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Angel Reese, Brittney Griner, And The Politics Of Race And Gender

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Sports has long been a battlefield for the wider politics of race and gender in US society. Since 2020, the US has been rocked by upheavals at home and abroad, from the George Floyd uprisings to the war in Ukraine. And the media narratives surrounding two very different Black women athletes, Angel Reese and Brittney Griner, offer insights into the shifting and hotly contested politics of contemporary race and gender. University of Louisville Assistant Professor Dr. Ajhanai Keaton joins Edge of Sports to discuss the cultural flashpoints around Reese and Griner, and what they tell us about the state of the US today.

Studio Production: David Hebden
Post-Production: Taylor Hebden
Audio Post-Production: David Hebden
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Music by: Eze Jackson & Carlos Guillen


Transcript

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Speaker 1:

(Singing)

Dave Zirin:

Welcome to Edge of Sports TV only on The Real News Network. I’m Dave Zirin. It is time to ask a sports scholar, and this week we are talking to Dr. Ajhanai Keaton from Louisville about her work. It’s astounding. I can’t wait for you to learn what she’s all about. Let’s go right now. Dr. Keaton, thank you so much for joining us here on Edge of Sports.

Ajhanai Keaton:

Thank you for having me.

Dave Zirin:

Well, you do critical work, and frankly, really exciting work on the intersection of sports and politics. But before we get into the work you do, what is it like to do that scholarship at a big time sports school like Louisville?

Ajhanai Keaton:

The ideas never run out. I mean, just attending the games, being a part of an institution like Louisville, knowing the history, knowing our own personal scandals that have happened, I tend not to run from that. I think, I lean into it with students. I take the stance that we understand the reality of how things have played out if we just think about Rick Vitino, we can also think about just the treatment of Coach Payne right now. I can’t shut off the realities and disparate treatment of identity in this space, particularly in a city like Louisville. It’s connection to Muhammad Ali. The ideas are endless. I just need more time and more doc students.

Dave Zirin:

I actually was going to have a question about what it’s like to do this work where Muhammad Ali was both born and raised, and where you have the Ali Center right down the way. How does that shape your work, if at all?

Ajhanai Keaton:

It shaped how I’ve really gone about creating classes. So, I’m in a sport administration or sport management program, a field that definitely has critical folks spread throughout, but at its core foundation, it is not critical. It wasn’t meant to be critical. It came out of sport participation, and coaching, and has much more into management. But, I created courses that get students who want to be ADs, or coaches, or work in sales and operations to still take critical classes. And one of those classes is the history of the black athlete.

And for a lot of students that come to U of L, they’re excited about the sporting programs, but they don’t really have a connection to the city. And so, in one of the modules where we really dive into what was it like for those live here, the black community in particular, to be a part of Ali’s return home. A family friend of ours, the porter funeral home, they actually drove a hearse, excuse me, around the city to commemorate his death. And, the city was on standstill. And so, I like to share that history with students so they’re not just coming here with, “I’m getting my four years and out.” You’re actually at a really historical sports city.

Dave Zirin:

I was there, and saw the hearse, and saw school buses of children chanting Ali Bomaye.

Ajhanai Keaton:

Right.

Dave Zirin:

Which is an incredible cross connection if people are familiar with the Rumble in the jungle in Zaire. Everybody should see the documentary When We Were Kings, then we can have the discussion.

Ajhanai Keaton:

Absolutely.

Dave Zirin:

Okay. Your work centers on race and gender in sports, that’s a part of your work that you do, not the entirety of course. And, I noticed that you received your PhD at UConn, which is the epicenter of the last generation of women’s hoops. How did getting your PhD, if at all, shape your work and your consciousness about these issues?

Ajhanai Keaton:

It was the first time where I was at a college institution where women’s sports seemed to run the campus. Although, men’s basketball has been wildly successful at UConn. I know they are now. But at that time where I was there 2017 to 2021, men’s basketball was going through a rough time. To be somewhere where, “Hey, are you going to the game?” And, the assumption isn’t the men’s game, or not even the football game, they’re talking about the women’s basketball game. Field hockey was also wildly successful at that time as well, won multiple national championships.

And so, it really did spark an interest in me to really start thinking about organizational behavior through a critical lens. Being a former basketball player myself playing at a mid-major division one, it’s a totally different ball game being at a campus like UConn where they’re the Huskies, right? And, it’s like seeing a cultural artifact in person that you grew up with and you’re just so impressed and amazed, not only with how they play, but their presence on campus. And so, they definitely sparked a new energy in me when just I’m thinking about how to study sport.

Dave Zirin:

Wow. I told you we were going to skip around a little bit, so forgive me for trying to be a little agile here, but you’ve done so much. Sports at the collegiate level, we know, and I’m sure you see this at Louisville and I’m sure you saw it at UConn, is now defined by athletes in a race for NIL money, Name Image and Likeness money. Since we’ve seen this eruption of NIL money, how have black women done in this space, and are existing inequalities being reproduced?

Ajhanai Keaton:

Existing inequalities, absolutely. I think, but also, what’s fascinating is how they’re also challenging those inequalities. And so, I’ll just share a paper, it’s not out right now, but working on it with my doc student, Keisha branch, and a colleague, Evan Frederick, is we’re taking Angel Reese as a case study and we’re studying how she talks back to that. And so, when you think about black women’s presentation in terms of marketing, their relationship with brands, how authentic were they able to be decades ago, right? Trying to maybe portray or position self into white femininity to be more marketable. Angel Reese is none of that. She is authentically, in her own words, hood, authentically that girl. And that hasn’t stopped these very white centric entities, Mercedes-Benz, Amazon from wanting her to be a part of that brand and face.

And so, we’ve conceptualized firstly how her TikTok presence and how she brings black culture to the forefront. And what we mean by that is the aesthetic of black hip hop feminism, the aesthetic of weaves, and edges, and hair. She’s essentially using black culture, what she’s a part of, it is hers, in an authentic way to market self. And we just really haven’t seen that before, particularly from the brands that are interested in working with her. And I believe she’s top 10 with NIL deals, and looking at 1.7 right now, 1.7 million, which, I mean, that’s huge.

Dave Zirin:

How much of this is Ms. Reese challenging the expectations, challenging these companies to take her seriously? And how much of it is these companies seeing Angel Reese and saying, “Whoa, you are following your edge, if you will. That’s what we want to represent our company. Because, you have people’s ear in a way that typically say Mercedes-Benz does not”?

Ajhanai Keaton:

Mm-hmm. It’s 100% interest convergence. If we get back to critical race theory and white interests, or white institutions are only interested in black things, black needs when it satisfies those white interests. And so, I think it’s a yes, but it’s still fascinating. I think when we’re talking about how to manage self in an online presence, don’t be too outspoken because you might not have the ear and so-and-so to see her not care and still be financially compensated for that. I think the follow-up to it is can other black female athletes engage and present themselves in a similar fashion as Reese in online spaces? I think that’s the question to really understand, is she the anomaly? Or, is this now the norm in the NIL era, because this authenticity and connection to black culture, black hip hop… She’s playing City Girls in the background, talking about 30 inch bus down weaves. It’s just a different culture.

And so, as we particularly at the collegiate level continue to make sense of NIL, is this starting a new norm, where because it’s profitable, these brands want this access to the black community and how will these black athletes respond?

Dave Zirin:

Yeah. You’ve also written about Brittney Griner, someone we’ve discussed on this show more than a little bit. What does the Brittney Griner saga, the story, her experience in a Russian prison, the response of the United States, what does it tell us? What lens does her case provide us in understanding these dynamics of race, gender, and sports?

Ajhanai Keaton:

That’s a great question. For me, just engaging in that project, what it tells us is the polarization that we feel in this country, the polarization that we see, that we read, she unfortunately became the muse to really understand politics in America at that moment. Jules Boykoff, who I know you know well, and their colleague, they just did a fascinating paper looking at when did the right actually get interested in Brittney Griner? They looked at media articles, and what’s fascinating is it wasn’t until her return home. And so, what my work really captures is that how this return home became a weaponization of being black, lesbian, and a woman, and really played into the alt-right and right-wing understandings of replacement theory.

And so, here she is just trying to live her life, get home safely, and we navigate that as a country for all intents and purposes successfully. We brought her home, but yet, that American pride that we should have all been wrapping around that we brought one of our fellow Americans home became a cultural war about wokeness. And illegitimately applying this incorrect notion of what Kimberlé Crenshaw coined intersectionality to then reposition white people as the ones as disadvantaged, and particularly white heterosexual men. And so, I’m glad that that hasn’t necessarily overshadowed her return home. I know there were other great pieces and great moments captured. But for me, and from my lens, I couldn’t ignore how this perspective was just continuing to further dehumanize her experience, when that was the energy that she returned back to.

Dave Zirin:

Yeah, it was certainly an ugly view into what some people see as American, who gets to be American.

Ajhanai Keaton:

Who gets to be American.

Dave Zirin:

Yeah.

Ajhanai Keaton:

We have all been rallying around that. To engage in those negotiations with Russia. And I understand it came at a cost, but to weaponize her humanity to say that she’s not good enough because of who she is and what she looks like was just a very dehumanizing experience.

Dave Zirin:

No, I see that, for sure. You’ve also studied what’s called an ADIO, Athletic Diversity and Inclusion Officers. I mean, for people very new to this, what is an Athletic Diversity and Inclusion Officer? And do you see ADIO as a positive force in this space or one that deserves the criticism that you provide?

Ajhanai Keaton:

Yes. Another yes and no response here.

Dave Zirin:

Got you.

Ajhanai Keaton:

So, ADIO is the term I came up with. It stands for Athletic Diversity and Inclusion Officer. It’s a very basic term, but essentially, it captures the positions that we see at the NFL. We see at many division one institutions, NBA, individual teams, and MLB have them, and they’re essentially positions that are formally tasked to study and focus on advancing DEI, be in their respective sport organization. The position is complex. The complexity to me is the context of this work. When did these positions arise? Many of them a response to the murder of George Floyd, and then who did they task to do this work? And so, if you can imagine many of these organizations not having black representation at a senior level or at a level that was making decisions, and now you’ve gone and hired black people to say, “Make us diverse and inclusive. We want you to lead that effort.” But, black people in this organizations are marginalized.

And so, what my work with ADIO is really gets at is how do you hire people who are marginalized by these organizations to then change that marginalization? And I think, my work is really trying to get the leaders who hire those individuals, the leaders who work with those individuals, which should be everybody in the organization, marketing, sales, everyone should be intersected with that individual who’s advancing DEI be, but they’re, excuse me, isolated on an island that just makes it so hard to advance this work. And, the paper you’re referring to, I really dig into it with black women, because before my scholarship, it’s been well-documented in academic sport research that black women experience sexism and racism in the workplace. How do we tell them, “Hey, we understand people like you experience sexism and racism, but help us fix our organization”?

And so, I just want particularly with that piece for black women leaders to not have to be strong, to not have to be strong black women for the sake of white organizational interests. And so, I celebrate the position, I acknowledge it, but I also question it and provide a critical lens to it, because they need more support and structure that these organizations currently aren’t providing.

Dave Zirin:

How difficult is it to provide a critical lens on this issue at the same time where in the post George Floyd backlash, these organizations are under withering attack by right-wing state governments? Is it difficult to defend them as entities, while also criticizing them for how they can do this better?

Ajhanai Keaton:

Yeah, that’s a great question, Dave, because that criticism could be used to further either click delete on the positions or for these organizations to say, “We no longer see you as valuable.” My critique comes less upon the individual doing the work and more upon the organizations not letting go of how they’re maintaining structures and barriers to hinder their work. And so, I hope the critique, although coming from that alt-right movement is still upon, “How can organizations do this? We don’t need this.” That’s not what I’m saying. The need is there, but if you’re saying this is a need, your barriers can’t further marginalize the person doing the work, because what ends up happening is they say, “Enough’s enough.” I mean, we’ve seen it across higher education, a lot of people are taking a step back from DEI work because it’s exhausting. It’s not an easy job by any means.

Dave Zirin:

So, I want everybody out there to know that Dr. Ajhanai Keaton did not know any of these questions beforehand. I’ve been unfairly jumping all over the place. She’s been an absolute wizard in jumping with me, which I really do appreciate. And so, with that, I’m going to put you on the spot one more time. Could you recommend to our audience, one book, one book to better understand what you do? What would that book be for people to understand what has inspired Dr. Keaton to do this work?

Ajhanai Keaton:

Do you mind if I grab it real quick?

Dave Zirin:

Oh my goodness. People aren’t going to believe that you didn’t know that question was coming if you’ve got a prop there. But I give people my word on that one.

Ajhanai Keaton:

I am in my office. This text just simple, Intersectionality. For me, it’s become obviously a word like critical race theory where people think they know it. Critical race theory is teaching Ruby Bridges. No, it’s not. No, it’s not. So let’s go back to the foundation and really look at what is intersectionality, why does it matter? And to understand that these theories don’t just apply to black people or to people who are marginalized, they’re sense-making tools so we can better understand our social world and create a more equitable social world. And if that’s what both sides espouse, then both sides… And I’m really thinking very liberal, conservative, right-wing, we need to understand and be able to speak the same language. And so, when you manipulate terms and concepts, we’re no longer speaking the same language, and we’re not even able to have a true meaningful dialogue. So, Intersectionality, let’s get on the same page.

Dave Zirin:

Amen. It is a source of frustration when words are used for the purposes of destroying what those words are meant to promote, without reckoning with what those words actually mean.

Ajhanai Keaton:

Absolutely.

Dave Zirin:

My goodness. Dr. Ajhanai Keaton, how can people stay up with your work? Let me ask you that before we go.

Ajhanai Keaton:

Yes, you can, of course, always hit me up on Twitter. I’m very engaging. There’s always something popping off in sport. I’m not sure if you saw that, Dave. The Don’t Be A Sheryl shirt. Did you see that recently?

Dave Zirin:

No, please tell us.

Ajhanai Keaton:

There’s always something on Twitter. But essentially, some Iowa fans of Caitlin Clark’s, great player, Sheryl Swoops made some comments about her. Misspoke a little bit, but it’s Sheryl Swoops. She’s very knowledgeable. And, the backlash response was, “Don’t be a Sheryl.” Which is essentially, “Don’t be a Karen.” It’s white woman’s play on don’t be a Karen. So, there’s always something. There’s always something. But you can find me on Twitter and also my university affiliated page and Google Scholar page. If you’re looking for my research, you can just type in my name, Ajhanai Keaton, and it’ll be there.

Dave Zirin:

I may have to take out my old pair of air swoops from the closet.

Ajhanai Keaton:

Please do. Yep.

Dave Zirin:

Show some solidarity. Dr. Keaton, thank you so much for joining us here on Edge of Sports.

Ajhanai Keaton:

Thanks, Dave.

Dave Zirin:

Thank you so much for watching The Real News Network, where we lift up the voices, stories, and struggles that you care about most. And we need your help to keep doing this work. So please, tap your screen now, subscribe and donate to The Real News Network. Solidarity forever.

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