The NBA’s Glass Wall: The Case of Jeanie Buss

(This is part three in a special 5-part series by sports analyst David J. Leonard on the NBA’s abysmal performance when it comes to gender equity.)

One of the more popular minstrel reality shows in VH1’s roster is the program Basketball Wives.  This show is consistently lampooned and derided online whenever it airs for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that none of the women on the show are actually NBA Wives, not even in the common law sense.  That wives and girlfriends are interchangeable in VH1 parlance is peculiar enough, but more troubling is the fact that in an era where accomplished women are leading nations, running Fortune 500 companies, and in the case of Oprah Winfrey, a multi-platform media empire, when it comes to the NBA, the most prominent women is this gaggle of pseudo-celebrities.

Clearly, the NBA does not endorse Basketball Wives, so the point here is not to attribute the show as an extension of the league.  No, the issue is how does a multi-national corporation like the NBA which has housed two of the biggest sports stars of the last thirty-years, Michael Jordan and Yao Ming, allow itself to get outmaneuvered by VH1 and its tabloid fare when it comes to the dissemination of women’s images.

One way to begin this discussion is to explore the experiences of Jeanie Buss, which is profoundly instructive as to how the image of the “girlfriend” has become the league’s dominant meme when it comes to women.

In spite of her numerous professional accomplishments, most people know Buss more for her relationship with Phil Jackson, her appearance in Playboy, and her potential participation in the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and not as a Los Angeles Lakers executive (she is executive vice president of Business Operations).  It should come as no surprise that little has been made over the assumed anointing of Jim Buss and not her as the next leader of the Lakers.  After all, “It’s a man world,” and her entry into a hyper masculine space has been through her sexuality and body.

While I don’t speculate to understand the dynamics here, but raise the issue in regards to how little has been made about her not even being included in the conversation as a potential successor to Jerry Buss.  Jim Buss’ role as president and his power within the organization is obvious, yet little has been made as why him and not her.  Take a report on ESPN.com shortly before Buss’ promotion:

But now, with legendary coach Phil Jackson retiring and his father, Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, retreating a bit further from the day-to-day operations of the team each year, Jim Buss’ influence on the future of the franchise will be hard to miss.

His whims, his voice, will be the single most important force in the way the Lakers move out of this failed season.

Jim Buss has been constructed as the natural successor while Jeanie is depicted as Phil Jackson’s girlfriend.   Although Jim Buss has been routinely criticized for his decisions and communication skills, it is hard to find anyone suggesting that Jeanie would be better for the job.  This in spite of a fact that her success as a manager dates back to her early days serving as chief executive of the Los Angeles Forum, and overseeing business operations of the Lakers during both the Shaquille-Kobe era and the more recent Kobe-Pau period.  By contrast, Jim Buss’ two most important decisions in the last fifteen years has been hiring Rudy Tomjanovich and Mike Brown.

In short, Jeanie Buss is the most prominent example of the glass wall that seems to permeate the NBA.  Women are able to rise to the executive ranks in the NBA’s league office and the business side of many franchises, but they dare not cross over to managing day to day basketball operations.  That even a family owned franchise like the Lakers that has been extremely successful over the last thirty years would not portend to let a woman exist as a voice of the franchise is really telling about the density of this glass wall.

The themes here transcend the Lakers and the Buss family as we can see how the NBA is a hyper-masculine enterprise and that the participation of women so often comes in the form of traditional supports and sexual objects.  “The NBA would rightly point out that a number of women work in fairly important positions in the league office, where it’s easy to find people who care sincerely about such things,” writes Henry Abbott. “But women not only don’t play basketball for the NBA or its teams. They also don’t coach, make trades or hand out punishments. (They do, however, at almost every public NBA event, dance around in skimpy outfits for money.)”

That Jeanie Buss receives more attention, from media and otherwise, for her relationship history rather than her managerial acumen is indicative of the ways that women are accepted within sporting cultures.  Consumed as sexual object, as fulfilling traditionally accepted gender roles, Jeanie Buss has illustrated the difficulty of being seen in other contexts.

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