Drawn from the real-life protest controversy, “Don’t You Wanna Be Obama?” raises questions of control and identity in an industry with millions of dollars at stake.
Everyone loves LA. Or at least they do this season. Like every other main character this season, hanger-on Reggie (London Brown) and his mainstream meal ticket, Vernon (Donovan W. Carter), was basking in those golden rays. We get a throwaway scene with them, perhaps only to remind us they are both still on the show. Vernon’s plotline last season was probably the least interesting, so it is going to take more than some pool floats to reinvest me.
For perhaps the first time, it isn’t Vernon’s drama that is going to ruin Spencer’s (Dwayne Johnson) day–it’s speed-tongued extreme sportsman Lance Klian (Russell Brand) and his theatrics over missing surfer, Parker Jones. Parker, it turns out, doesn’t want to be the greatest black surfer, he just wants to be the greatest surfer, something that his marketing doesn’t agree with, as evidenced by a Coke ad that altered his skin tone. Over some weed and straight talk, Joe (Rob Corddry) and Spencer take up Parker’s cause to place talent over race. Lance, however, doesn’t agree with their mindset, blasting Spencer for blowing a high stakes deal over something he considers insignificant. A late night meeting with Jada (Joy Bryant), the mom Spencer was eyeing last episode when he was supposed to be scouting her son, gives Spencer a better end to his day. We’ll see how this develops over the coming episodes.
On other fronts, it’s moving day for Ricky (John David Washington) and company as they settle into their new digs. On the down-low, Ricky is taking pitches from agent Jason (Troy Garity), this time to hit up new man on the Rams team, Charles (Omar Miller), for a job. Charles, the sweet man that he is, says he’ll think about it, but ensures his new twitchy assistant he has no plans to jump-start Ricky’s career, yet again. Ricky and TTD have other plans, picking out a pricey watch for their old friend to sweeten the deal. Nice as that thought is, Charles has bigger issues with a smug staff who question all his thoughts. Conveniently for the plot, the staff loves the idea of bringing Ricky in (even though Charles had no intention of pitching it), in part because they can get him “dirt cheap.” Charles approaches Ricky, but only offers a tryout, an ego punch that Ricky will have to take on the chin.
We conclude with Parker’s surfing competition and the plotline I have been expecting since last fall: after being named champion, Parker, who was told he needed to be more black, raises his fist in the power sign, sending sponsors scuttling and Lance into a troubled beard stroke. This on the nose moment is, of course, the show’s take on the National Anthem protests. Given that this has become one of the most reported sports stories of the past year (that still is not resolved), it seems natural that Ballers would address it. Putting it in the context of surfing instead of national, mainstream sport? That seems like a bit of a cop-out. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, I suppose.
This episode provides us with a slightly obvious, but valid juxtaposition of how athletes are valued within their industries. Ricky, after sitting out just one season, is a bargain basement steal despite his skills; Parker is more marketable if they darken his skin tone and make his talent a racial statement. But not too strong of a racial statement. Lance’s argument to self-righteous Spencer that he shouldn’t get precious about Parker because the world isn’t “about talent anymore” brings up a solid point about the role of commodities in professional sports. This is an industry where talented men and women are bought, sold, traded, and often, thrown away. Of course, one could argue that they are compensated for this life they all volunteered for, but it does raise questions of how much ownership the sponsors, coaches, owners, and fans have of these athletes. Who should control their narratives, particularly off the field? My hope is that the show will not shy away from the opportunities of this storyline.
Amber is a doctoral candidate in Language, Diversity, and Literacy at Texas Tech. She holds an MA in Literature and History and a BFA in Theatre. A Texas-based mother of two, she is an Associate Professor of English and History at Howard College.