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April 27, 2023
“The Punch”: NBA Basketball and Constructions of Black Criminality
Theresa Runstedtler, Associate Professor of History, American University

On December 9, 1977, the Los Angeles Lakers’ African American power forward Kermit Washington punched the Houston Rockets’ white guard Rudy Tomjanovich, knocking him out with season-ending injuries. Footage of Washington’s punch played repeatedly on national television, fueling public discussions about the inherent violence and criminality of Black players, and by extension Black men. Although NBA basketball might at first seem unrelated to the shaping of law-and-order policies such as the War on Crime and the War on Drugs, professional sports remained a key site of racial formation, especially as Black players became more numerous. Theresa Runstedtler argues that, in the aftermath of this incident, the NBA became an important pedagogical space where racial common sense not only was shaped and debated, but also came to inform wider assumptions about the appropriate policy solutions to the problems confronting Black urban communities.