he keeps his focus on the sport and perfects his game, and, in the end, it is perfection and drive that finally pull him out of the pain he was born into. Basketball pulls him out of the rubble, and grants him a life far greater than anything he had ever experienced up to that point.Like an angel descending from the clouds, Basketball is his one true savior.

Love & Basketball father to son encouragement - YouTube
Quincy McCall

Similarly, Quincy enjoys great success as the star player of his school’s team. In something of an inverse of Jesus’ arc, though, he loses that success. He finds himself injured and unable to play any longer, and suffers great depression as a result of this loss. He struggles to find any route to success for himself beyond the game he once found such opportunity in, and sinks even deeper into his depression. Of course by the film’s close Quincy *does* find solace in the family he builds for himself, but even that family is one that appreciates the luxuries of a women’s basketball superstar as its matriarch. These stories are dangerous for impressionable youth who identify with these characters on the screen. When they only see people who look like themselves succeed through athletics, and fail miserably in the absence of it, it leads millions to believe this is the best way out of the disenfranchised situation they find themselves. This in turn causes them to neglect their education, and virtually any other avenues to success, in favor of a relentless and dangerous dedication to sports. Unfortunately, this plan only ever works for a select few, leading millions to waste years of their lives that could have been spent finding other, more suitable ways to achieve success.

Finally, as has been briefly discussed throughout the paper, we can conclude that all of these traits of the “black athlete” trope create a dangerous concept in the public consciousness for black men by creating a severely limiting view of life for the viewers and applying unnecessary pressure on them in the real world. Media is inescapable. An unknowable large amount of the population starts their morning with a run through social media, and ends their nights with a nice TV show or movie, and are blasted with other different forms of media all in between. It permeates our lives. This bombardment placed upon the world provides an unprecedented amount of power in setting the narrative we all live through, so when black men only see themselves achieving success in media through athletics, it encourages them to limit their options to success, which, when one considers the amount of people given and affected by that message, creates generational damage. At the same time, it sets a perception of black men in the eyes of viewers outside of the black community that is almost entirely defined by the traits they’re shown having in these pieces of media as a result of their separation from the community. If that same media that is creating this precedent started showcasing black protagonists achieving success through more common, feasible, and varied means, and started defining success in ways outside of sex and how masculine someone is, millions of people would start seeing those hurt by it not as the caricatures created by stereotypes that they once did, but as people. People with opportunity. People with dreams. People whose feelings are worth showing and understanding. Most of all, people who have been misrepresented for centuries. In a 2011 article, Opportunity Agenda stated, “Hypersexuality, violence, misogyny, and elite athleticism are extreme versions of stereotypical male qualities, and each is used to caricature and stereotype black males in particular. Yet addressing the issue can mean confronting the idea that black males may embrace these stereotypes as a form of resistance to various external limitations on their achievement” (Opportunity Agenda, 2011). Media cannot claim direct responsibility for the actions and beliefs of its audience, but a shift in the way misrepresented and stereotyped people are portrayed on camera could be the necessary first step in understanding and confronting the consequences of this misrepresentation, and the first step in healing from it.

Works Cited

Bell, J. D., & Janis, E. D. (2020). Media Portrayals and Black Male Outcomes. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.opportunityagenda.org/explore/resources-publications/media-representations-impact-black-men/media-portrayals 

Carter-Punyanunt, N.D. (2008) The Perceived Realism of African American Portrayals on Television.The Howard Journal of Communications, 19:241-257. doi:10.1080/10646170802218263

Bell, J. D., & Janis, E. D. (2020). Media Representation and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys. Retrieved from November 18, 2020, from https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/Media-Impact-onLives-of-Black-Men-and-Boys-OppAgenda.pdf 

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