June 30, 2009

Social Theory and the NBA Finals

author_sallyBy Sally Raskoff

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.image

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 clip_image002object 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?


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I agree that objectification of the body "can be related to" dissatisfaction, depression etc. But I don't think it is directly correlated but perhaps a possible causation. I think the bigger issue is half these kids growing up with no family in the ghetto or slums.

I don't think that the shooting sleeve is used to cover up tattoo's at all. If anything I agree that it is used to keep the shooting arm warm or it is used too look "cool" giving the player a different look or style than the other players on the court. While watching NBA games I am too focused on the game than what their tattoo's read and for me it is too difficult to even see the tattoo's unless the camera is zoomed in. It would be even tougher to see what the tattoo's say if I was actually at the game. To me most the tattoo's that I looked at had to do more with people's life than it does with advertising. It is a story that they are painting on their body. There are some cases in which advertisement is present like Stephon Marbury's tattoo on his head but to me I have found in people I know and athletes that most of their tattoo's tells something about them or their life.

i agree on that,
interesting.. really great!

I eo\\do not agree that the "arm covers" are used to cover the tattoos of the basketball players. If that was the case, then they would cover the entire arm, the entire leg, the neck, head, etc. It only covers most of the arm and that is the part of the body that NBA players are most focused with--their shooting arms. I don't think the tattoos of the plays are objectifying at all. You usually cannot even see the tattoos and what they say unless it's zoomed in A LOT. Also, you can't see them because they scan over one player for a few seconds. I don't think that is how the players think of their tattoos, I think they think of them as art and meaningful symbols.

I think its really sad that companies go as far as asking NBA players to tattoo the company logo on their bodies. Our bodies are sacred and should not be used to put tattoos on them. Some tattoos i have seen these days are overwhelming (for example, like the blog mentioned someone tattooed his clothing company on his head?). That is just ridiculous. It is also very sad when kids as young as 16 have tattoos. Really? Not attractive at all. Very few people can pull tattoos off. And from all the adults i have asked recently, if they ever regretted getting a tattoo, and they said absolutely and wish they could get them taken off. What some may not think about is that tattoos are permanent...so everyone needs to think twice about getting one.

I also think this is ridiculous for being so looked in to. the arm sleeve is simply a fashion trend for NBA players to follow. I highly doubt that basketball players would be asked to cover up their tattoos/ care about covering them up. The sleeve is simply a trend carried on by these players. Like wearing their pants to low or "blinged out jewelery", they are just using these sleeves as another accessory.

I agree with Zeleste. The arm sleeve is also a form of promotion in which most, if not all of the NBA players are being paid to wear. I don't really think the players care at all about their tattoo's, if they did, they wouldn't have gotten them in the first place. For example, the player with the Nike tattoo didn't care at all about it being on there even though he is currently sponsored by Reebok. They're getting paid big money to wear this arm sleeves, that's the only reasoning behind it.

I do agree with Jarett and Zeleste for the most part, but the arm sleeve is used for more reasons than just covering tatoos or trying to look cool.For instance, many NBA only use the arm sleeve on one arm. Why? Not for fashion but in order to keep the shooting arm warm. Players wear the sleeve on their shooting arm in order to keep it warm much like baseball pitchers use the glove as a wear of keeping their hands warm. Also, the arm sleeve is used as a way of preventing stratches and avoiding sweat from dripping down to the hand. Boston Celtics' Ray Allen has used his arm sleeve ever since being sratched on the arm by Detroit Pistons' Richard Hamilton. Dwight Howard from the Magic uses his in order to block sweat and keep a firm grip on the ball and his control of it.

I agree that the link to covering tattoos in unfounded. Many players would need more than an arm sleeve to cover up their tattos.

I have also wondered about the "arm sleeves" and I have always thought it was to wipe the sweat from their forehead. That makes the most sense to me. As far as the tatoos, well, I am tatooed and I do not think it in anyway distances them from their selves. I think they act the way they do simply because probably 95% of them do not know what it is like to be rich and famous with millions of people looking up to them. They are all of a sudden thrown into money and fame and with that comes a sense of "nothing can touch me". That is just my thoughts on the subjects!

Enjoyed reading this. Effectively stated and with wonderful timing. Thanks for the great post.

Social Theory and the NBA Finals
I’m figuring out very much from your very own blog. There is quite useful content which I could at least thank you for.

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