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  • Where “Post-Race” HappensNational Basketball Association Branding and the Recontextualization of Archival Sports Footage
  • Timothy J. Piper (bio)

[End Page 1]

From May through September 2014, the National Basketball Association (NBA) was publicly embroiled in controversy concerning the racist remarks made by two of its teams’ majority owners, Donald Sterling and Bruce Levenson. While the more infamous of these two, Sterling, was banned for life from the NBA and forced to sell his ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers after a very public litigation process, Levenson voluntarily sold his majority stake in the Atlanta Hawks while an NBA investigation was still under way. In both instances, league commissioner Adam Silver, as the NBA’s (white) figurehead, was quick to decry the owners’ remarks as “contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league . . . an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations.”1 This was, as the Washington Post described it, the NBA’s “Summer of Race,” which received much popular press coverage and, subsequently, some scholarly attention.2 What has not been discussed, however, is the degree to which the NBA’s effort to contrast the views of these owners with the league’s purportedly progressive historical position on matters of race has long been deployed in the league’s mediated branding practices. This essay examines how the invocation and recontextualization of history, specifically in the form of archival footage as it is deployed in the NBA’s four most recent marketing campaigns (2007–16), promulgate the notion that the NBA is the quintessential progressive American institution by (re)producing a “post-racial” ideology.

Of primary concern for this essay is how the deployment of archival and historical imagery effectively communicated a progressive brand association for the NBA. In that sense, assessing how this footage positions viewers to recognize and understand the past is crucial for understanding how these marketing campaigns use the documented past to construct a contemporary narrative about the NBA. Thus, this analysis also examines the way(s) in which the incorporation of archival footage in contemporary marketing media produced for the NBA discursively (re)produces broader cultural discourse about race. Finally, this essay questions the degree to which memory and nostalgia are activated in these campaigns to perpetuate long-standing myths about the NBA, sport, and American society. In other words, I explore how the league utilizes nostalgic narratives of the past to present and preserve the identity of the NBA as progressive and, ultimately, “post-race.” Arguing that the league relies on imagery of the past to assert its record of being the most progressive major U.S. sport, I contend that these NBA marketing campaigns engender an imagined parity between the idealized images of the past and the contemporary moment to elide focus on the institutional racism and traditions of white supremacy that structure the league.

To this end, I engage with extant literature, including Jaimie Baron’s concept [End Page 2] of the “archive effect”3 and John Fiske’s definition of the three techniques of white supremacy,4 to map out the ways that archival footage can be exploited as a source of collective memory and a tool of ideological power. Then, turning to the case study of the four NBA promotional campaigns produced from 2007 through 2016, I perform discursive and textual analyses to examine how discourse about the league’s history combines with the visual and aural aesthetics of these campaigns to perpetuate a “progressive” identity of the NBA brand—and U.S. society more broadly. Pursuant to this focus, the campaigns analyzed here each coincide with the period that scholars have identified as the “post-race” era5 and are therefore revealing in the ways that they elide consideration of factors such as institutional racism. As with other scholarship focused on the study of “post-racial” discourse, the analysis undertaken here is predicated upon the understanding that race is socially constructed: while it is not biologically determined, it is one of several factors that inform an individual’s political identity.

Another subsequent reason these campaigns were chosen for the present analysis...


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