During this year’s NBA finals, I found myself less focused on basketball, and more on the players and on how they adorn themselves. The uniforms and tattoos are only some aspects of their costumes. It was their “arm covers”, for lack of a better word, that caught my eye – the close fitting sleeves that run from wrist to upper arm.
Since I was watching the game with a lot of fans, I asked them what those covers were for and I got almost as many answers as there were people in the room. The most prevalent responses had to do with sports ergonomics (it keeps their shooting arm “warm” as the spandex supports better circulation) and enables modesty or prevents them from being fined for tattoos the league might find offensive.
Sociologically speaking, it occurs to me that the functionality is only one interesting aspect of the “shooting arm sleeve”. Instead of analyzing this phenomenon from a functionalist perspective, which would focus on the benefit and overall purpose of the sleeve, the combination of symbolic interactionist and conflict perspective can highlight the importance of the sleeve. Symbolic interactionist theories focus on how we construct a sense of identity in social settings, while conflict theorists consider the ways in which these identities are constrained by economic forces.
Drawing on symbolic interactionism, it is apparent that many professional athletes use tattooing as a form of expression. This subject caught enough interest to spur a book, In the Paint: Tattoos of the NBA and the Stories Behind Them, published in 2003. Tattooing in the NBA has increased tremendously in the last few years and many players are covered with tattoos depicting their hometowns, teams, spouses, and other images. (Click here for a slide show of NBA players and their tattoos.)
Using bodies as art or expression is certainly not a new phenomena. However, these players are already somewhat objectified since their bodies are used to sell both basketball as entertainment and other products and services. Much like prostitutes and porn actors who sell their bodies for a particular purpose, professional athletes are getting paid for using their bodies to entertain others. Their tattoos make their already objectified bodies become even more of an object when they are used as a canvas for expressing hometown ties (Carlos Boozer) or spousal apologies for infidelity (Kobe Bryant). Stephan Marbury has gone so far as to tattoo his clothing company logo onto his head ().
One might imagine that tattooing corporate sponsor logos is coming next – what player will have the Nike swoosh tattooed on his head or legs and how much would that deal cost? Actually, this has already happened. Marcon Gortat has a Nike logo on his leg
that his current sponsor, Reebok, did not appreciate in the Spring 2009 NBA finals.
Selling space on a body for corporate ads takes this objectification of the body to a new level, not wholly unexpected in a capitalist environment. Gortat's responded to Reebok: "They didn't say anything about it when I signed the contract, so it's not going anywhere. I don't think they are paying me enough to take it off.'' (Source)
Objectification of the body exemplifies Marx's concept of alienation, in this case from the body. If one’s body becomes an object, one’s connection to that body is one of distance; it isno longer subjective, intimate, or holistic. As the objectification of professional athletes’ bodies intensifies, their alienation from self also intensifies. With alienation comes depression, anger, dissatisfaction with life. This may help explain some of the infamous pro-athlete “misbehaviors” although one might expect that training regimens and the insulation and isolation of fame are also important contributing factors.
How else can we apply sociological theories to understand professional sports and professional athletes’ behavior?