Between promising “a great time out” in a 19-win season, and depicting your franchise center running sprints and lifting weights on an ankle not-yet-healed-from-microfracture-surgery, there have been some incredible moments in Warriors commercial history. But my favorite moment happened this season; two parts of a year-long “We Are Warriors” campaign, which depicted the players interacting with season ticket holders in unique ways. In the spot, titled “Assist” (seen above) a season ticket-holder named Toni Marshall is shown dribbling a basketball down the Warriors practice court. She is not dressed in a uniform; instead, she is draped in flair and Warriors-themed jewelry. After crossing half-court, she whips a cross-court pass to Klay Thompson, who, true to form, is moving without the ball on an empty court, coming off of invisible screens with ease. He catches the ball in rhythm, squares up, and splashes one of his trademark treys. He points his index finger at Marshall after making the shot, the universal symbol for “nice assist,” and begins to backpedal on invisible defense. Marshall returns the point by pointing back herself, her eyes fixed on Klay intently, asking for more interaction. He responds enthusiastically by unleashing a battery of party gimmicks — he six-shoots his three-guns, brushes his shoulders off, and takes a deep bow, all in recognition of Marshall’s great assist. However, the commercial takes an interesting turn when Marshall extends that once innocuous finger, smiles coyly, and beckons Thompson in an overtly sexual way. Thompson’s response is true to his nature: a blank stare, accompanied by a facial expression that gives away no clues as to how he actually feels about her advances.
Considering that the other commercials in the series were more innocent — an ill-fated attempt at post-defense against Andrew Bogut, a delightful ice bath with Andre Iguodala — this advertisement stood out. Not only did it portray Klay Thompson, whose previous commercial acting involved him taking shots in a dark gym, in a way that seemed delightfully out of character. It also put Toni Marshall on full display, dropping dimes before dropping lines, all with an NBA player she clearly found sexually attractive. Portraying both Marshall and Thompson as jocular, and perhaps a bit frisky, was a delight. But at some point during the season, the commercial changed (seen above). It was a minor edit, but it was noticeable enough for those who watched the local broadcast regularly. The commercial essentially was the same; same assist, same repeated pointing, same Klay-faced gimmicks. Gone, however, was Marshall’s advance towards Klay. Any hint of flirting sexual desire was gone completely.
On the one hand, it makes sense that the commercial was changed. No sexual advance should be trivialized, especially one that is unwanted by the object of sexual desire, and unasked for by the same person. In an era where catcalls are still sickeningly prevalent, and more and more individuals (almost exclusively women, combating aggressive heterosexual males) explicitly campaign against harassment delivered in the street in the name of “giving a compliment” or “just talking “, things like Marshall’s beckoning should be taken seriously, even if it’s being done in jest. Moreover, the Warriors, like any NBA team, is marketed to a wide audience, including families, many of whom have young children. The messages delivered in “Assist” — besides that you should pass it to the the shooter when he frees himself from a screen and has some daylight in one of his sweet spots — are murky at best, and the Warriors would hardly be the first team to “play it safe” when the product advances an unintended message. In that regard, changing the commercial from a “come here, you!” to a “take a bow, Klay” makes total sense, and warrants little further comment.
Furthermore, we might even nod our heads approvingly that the Warriors would proactively combat the notion that athletes are only regarded as objects of sexual desire for women. As I (and many others) have written on many occasions, athletes are often seen and described purely as “lusty bodies” — a highly racialized image of a person, reduced to a brilliant set of muscles and dashing looks worth millions of dollars, who replicate war on a limited scale for bloodthirsty men, and become eye candy for heart-eyed women. The Diss has championed efforts made by athletes, and more reluctantly, the corporations that market them, to portray a more nuanced image than what is assumed to be the sum of all their unique parts, and complicate the picture in a useful, instructional way. Along those lines, this commercial does some good in that battle to humanize the athlete. Portraying Thompson as a friendly but emotionally flat human being, who is receptive towards playful joshing, is a skilled shooter, and appreciates those who assist him in succeeding on-and-off the court, is perhaps preferable to the image we get in the first commercial. In these ways, Thompson is made safe, Marshall’s actions are made innocuous, and everyone can feel good about what they just saw: another dime-a-dozen “this is a metaphor in the hope that you buy lots of tickets for our games” ad spots. That’s NBA commercialism, in its most basic form, and the edited commercial joins its bloated, pudgy ranks.
Yet, with all of that in mind, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the commercial was changed because it made some people feel uncomfortable, and that that discomfort may be misplaced in itself. Indeed, there are many aspects of the commercial that seem incongruous simply because they do not conform to our own prevailing notions of what is acceptable behavior for both men and women in this scenario. Toni Marshall does not present herself as a the stereotypical “thirsting woman” in this commercial; a full-figured individual, clearly not a barely-legal teenager, putting herself fully and unapologetically on display, driving down court, and trying to pick up Thompson at the end. Similarly, Thompson, himself, doesn’t exactly shut Marshall down once she beckons him hither. We don’t see him explicitly reject her, either politely or impolitely; the conclusion is open-ended, and we are unsure whether Klay is intrigued or put-off. Perhaps that was enough to raise eyebrows, the idea that a professional athlete would want to interact romantically with an individual who does not fit the mold of who we assume he would want to, and vice versa, for that matter. Perhaps just the idea that wow, this is not heteronormative enough for the average viewer was enough to modestly edit the beast.
In the end, it’s important to remember that this is just a commercial, not a position paper or policy statement. As such, our analysis can be restrained; saved from its own proclivity towards overreaction. The goal of the ad is not to offer different takes on modern ideas of sexuality and desire that don’t fit into outmoded notions of how intimacy and romance should work. As always, the goal of any NBA commercial is to get you to invest in the NBA, through tickets, merchandise, apps, or whatever product or person they’re dangling limply in front of your face. This is no different, except the players, message and motives within it seem playfully deviant; as if they know they’re pushing the envelope in a society that continually struggles with its outdated mores and morals. More so than in other ads, there is a different message being advanced about open expressions of sexuality, intimacy and desire, and one that shouldn’t be lost in the consumerist message being primarily imparted by the spot. In it’s original form, the commercial invites us to connect the dots, and come up with our own conclusions about what connection Thompson and Marshall share; what, exactly, it means to be “together” as “Warriors.” Such an adventure doesn’t exist in the edit, and in many ways, that reduces the power and impact of the commercial.
As the NBA basks in the positive press it is receiving for being seen as the most “progressive” league in the United States, given recent (and modest) victories in the realms of gender equality in the workplace, LGBTQ rights, anti-racism and transparency in officiating practices, it will be interesting to see what the league, and the teams within it, do with that wiggle room. It will be compelling to see if the NBA continues to advance messages that imply that it’s acceptable to push the envelope, and question the overarching structures that make the world the problematic place it is today, was yesterday, and likely will be tomorrow. And while this commercial doesn’t exactly put this issue on full display, the subsequent safe edit implies that any radical deviancy will be slow-arriving, or at the very least, edited for the benefit of sensitive eyes and antiquated minds.
Editor’s note: The author thanks his much better half Cammie Dodson for helping him parse out many of these thoughts, and for being an awesome person in general.