'It can't just be the money': Basketball, Blackness & Art with Tay Butler
By Kevin Barnett
All art by Tay Butler.
Tay Butler has been thinking about basketball.
“I’ve been investigating basketball and how we use it in the community,” Butler said of his most recent and ongoing project, ‘NBA: No Anti-Blackness Allowed.’ “I’m just thinking about why basketball is so important to us but also why do we feel like our primary way to achieve in this country is through sports and entertainment?”
Butler, a multidisciplinary artist and CoolxDad’s minister of arts, uses his work to explore the “historical and diaristic experiences” of Black people in America, including himself and his family. We caught up with Butler, CoolxDad to a daughter, 16, and son, 15, to talk about the inspiration for his research and what he’s learned so far about the history of basketball in the U.S.
Do you connect with your kids through basketball or with art? How do these passions and interests of yours play into parental bonding?
Interestingly enough, me and my kids do not connect through basketball often. I wanted to avoid the tradition of parents forcing their children to live out the dreams they never realized and passing it off as “family tradition.”
Have they dabbled in the sport? Sure. My son and daughter both participated in a few summer camps, and my daughter finds the sport fun. But neither of them are really into it. My son is more into video games and my daughter into clothing, so I want to help them find their path in those fields.
You said you’ve been thinking about basketball for a long time. Was there a specific moment where you thought, ‘I really want to get into this and make it my next project?’ What inspired you to actually dive into the subject in a concentrated way?
I've played, I’ve watched, I’ve invested thousands of dollars in basketball games and season tickets and all that kind of crap. So, it just came naturally because I like the sport, but I didn't have to think critically about it until grad school. In grad school, they question everything you do and it was like, ‘OK, well, maybe that is something worth investigating. What is the tie between Blackness and basketball?’
I feel like everybody where I’m from is playing ball. Every single person either played themselves; they now teach or train their kids to play; or they support the game in some way, so maybe they coach, they are agents, maybe they’re trainers, maybe they use the culture in fashion ways – whatever it may be. Everybody has some six degrees of separation from the game.
I was just trying to figure out why that was, so I started asking people. Everybody's answer is different. That’s what I like. I like to get a 360-degree view of what that answer could be. So there's people who say ‘Hey, it’s simple: because you can make a lot of money.’ Okay, well, that's cool, but one percent of the population – one percent of one percent – make it to the NBA. So, it's not the money. It can't be the money.
So it becomes a lot of other things. It becomes basketball being the primary way to assimilate. It becomes the fact that it’s social currency. For Black people how ‘cool’ you are is a part of your personality, and we know that sports and entertainers are the epitome of cool. So even if you don’t make it to the NBA, even if you don’t make it to Division One college basketball, you still cool if you the guy that everybody know can hoop.
How far back are you going? How much are you digging into the history of basketball – its origins and the way it’s evolved over time?
I’m going all the way to the very beginning. All the way to James Naismith in 1891; all the way to the first all-Black basketball team, which they used to call the Black Fives in the 1900s, 1905. I'm going as deep as I can get. Whatever the resources allow me to get to, that's what I'm gonna do.
Some of the books Butler is reading:
The Black Fives, Claude Johnson
How Basketball Can Save the World by David Hollander
Forty-Million Dollar Slaves by William C. Rhoden
"Even if you don’t make it to the NBA, even if you don’t make it to Division One college basketball, you still cool if you the guy that everybody know can hoop."
And how much are you delving into the consumerism associated with basketball – the amount of money that's tied up in merch, sneakers, and the culture and how that affects our perception of the game and the players?
I talk about the ways in which NBA players don't feel like human beings and they end up feeling like mascots or walking banks. They're expected to save an entire region or community and that's not necessarily their job. But at the same time, their wealth and fame and ability to make millions and millions of dollars in basketball came on the backs of people who did take care of our community, like Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and all the people that at that time were very involved with the social and political ramifications of the game.
Then the ‘90s came and the sport was greenwashed, not whitewashed, but greenwashed. I got that from [the book] ‘Forty-Million Dollar Slaves’ where [the author] talked about the ‘90s of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan and all these players who stayed as far away as they possibly could from politics because they didn't want to ruin the money. And so for a long time, you know, sports basketball in general had nothing to do with the community because you could jeopardize your contract that way.
In the book "Forty-Million Dollar Slaves," Rhoden says that he believed at one point, watching Ali, that "the fruits of athletic success could be used as a tool in the ongoing struggle." Do you think that's possible today after the ‘90s and the greenwashing that you mentioned?
There is no talking about the struggle of Black people without sports and entertainment. It was, is, and probably unfortunately, will always be, the primary way for Black people to “assimilate” into mainstream society. Look around us. The backlash to African-American studies in schools. The rejection of any conversations around institutional racism and white supremacy. The stubborn reluctance to address the wealth gap that is only widening. Athletes and entertainers remain the most permanent way for people to take notice of Black America, for better or worse.
Now that the “greenwashing” era has ended, and the elite class is actually speaking up (even if usually just performative), the potential to influence an activist-minded community again is possible. Difficult and unlikely, considering the power of capitalist individualism, but possible.
But it does seem like there’s still a line – there’s a certain kind of thing that people are expected to say. Athletes can’t say anything that’s ‘too extreme’ because they have to walk that line. Colin Kaepernick was the biggest example because now what he did has been replicated, but there’s something probably comparable today that athletes ‘can’t get away with.’
We can say that ‘Tyre Nichols didn’t deserve to die’ – that’s safe. We can’t say that ‘the police force is a gang.’ Both of them are our opinions and [neither of them are] saying that you’re going to go out and shoot people. So if you say ‘Hey, I think police are the biggest gang in the country,’ they have a union that makes them untouchable, I don’t think you’re saying anything that could be viewed as a lie, but they’ll stop you from saying it because the people with the money can determine who gets to say what.
A lot of movies and stories told in the mainstream about sports are about unification and harmony - the idea that sports are what brings people of all backgrounds together. I think there's some merit to this, especially when it comes to backyard games, high school athletics, and other lower-level play.
At the same time, we know that, first of all, a lot of this happens between men, rather than women, and second, this romantic idea that 'everyone has the same opportunity to succeed on the court' becomes a false justification the higher up you go in professional athletics. Rhoden explores the fact that sports were initially introduced on plantations "to quell revolutionary stirrings" – do you think that's what's happening when we push this romantic narrative about basketball and unity and equality?
So, there’s been a lot of scholarship around this very topic lately. A book called “How Basketball Can Save the World” was just released. Several art projects and speeches around basketball being this great unifier capable of removing biases and promoting fairness are popping up on a weekly basis. I love it. But as usual, it’s a one-sided conversation. Everything I do within the spectrum of art and history seeks to explore the totality of the situation; the complete view; 360 degrees – however you want to name it, I hope to talk about it.
Is basketball a unifier of people? Absolutely! I have met people from all over the world with this game. Playing all my life, it's amazing how you can meet someone in two minutes and after one game, it’s like you’ve known them all your life. The game helps men to see women equally (subtracting the weirdos in social media comments). The game even helps workers become owners. But why we need a game to help workers become owners is never truly discussed.
Art chooses sides. You are either for or against. Red or Blue. Black or White. But basketball is one of those things, like a lot of things in our world, where the truth is so much more nuanced. How has basketball stunted Black America? How has basketball commodified the Black body? How has white America profited by turning Black oppression into hungry “Hoop Dreams”? How does creating a tiny population of hyper-wealthy celebrities help Black communities? These are the things my work is concerned with.
Find Tay’s work and more information about him at his website. Look out for an announcement about his upcoming exhibition/performance, ‘The Play,’ this April in Houston.