As the NBA boomed in the ‘90s, smack talk became a problem. Here’s how players solved it.

Ostensibly, the NBA’s earliest efforts to regulate trash talk in the 1990s—in combination with its stricter penalties and heftier fines for in-game fights—were meant to ward off the high-profile brawls and lower-profile “scuffles,” as former NBA referee Bennett Salvatore puts it, that seemed to increasingly interrupt the course of competition. But really, it was about business as much as anything. As a more demonstrative brand of trash talk emerged from the playgrounds, and out of the fledgling culture of hip-hop, the sports world’s rule makers fretted more than ever about what might look bad for their widening (and predominantly white) television audiences.

There has long been a racial double standard when it comes to trash talk. Black athletes who talk during games are often cast as loudmouths, volatile, and showy, while vocal white players are lionized as leaders or scrappy hardworkers who leave it all on the floor.

“It becomes a sign of his love of the game, and not, ‘Oh, he’s talking trash and gets angry,’” says David J. Leonard, a professor in the School of Languages, Cultures, and Race at Washington State University, Pullman. Before his exhibition bout against Conor McGregor, boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr.—whose public image is complicated by the fact that, in real life, he has done some genuinely villainous things—called out the sports media for criticizing his use of trash-talk tactics as “arrogant” and “cocky” and “unappreciative,” while Conor McGregor—also maybe not a candidate for the World’s Best Person Award—was lauded for doing the exact same things. But critiques of trash talk are almost always as much of a code as the trash talk itself. “What makes the conversation about the NBA particularly interesting,” adds Leonard, “is it becomes a way to dismiss and deny the artistry and athleticism and the intelligence of players, when it should be, in fact, evidence of all those things.”

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