Social Justice Series: Theresa Runstedtler on Race and Drugs in the NBA

When picturing professional athletes it can be easy to picture affluent, privileged individuals—most often men—with the means to live extraordinarily extravagant lives. This picture can involve a wide variety of ethnicities, and while many immediately imagine a male bodied individual, others may envision a woman as the archetype for competitive athletics. However, if I were to discuss a connection between drug use and professional athletes, the image offered by media becomes almost entirely limited to black, male athletes. In discussing the connection between drug use and professional athletes, Theresa Runstedtler suggests this connection is more than a coincidence, and is instead the result of deliberately oppressive history.

As part of the continuing Social Justice Series Runstedtler drew on a chapter from a book she is writing to discuss the formations of race, gender, and class in the history of sports. These issues were specifically addressed through the lens of drug use and control within the NBA. While many discussions of the same topic begin with the death of Len Bias in 1986 to a cocaine overdose, these discussions miss the history of racial exploitation leading up to his death.

While the death of such a famous figure has been used to validate increasing sanctions on drug use in sports, these laws were instituted much earlier. Players within the NBA had long since become dependent on drugs to cope with the demands of their sport, and in many cases coaches and staff would offer drugs to players directly. Only when franchise owners and NBA promoters were faced with the dilemma of marketing newly introduced black players to a largely white fan base did drug use become a target for public scorn.

First by vilifying the use of drugs, and then by associating its use with individual black players and their communities of origin the NBA was able to draw attention away from its formerly liberal attitude towards amphetamines. Additionally, this move allowed for greater control over players’ actions and therefore more direct control over the primary source of income for the Association. Under the name of pure sportsmanship and player safety, African American athletes in the NBA have been targeted as a means of shifting blame away from those in control, as well as maintaining a positive public image for the sport as a whole. Without a critical eye the circumstances surrounding the façade of drug use and black athletes is accepted as reality. As we continue to see signs of additional false narratives careful analysis like that given by Runstedtler and many others at the Social Justice Series become increasingly valuable.


Check out our Social Justice Series Website to learn about our upcoming speakers.

Check out the Masters in Public Anthropology Website to learn more about the MAPA program.

Meet thejoshua-schea-300 Writers:
 Joshua Schea is a PhD. student at American University researching urban private schools. His research is focuses on the question of how private schools address the issue of inequality as it exists in their surrounding environment. Joshua is currently in his second year at AU.

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