It is 1993. Plaid is in, Michael Jordan is in the midst of his reign as king of basketball, and a young, lean and supremely dominant Shaquille O’Neal releases his first studio rap album, “Shaq Diesel.” There is a few catchy songs on the record, and Shaq goes platinum. As more people listened, Shaq’s image changed. Suddenly, he was not a basketball player; he was an entertainer, an actor, a comedian, a musician and more. Over a number of years, behind other efforts such as Michael Jordan’s performance in “Space Jam,” the NBA shifted into mainstream pop culture, and now NBA players are A-List celebrities. The shift becomes even more clear if you examine the relationship between sports and music today.
Portland Trail-Blazers point guard Damian Lillard is following in Shaq’s footsteps as a rapper attempting to gain the respect of his peers. And make no mistake, Lillard, who goes by Dame DOLLA when performing, has talent, but his peers in both the NBA and the music industry (and some opposing fans) may see it as just a hobby. And at the end of the day, it is. While Lillard has dreams for his rap career and brings a positive, inspiring message to his music, his vocation is a point guard. Still, he, like everyone else in high level sports, is part of a culture where music and competition overlap and often interact.
Rihanna’s a big fan of Lebron; she sat courtside in the 2017 Finals and heckled Kevin Durant. Kendrick Lamar gave Russell Westbrook a shoutout in his song “The Heart Part 4.” It doesn’t stop at the NBA, though. The Super Bowl halftime show is a bigger deal than the actual Super Bowl for some people. Mega celebrities sing the national anthem before any anticipated matchup. And, of course, there is the Colin Kaepernick saga, which somehow ended up being a deeply divisive and symbolically significant issue for America. On Kaepernick’s side, Beyoncé, Eminem, J. Cole and many more voiced their support, with Eminem even mentioning Kaepernick in his freestyle “Untouchable.” On the other side, a host of singers have condemned Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the singing of the National Anthem, with country singer Neal McCoy releasing his viral track “Take a Knee, My A**.” These days, music is everywhere, and so are the athletes listening to it.
It is now so easy to become absorbed in our phones as we allow ourselves to be bombarded with lyrics, tweets, statuses, snaps, highlights and whatever. The rise of the digital age revolutionized both how we listen to music and watch sports, and the result is what you see today. Still, we obviously sang fight songs and shouted chants at sporting events long before Shaq got into the rap game.
In those days, Kaepernick and Dame DOLLA and Shaq, we had baseball, hotdogs with mustard on it, and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” That was the American Dream right there, maybe with a beer in hand, too. There are few songs in America that are more recognizable than “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Everyone knows the words, and on a family outing to the ballpark on a hot summer day, memories are made in the seventh inning stretch, as you munch on peanuts and sing about Crackerjacks.
It is a tradition, and traditions are what makes sports truly priceless. It is not just beefs between musicians and players for us to enjoy; it is the belting of “Sweet Caroline” at Red Sox games and basically every sporting event in North Carolina. It is the riff in “Enter Sandman” played before the Virginia Tech Hokies take the field before each home game and when former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera entered games in the ninth inning. It’s the drum line at high school football games breaking into rhythm and igniting the crowd before the fourth quarter. These are memories we hold for our whole lives—sure, we like the entertainment sports brings us and the subsequent fanfare brought by the music, but it’s so much more than that. The relationship between music, sports, and us is a way to celebrate, cheer, disapprove and ultimately pay our respects to the competition that brings meaning to so many lives.