The Minnesota Timberwolves battled the Houston Rockets this past Saturday. Normally not on my radar, an incident involving Kevin Love and Luis Scola compelled inquiry even as the media remained silent. Purportedly frustrated over a non-call, Love not only fouled Scola, but as the Houston power forward lied on the ground Love proceeded to step on his face as he ran back to the offensive end of the court. “I fell down. He was kind of right there,” Love explained. “I got Size-19 feet. He just happened to be there. I had nowhere to go. I got tripped up. I had nowhere to step. It is just heat of the moment-type play.” The non-explanation aside, Love simultaneously identifies the incident as an accident and justifiable.
If an accident, why does he feel necessary to describe it as an unfortunate situation or to reference what happen between the two of them in game on Monday? “Love also referenced an unfortunate incident in Houston on Monday, when Scola attempted to throw a ball to deflect it off of Love out of bounds but the ball hit Love square in the groin.” Offering an explanation that seemingly justified his accidental behavior, Love was not alone in the exoneration process.
What followed the game, and the several days since there, has been silence – crickets in fact. Despite the fact that one of the league’s emerging stars stepped on an opponent’s face, the media has found little reason to write about the event. References to the event notwithstanding and a series of articles that have asked viewers to weigh in whether it was intentional or not, the overall media discourse has rendered Love’s stomping on an opponent’s face insignificant by its relative silence.
Even after the NBA announced a 2-game suspension for Love, the sports punditocracy has been muted in its criticism of Love, choosing rather to focus on his apology. Several headlines noted that in wake of the suspension, he has apologized yet again, having already apologized to Luis Scola following the game. In headline after headline, Love is constructed as apologetic, even though there is no specific apology provided by any of the news outlets (example #1, example #2). Instead they reference his statement issued on the team’s website:
“We got to talking about it, and as long as Luis and the Rockets are OK, then I’m OK with it,” Love said. “I feel like it was a learning experience, and it won’t happen again. There were no ill-intentions. I was trying to get him on a foul on the way up. I wasn’t trying to stomp him or anything like that. Just moving forward, and hopefully we win these next few games.
His post practice comments are further illustrative of a lack of contrition and a desire to give explanation rather than apology:
I don’t want to be known for that. I want to be known as a stand-up guy who happened to make a mistake with a size 19 shoe and just move on. So everybody knows there were no ill intentions there. It’s been a chippy year. It’s not only us. It’s not only the Pacers, the Rockets or anything like that. It’s a lot of games. The guys are tired. Games are being drawn out and guys are worn down.
Denying any “ill-intentions,” while describing it as a learning experience, doesn’t constitute an apology. The lack of criticism, the efforts to explain Love’s actions as resulting from his emotions, out-of-the-ordinary behavior, and otherwise not indicative of Love’s character reflect an overall effort to downplay the importance of his stomping on an opponent’s face.
Compare this response to the recent media criticism directed at Andrew Bynum. Following Game 4 of the 2011 NBA playoffs, which saw Bynum knock JJ Berea to the floor with a very hard foul, he was lambasted in the media. Called a thug, as player who was ejected for “dirty hits,” and as a player who exhibited, “stupidity, cowardice and unprofessionalism”; Ken Berger described the play and Bynum specifically in the following way:
Losing is one thing. Getting swept is another. Getting sent home in an utterly uncompetitive blowout is even worse. But nothing is more disgusting than champions acting like punks. Nothing is more embarrassing than a team that cannot lose with dignity. . . .Bynum, a positive force during much of the series, doesn’t deserve to wear a Lakers uniform again after his unconscionable cheap shot to a defenseless, airborne J.J. Barea in the fourth quarter of a 30-point humiliation. There’s no place for that regardless of the victim, but Bynum violated the No. 1 rule of the schoolyard (where he belongs) and the NBA: Pick on someone your own size. Only punks and losers take aim at those half their size.
Such vitriol has been no where in the response to Kevin Love. Others described the play with Bynum as “bush league,” as “dirty”, as “classless acts” that are repulsive and without any valid excuse.” Bynum was also suspended for 5 games as a result of his play during the Western conference semifinals, yet for some this wasn’t close to enough of a punishment.
A similar level of outrage and demonization was evident following an incident involving Ndamukong Suh, who was unmercilessly condemned as “dirty” as not “just dirty, but filthy.” The efforts to demonize Suh and to use the on-the-field incident as a referendum on Suh’s character and values stands in stark contrast to the tepid and excuse-ridden response to Kevin Love.
The systematic excuse machine embodies the sporting world’s wages of whiteness and the hegemony of anti-black racism. It is the embodiment of Peggy McIntosh’s invisible knapsack, who described white privilege in the following way:
I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.
As such, Love, without even having to defend himself, was able to cash in on his whiteness. With a media not only defending, downplaying, and disputing any ill-intent, with a media that has constructed the criminalblackman on and off the field, that has made it virtually impossible to see unsportsmanlike behavior outside of the black body, it is no wonder that few were able to see Love’s action as troubling.
The disparate responses are indicative of the larger inequalities that define America’s criminal justice system. In a system where African Americans and Latinos are presumed guilty, the wages of whiteness are powerful so much so that the media frequently deployed its right to remain silent, securing Kevin Love’s innocence in the national imagination.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness will be published by SUNY Press in May of 2012.
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