Thursday, January 21, 2010

NASCAR and the NBA

Last night a neighbor at the bar was explaining to me that the NBA is made up of "thieves" and "riff-raff," that it's poorly run, that he's not saying this because of the players' tattoos, and that if I want to watch a sport that is both exhilarating and "professionally run," I should watch NASCAR.

(During our conversation, an outstanding game was going on between the Golden State Warriors and the Denver Nuggets. Because of injuries, the Warriors were playing with only eight players in uniform. The game ended in overtime: Nuggets 123, Warriors 118.)

It's unnecessary to note the self-evident fact that the NBA embodies (literally) urban black culture and NASCAR embodies suburban and rural white culture.What struck me after our conversation was the way that athletes in both sports use their bodies to communicate what their respective cultures value.

Anyone older than ten can't help but be struck by the fact that NBA players these days are incredibly tattooed. It appears in some cases that the players have tried to cover every visible patch of skin with a tattoo.

In other words, the players have come to see their own bodies as a way to communicate their cultural values. Many of the tattoos are self-congratulatory (Lebron James: Chosen 1); some honor a mother, a friend, wives or children; others honor $, political heroes, home neighborhoods, Jesus. The tattoos are diverse, varied, extravagant. Yet they all make the same gesture: Upon my body I have narrated my life. Read me.

NASCAR drivers also use their bodies to communicate, but they absolutely never communicate something about their individual lives. Instead, they cover their bodies with corporate logos. Again, this is an expression of what their culture values. Suburban and rural white America value The Corporation. Business. Work. Humility. And the Machine.

Not only do NASCAR drivers decorate their bodies with advertising, they climb inside machines that are similarly covered with advertising—often advertisements for the machine itself.

In addition to the conflicting (perhaps contradictory) emphases of what the athletes of these two sports have inscribed upon their bodies, the sports themselves reflect different values. With basketball, we see that black America values the aggressive, elegant, nearly naked masculinity of its young men. NASCAR, on the other hand, reflects white America's admiration for the invisible bravery of the man inside the machine.

Structurally, the two sports are similarly repetitive. And, like all sports, they are metaphors for the nature of human life.

In the case of basketball, more or less naked men run relentlessly back and forth, back and forth, attempting not merely to score but to humiliate their opposition in the process of scoring. (Hence basketball's obsession with the slam dunk: dunks project erotic aggression, as if by slamming the ball through the opponent's hoop the player effectively fucks the opponent.) The game is refereed (unjustly, futilely) by authorities who cannot be questioned, cannot be touched. The improvisational, graceful, supremely athletic eroticism of basketball gives an otherwise tediously repetitive sport its global appeal.

In the case of NASCAR, a sport whose appeal is limited, more or less, to the U.S., a collection of roaring machines, covered in corporate advertising, relentlessly circle a track, repeating over and over the same cycle. The various positions of the machines shifts minutely from time to time. The endless cycling is occasionally interrupted so that a crew of anonymous workers can swiftly, efficiently attend to the (godlike) machine. The machine then resumes its monotonous, brutal, life-threatening circling.

NASCAR is the assembly line, the corporate career, the sexlessness and anonymity of modern suburban and rural life, transformed into sport. Its principal pleasure is not the eroticism of the body—the running, leaping, and rough dancing of the NBA—but, ironically, The Wreck, when with great delight we witness the death of God, the Machine, as it flips and spins and comes apart, killing, or perhaps saving, the little man strapped inside.

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