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Race, Class, Lightweights and the Contradictions of Sport

Hector u201cMachou201d Camacho’s death raised the troubling old questions as well.

“Hector Camacho, a boxer known for his lightning-quick hands and flamboyant personality who emerged from a delinquent childhood in New York’s Spanish Harlem to become a world champion in three weight classes, died Saturday in San Juan, P.R., four days after after being shot while sitting in a parked car. He was 50. “

~ Bruce Weber, NY Times

The death of Hector “Macho” Camacho late last week brought back some memories. In the days when i watched boxing – on network TV no less, Wide World of Sports, “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat” — Macho was beyond compare. He fought the stars of his era — Roberto Durán, Julio César Chávez, Edwin Rosario, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini ( who had previously killed Duk Koo Kim in the ring right there on live television) and Sugar Ray Leonard. He beat them all before losing his last title fight to Oscar De La Hoya in 1997. At the height of his career, he held Major Titles in 3 weight divisions and eventually won 4 more minor titles at additional weights, the first boxer to become a septuple champion.

Whatever his many skills as a boxer, he was always the winner on style. “What Time is It? It’s Macho Time!” never failed to reveal a dazzling array of both speed and ring wear — leopard skin trunks, tasseled boots, mink capes, gladiator gear, head dresses and more. (see Slide Show).

One of a kind.

But his death raised the troubling old questions as well — questions about our collective love of blood sport and the fine line between “entertainment” and “crime”. Questions about our expectations of athletes on the field/in the ring versus off/out. Questions of course about race and class and the many cultural contradictions “sports” expose.

Like his heavyweight peer, Mike Tyson, Hector Camacho was “discovered” by handlers who could market their street fighting skills as sport. Moved seamlessly from juvenile detention centers to the ring. What could easily be deemed aggravated assault, attempted murder (i.e serious violent felonious behavior) in any other context was highly valued in the context of the “sport” of boxing. Mama Said Knock You Out no longer meant prison time but Pay Day. Fame, Adulation, Titles. And from the perspective of capitalist systems, perhaps the difference doesn’t matter; as Patricia Hill Collins notes,

“Athletes and criminals alike are profitable, not for the vast majority of African American men, but for people who own the teams, control the media, provide food, clothing and telephone services, and who consume seemingly endless images of pimps, hustlers, rapists, and felons.”

Boxing is less popular and visible now, relegated to pay per view cable, eclipsed by higher action kick boxing/extreme fighting, or shunned altogether by those who object to the unvarnished directness of the violence or the heavy toll paid by its’ “stars” such as Muhammad Ali.

But certainly there is no shortage of ultra-violence disguised as sport. Football, our most popular spectator sport, is the most para-military of all contact games. Helmeted gladiators “march down the field”, “throwing bombs” in the pursuit of territory, measured in 10 yards increments at a time. Of course, injuries occur in the wake of the high speed dope-fueled clashes, but since they are not the goal per se, the violence is considered a collateral consequence, never to be named explicitly. Other team sports, such as hockey, have etched theatrical opportunities into the game to give the fans what they really have come for, an “Enforcer” dropping the gloves and the promise of Blood on the Ice.

The usual norms prohibiting violence are suspended because of course, “It’s Just a Game”, and the participants — well at least some, rewarded with $$$ and adoring fans. If, however, the same behavior that is encouraged on the field of play lapses over into other settings (as it often does), a hypocritical and resentful public never stops to consider how fine the line between crime and the game. Never stops to consider that the behavior they just applauded is just the same as that they now condemn.

We love Mike and “Macho” in the ring; out on the street, not so much.

Hector Luis Camacho was born in Bayamon, P.R., near San Juan, on May 24, 1962. After his mother, Maria, separated from his father when Hector was 3 years old, they moved to Spanish Harlem. He started boxing at 11 and eventually won three New York City Golden Gloves titles, though after the first one he found himself in a cell at Rikers Island, serving three months for car theft.

~ Bruce Weber, NY Times

Of course race matters here. A long literature in the Sociology of Sport (yes there is such a thing) documents the role race plays in recruitment for particular sports and assignment of key positions; racial stacking continues to this day, despite the fact that Blacks represent the over-whelming majority of players in both the NFL and NBA . And racialized explanations of athletic prowess persist too, despite their direct links to the long debunked pseudo-science of eugenics.

Just ask Jimmy”The Greek” Synder.

For our purposes, the most relevant literature draws on the connections between race and class in what William C. Rhoden has dubbed “the sports industrial complex”. ( See $40 Million Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete for an outstanding analysis of the historical role of Blacks in a variety of sports, as well as their current exploitation).

Sports is presented, especially to Black and Brown youth, as a vehicle for upward mobility, a way out so to speak. The promise of Hoop Dreams is tantalizing and largely unattainable. NCAA statistics indicate that less than a fraction of 1% of high school athletes make it to the pros in basketball, football, baseball or hockey. Those few that do may do so without the benefit of a completed college education and face without the benefit of a completed college education without adequate – if any – pensions. The super stars – of any sport – are the extreme exception certainly not the rule. Nonetheless, as David J. Leonard and C. Richard King argue in Commodified and Criminalized; New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports, these used up too soon athletes “also function as an ideological and discursive commodity used to sell the American Dream and colorblindness in post-civil rights America.”

Those who do “make it” serve this larger ideological function. In Child’s Play?: Black Labor In The Sports-Industrial Complex, Theresa Runstedtler additionally observes:

Arguably, maintaining the prison-industrial complex and other types of racial caste systems in the United States (i.e. unequal education, healthcare, etc.) relies heavily on black hyper-visibility in the sporting realm. On the one hand, individualist and sanitized stories of black success in professional sports are offered up as proof that race no longer matters. On the other hand, the over-representation of black athletes at play (especially those who do not follow the prescribed “rules” of sporting etiquette, both on and off the court) reinforces the notion that black people must be properly managed, and if necessary, caged.

When that fine line between the rules of the game and the rules of society at large is transgressed, the reaction, well, that depends. There is an on-going debate as to whether or not athletes are more likely to break the law than average citizens, and a similarly mixed literature on the consequences of that. Sometimes athletes get preferential treatment; at others, media attention and the insistence that they must be “role models” produces harsher sentences than might be expected.

As it always is with criminal injustice, the backlash is often subject to racialized double standards. Some latitude is given towards white players whose off-field deviations may be sympathetically framed and/or medicalized; their addictions described as self-medication due to “playing through pain.” Sometimes they are dismissed entirely. When, for example, Lance Armstrong finally fell – after ten years of accusation and mounting evidence — there were still those who denied that he blithely biked while swilling mixtures of testosterone and olive oil or that he had bullied his team into becoming an EPO injecting doper gang. We raise an eye-brow but hold doubts about accusations of sexual assault and even in death, we treat the over-doses and suicides of white sports figures as “tragic riddles”.

This largesse is rarely granted for their counter-parts of color. Here, the sports industrial complex demands compliance and gratitude. The reaction to deviance, however minor, is often swift and extreme. We have no time for the insouciance of a Randy Moss or the defiance of a Latrell Sprewell, no tolerance for the “thug – life” attire of an Allen Iverson or a Carmelo Anthony (see the NBA dress code and After Artest: The NBA & the Assault on Blackness ). Jose Canseco was vilified for telling the truth about steroid use in baseball; Barry Bonds was tried and convicted for using the same. And despite having served a federal prison sentence and returned to the NFL, Micheal Vick will forever and ever and ever amen be remembered as the public face of dog-fighting.

And, so, it is unsurprising that most obituaries of Hector “Macho” Camacho began and end – as does the New York Times piece excerpted in exact order here – not with the moments of sporting glory, but instead with the long litany of trouble.

And the headline, “Hector Camacho, 50, Boxer Who Lived Dangerously, Dies.”


One More Time.

Rest in Peace Hector, at last.

As a teenager Camacho was a brawler, a serial shoplifter, an admitted drug user and a car thief, and he never put that part of his nature behind him. He was arrested numerous times on charges including domestic abuse, possession of a controlled substance, burglary and trying to take an M-16 rifle through customs. This year he turned himself in after a warrant charged him with beating one of his sons. A trial was pending at his death.

~ Bruce Weber, NY Times

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