Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: His Essay is a Slam Dunk
July 29, 2015 § 6 Comments
By Keysha Whitaker, guest blogger:
Can a professional basketball player write anything except a check?
I didn’t think this exactly, but shamefully that was the spirit of my side-eye when I heard Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on CNN discussing a recent column he wrote for Time Magazine. But as he talked to anchor Poppy Harlow about how some female athletes, in particular those of color, are often body-shamed because they don’t conform to Western ideals of beauty, I knew that any American man who is self- and culturally-aware enough to identify and analyze the errors in our socialization, deserves some of my attention.
The essay “Body Shaming Black Female Athletes Is Not Just About Race” uses a hybrid introduction technique. He opens with a story that reveals a surprising fact. Abdul-Jabbar explains that though Serena Williams just won her 21st Grand Slam title in Wimbledon and holds the record for most prize money earned by a female in the history of tennis, she’s still second place when it comes to money earned from endorsements. He notes that in 2013 Maria Sharapova (whom Williams has beaten 17 times in a row) earned $23 million in sponsor revenue while Williams only earned $12 million.
I didn’t know that, wouldn’t have ever suspected it, and surely wanted to read more to see what other injustices he might uncover. But at the end of the first paragraph we learn the article isn’t about financial wrongs. He explains the women’s sponsorship earnings gap is because endorsements “. . . often reward the most presentable according to the Western cultural idea of beauty.”
A declarative statement like this might put off readers whose ears and eyes have crusted and glazed over from “the national conversation on race” and Abdul-Jabbar knows. In the next two sentence graph he writes, “I know, you think this article is about racism. It’s not.”
That graph also functions as another hook, a sort of tease to keep the reader going because if the article is not about racism, then what is it about?
He follows with Misty Copeland, a second example of a female athlete who was shunned from the ballet world at 13 for her supposedly incongruous body type. Copeland and Williams, he poses, “seem to endure more body shaming than their white, less successful counterparts.”
And now Abdul-Jabbar is running on a freshly waxed court. He’s compared two brown women to the great white ideal and race-weary readers surely might click away. But using a bit of humor and a four-word paragraph, he won’t let them. Abdul-Jabbar writes:
“(Still not about racism.)”
The parentheses feel like a elbow-nudge, the informal tone of the phrase is like an under-the-breath right-in-your-ear mutter that is not meant to distract but to focus. This article is on a mission. We’ll get there.
And we do, but not before Abdul-Jabbar uses literature to wax on the concept of physical beauty. After quoting Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye, he writes, “Morrison’s assessment of social ideals for physical beauty as destructive is harshly accurate. We have established a definition of beauty so narrow that almost no one can live up to it.” The next sentence tickled me in a way that maybe it shouldn’t have: “Women struggle to fit within the constrictions of social expectations of thin, youthful, sexuality as constricting as a Victorian corset.”
In a recent conversation with a friend, we lamented the 20 magic pounds that appeared in the last year and contemplated purchasing the newly popular waist-trainers — essentially modern-day corsets under the guise of fitness gear. We too were “in a futile effort to fit this mythical ideal of beauty . . . an imaginary ideal they didn’t even create.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s “they” means women, and as I inferred, in particular brown women. This time, Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t shy away.
“OK, I lied:” he writes, “Some of the body shaming of athletic black women is definitely a racist rejection of black women’s bodies that don’t conform to the traditional body shapes of white athletes and dancers” but he goes on to the “bigger issue” which is “public pressure regarding femininity . . . a misogynist idea that is detrimental to professional women athletes and to all the young girls who look up to these women as role models because it can stifle their drive to excellence, not only on the playing field, but in other aspects of life.”
If I were editing this piece, I would have asked him to cut and rearrange some of the points he makes over the next six graphs and quickly bring the reader back to the great sports examples he then gives of a female tennis player whose coach wants to “ ‘keep her the smallest player in the top 10’” and Sharapova’s own admission that she wishes she were skinnier.
But once we get here, Abdul-Jabbar hits his stride again and ends that Sharapova paragraph with this succinct and snarky observation: “Does she want to be the highest-paid female athlete or the best one?”
After a quote from Walt Whitman — which I think could have been great to play on as a title for Abdul-Jabbar’s piece — he ends the essay with a definitive call-to-action. He writes, “By broadening our ideals of beauty, we can encourage females of all ages to confidently strive to reach their full potential. We can, and shall, overcome.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s column broadened my own ideals of the athlete as writer and left me wishing more men and women athletes would write themselves onto my writer’s radar too.
Keysha Whitaker is a lecturer of English at Penn State Berks and produces Behind the Prose, a podcast for writers. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School.