In a recent documentary, which was featured on NewsOne, Sylvia Harvey “explores the strange double-standard that allows Black men to express intimacy on the basketball court, but keeps a tight lid on those feelings and actions off the court.” She describes the origins of the project as follows:
‘The mini-doc, “Out of Bounds,” was born out of a fight over the TV remote, which I lost. Slowly descending into the world of clock shots, blocks, and turnovers, I started to anticipate Ray Allen’s three-pointer, Kevin Durant’s quick release shots and Blake Griffin’s dunks. NBA games showcased breathtaking plays and hard fought victories. But most compelling was the quiet backdrop that spoke louder than any winners or losers – the players’ behavior on the court.
‘When a player made that unimaginable shot or game saving free throw, yelling, chest pounding, mid-air chest bumps and high-fives ensued. But alongside this bravado came rare public displays of intimacy between black men—intimacy that if recognized could challenge traditional boundaries of black masculinity.
‘I set out to ask: What gave these men the license to hug, kiss, and slap each other’s backsides unapologetically in front of millions of spectators? Why hadn’t that license been granted to black men everywhere, and why was that license seemingly suspended once the game ended?
‘Many recreational ball players with whom I spoke ascribed the intimacy to the quirks of sports culture, but admitted an unspoken rule prevents this behavior from carrying beyond the court. That unspoken rule is explored via the influence of hyper-masculine hip-hop culture and heteronormative privilege.’
In the film, John Amechi, a former NBA player, notes that men are taught that those who show emotion toward another man are seen as gay, leading to repression and concealment of such feelings. Linking this to childhood and popular culture, Harvey depicts sport, and particularly basketball, as a space wherein the restrictions placed upon masculinity are loosened to a certain degree. In the documentary, Khalil G. Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, describes sporting fields as places where intimacy has been normalized; in other words, touching, physical closeness, hugging, kissing, crying, and other forms of physical interaction have become normalized and therefore are accepted as part and parcel with sport. As sport and heterosexuality are imagined as intertwined, the presence of intimacy and emotional bonds are seen apart from homosexuality within the sports worlds, a disentanglement not seen elsewhere. Yet the film also notes the various ways, whether in the deployment of phrases like “pause” or in the performative heterosexuality that emanates throughout NBA culture, that the visible intimacy occurs in a space always already defined by the policing and surveillance of sexuality.