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Midnight Basketball

Race, Sports, and Neoliberal Social Policy

Midnight basketball may not have been invented in Chicago, but the City of Big Shoulders—home of Michael Jordan and the Bulls—is where it first came to national prominence. And it’s also where Douglas Hartmann first began to think seriously about the audacious notion that organizing young men to run around in the wee hours of the night—all trying to throw a leather ball through a metal hoop—could constitute meaningful social policy.
            Organized in the 1980s and ’90s by dozens of American cities, late-night basketball leagues were designed for social intervention, risk reduction, and crime prevention targeted at African American youth and young men. In Midnight Basketball, Hartmann traces the history of the program and the policy transformations of the period, while exploring the racial ideologies, cultural tensions, and institutional realities that shaped the entire field of sports-based social policy. Drawing on extensive fieldwork, the book also brings to life the actual, on-the-ground practices of midnight basketball programs and the young men that the programs intended to serve. In the process, Midnight Basketball offers a more grounded and nuanced understanding of the intricate ways sports, race, and risk intersect and interact in urban America.


Midnight Basketball sets out to understand the emergence of this program in the 1980s, the fanfare surrounding it, and its quick demise. . . .In using a singular case study, Hartmann successfully chronicles the interface between sport, race, neoliberal policy, the criminal justice system, and the broader history of sports interventionist policies. . . .Among the many strengths of Midnight Basketball is that it moves beyond the court and the policy, as a window into the 1980s, demonstrating the interconnections between sport, neoliberal, deindustrialization, structural adjustments, and racism. It is as much a story on the devastating consequences of Reagan and the resurgent “new right” and on the prison industrial complex and war on drugs as it is a story on basketball programs “serving” black youth.”

American Journal of Sociology

“Hartmann’s methodology is mixed, using fieldwork observations of an early program in Minneapolis, in addition to extensive sociocultural analysis of the policy and politics of the era. He contextualizes the policy along with the political and social engineering platforms that surrounded it. The author’s work highlights the limits of the policy as a self-improvement vehicle, noting that most of his subjects reported simply enjoying the camaraderie and the competition of another organized basketball league. Although his conclusion is relatively simple, Hartmann’s analysis is nuanced, intricate, interdisciplinary, and thought provoking. Recommended.”


“In Midnight Basketball Hartmann offers a compelling account of the role of sport in fostering social change. Drawing upon nearly two decades of careful empirical research, and using the political debates that surrounded the late-night basketball leagues that sprung up across America in the late 1980s as his starting point, Hartmann provides a fascinating analysis of the convergence of neoliberal ideas around personal responsibility, concerns about the ‘risk’ posed to wider society by young black men, and the often utopian belief that playing sports can help the disadvantaged overcome their station in life through the acquisition of better morals and a stronger work ethic.  Hartmann’s engaging book is required reading for anyone concerned about the devastating and continuing impact of neoliberal social policies on the lives of America’s inner-city residents, and what sports-based forms of intervention and risk-prevention can and cannot achieve. Midnight Basketball is therefore destined to become an instant classic.”

Ben Carrington, author of Race, Sport, and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora

“Hartmann takes readers on a critically self-reflective journey that weaves together nearly two decades of cultural analysis and his own development as a sociologist and public intellectual. Much more than about midnight basketball, this book explains the complex connections between public policy, race, sports, and the dynamics of neoliberalism in recent US history.”

Jay Coakley, author of Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies

“In Midnight Basketball, Hartmann deftly exposes the ideological import of crime prevention basketball programs popular in the 1980s and 1990s. While offering opportunities for pleasure and comradery, Hartmann’s insightful analysis reveals how these policy interventions offered very little in the way of meaningful educational opportunities or social services. Thus, rather than addressing inequalities that limit life chances these basketball programs sought to police and control poor inner-city black men’s behaviors. Hartmann’s investigation is additionally important in exposing the limitations of similar neoliberal sport based policy initiatives that continue to proliferate globally.”

Mary G. McDonald | director, Sports, Society, and Technology Program, Georgia Institute of Technology

“Hartmann, in this outstanding work of scholarship, unearths the significance of midnight basketball, not merely as a racially coded sporting activity addressing social intervention, risk management, and crime intervention issues in impoverished urban communities, but also as a subject of neoliberal policy that has effected, and will continue to effect, millions of disadvantaged people in America. Through his thorough analysis of politics, history, race, and culture in sports, Hartmann demonstrates how an interdisciplinary approach can provide unparalleled insights about the deeply-rooted relationship between sports and society in America.”

Reuben A. Buford May | author of Living Through the Hoop: High School Basketball, Race, and the American Dream

Table of Contents


One / Introduction: At the Intersection of Sports, Race, and Risk
Two / The Midnight Innovation
Three / An Unlikely and Revealing Consensus
Four / A Commercial for Neoliberal Social Policy
Five / Breakdown and Fallout: The Symbolic Politics of the 1994 Crime Bill
Six / Remodeling Sport-Based Prevention
Seven / Prevention in Practice: A Field Study (with Darren Wheelock)
Eight / They Got Game: Lessons and Reflections from the Bottom Up
Nine / Conclusion: In the Light of Midnight

Methodological Appendix: The Notion of an Emergent Case Study


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