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Kevin Durant and the dehumanization of black athletes

To audiences, black players are nothing more than the real-life versions of characters on video games

OAKLAND, Calif. — As Kevin Durant sat on the floor of Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena on Monday night gripping his right ankle, segments of the crowd began to audibly cheer and jeer at the fallen Golden State Warriors forward.

Television cameras caught at least two Raptors fans near courtside waving goodbye to the two-time Finals MVP. They, like most everyone else, were already aware this would be the last any of us would see of Durant for at least the rest of the postseason. It was a cause for celebration, it appeared.

After the game, at least two Warriors teammates were visibly, and verbally, upset by what they saw from fragments of Raptors fans in response to what was diagnosed as a ruptured Achilles tendon on Wednesday. Andre Iguodala told reporters that sometimes fans “only care about the game” and don’t respect or acknowledge players as actual human beings. Teammate DeMarcus Cousins was a bit more animated, first using an expletive directed at the Toronto crowd before explaining to reporters that players, like Durant, are “only idolized as superstar athletes. Not human beings.”

“It’s always about what we can do between those lines,” Cousins said.

It’s easy to criticize Raptors fans for their display on Monday (which many presumably did to point out the hypocrisy of the persona Canadians have built up over the years of being so nice, especially compared with their brethren to the south). But what happened in Game 5 was just the end result of an overall culture of dehumanization as it pertains to black athletes.

While the NBA’s “owner mentality” problem was on full display last week when a Warriors minority investor shoved Raptors guard Kyle Lowry on the sideline, the league’s issue regarding the perceived humanity of its (majority black) players goes beyond what team owners think of their employees. The dehumanization of black athletes begins with only seeing players as jerseys and numbers with no physical blood and flesh beneath them.

For centuries, African Americans have been characterized as selfish, savage and animal-like (hence constant monkey analogies), and in sports, blacks are seen as brainless natural athletes, supposedly born more equipped to succeed at sports than the more intellectually-inclined white athletes. To audiences, black players are nothing more than the real-life versions of the characters on video games such as NBA2K and Madden NFL, incapable of actual feelings or pain (there’s a long-held belief that blacks have less-sensitive nerve endings than other races).

So much so that researchers at Stanford University, Penn State University and the University of California, Berkeley found in a 2008 study that an association between African Americans and apes led to increased support of violence against blacks by the study’s participants.

Other academic research, specifically that of media ethics scholar Lawrence A. Wenner, shows that this leads audiences to believe that blacks are superhuman, and thus, if they aren’t able to compete, it’s because (here are some more racist stereotypes) they’re selfish and lazy and too consumed with themselves and their money.

NBA players, the thinking goes, don’t have as much heart or desire as college basketball players, which then makes basketball somehow the lone profession in which amateurs are better at their craft than professionals. This coded language implies that the black players (the NBA is 73% black, compared with just 53.6% in Division I men’s basketball, according to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport) become complacent when they become rich. Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffett are some of the richest American men in the world, yet you would be hard-pressed to find a criticism that their wealth has affected their desire to do their jobs.

Author Billy Hawkins, in his book The New Plantation: Black Athletes, College Sports, and Predominantly White NCAA Institutions, argues that dehumanization starts when black athletes are viewed more as athletes than as actual people — or, in the case of Hawkins’ book, students.

“The more revenue, the further you get away from the human aspect. It’s just a part of it,” Iguodala said after Warriors practice on Wednesday. “And that’s a different aspect that’s becoming more and more in sports.”

For Cousins, he’s all too familiar with athletes essentially being viewed as second-class citizens. He’s dealt with it himself for his entire playing career. A sports commentator once said there was a “100% chance” Cousins would be arrested within five years of being drafted in 2010.

“This didn’t just happen,” Cousins said Wednesday. “It’s been an ongoing situation.”

Durant not playing for a month wasn’t because he was actually hurt, it was because he was too concerned about the $200 million contract he’s supposed to sign this offseason, or he’s too much of a cupcake to play hurt. Not that his Achilles was barely hanging on by the same thread the Raptors’ chances of winning the championship were for the 12 minutes he played.

The same could be said of Kawhi Leonard last season, or Derrick Rose when the former league MVP missed the entire 2012-13 season. (It’s not always black athletes: Then-Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was lampooned for not finishing the NFC Championship Game in 2011; Cutler had suffered a medial collateral ligament sprain.)

The fans waving at Durant while he sat on the court, and the ones yelling “F— KD” outside in Jurassic Park, didn’t see a player who rushed himself back to help his team or a person whose entire future playing career, and earning potential, is now in jeopardy.

They only saw a mindless video game avatar simply malfunctioning.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"