Congolese basketball player Dikembe Mutombo has been receiving largely positive responses with regards to his new advertisement for GEICO, an auto insurance company in the United States of America. The commercial, “Happier than Dikembe Mutombo Blocking a Shot” depicts Mutombo running around blocking ordinary people from making ‘shots’ in everyday situations.
In the commercial, he blocks a crumpled ball of paper from being thrown in to a trash can, a boy from throwing a box of cereal in to a shopping cart and a woman from throwing laundry in to a washing machine and in other similar situations. During this time, he is making mono syllabic statements like “no, no, no”, “not in my house!” and “ha ha ha.”This is supposed to be a commentary on his defense skills as a basketball player where he blocked numerous shots.
For many basketball fans, it brings about nostalgia from the days that he was playing in the basketball leagues. However, for some of us the commercial shows an African basketball athlete, running around town hitting objects out of people’s hands, who is also seemingly inarticulate. One almost expects him to yell, “yabba dabba doo!” like Fred Flinstone . Simply speaking, the commercial makes Mutumbo look like and oafish cave man. He evokes images reminiscent of the arch stereotype of the African male who may not be intelligent, may not be articulate, but ‘can sure play ball!’.
This portrayal of Mutumbo is really unfortunate because Mutumbo is a very accomplished man. There is an above average brain lurking behind this Neanderthal representation of him. Mutumbo was the recipient of an academic scholarship to the highly ranked Georgetown University as a pre-med student. His original goal was to become a medical doctor! Albeit playing time-consuming college basketball, he eventually graduated with two degrees in Linguistics and Diplomacy from Georgetown. As an entrepreneur, he is the founder of the cable network ‘Africa Channel’ and has embarked on other business ventures. However, outside of basketball, he is mostly renowned for his not for profit ventures.
Mutombo is the founder of the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation which builds schools and hospitals in Kinshasa, Congo. In addition, he has made several donations to charitable foundations both in Congo and the United States which have earned him recognition as one of the most generous professional athletes in the world. Due to his philanthropy, he was inducted in the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame and has received the President’s Service Award. Lastly, not only can he speak English well, he is in fact a polyglot conversant in many languages. He speaks French, Portuguese, Spanish, Tshiluba, Swahili, Lingala and two other central African languages. Multilingualism is useful and compliments his many international endeavors which involve communicating in boardrooms, at conferences and with the general public. Therefore, playing an ‘oafish’ mono-syllabic caricature for the commercial is a misrepresentation of who he actually is.
Of course, it needs to be said that no one should take themselves too seriously. There should always be room for African athletes to represent multiple sides of themselves which includes a humorous side. However, we are still in an era where African athletes continue to be represented as all ‘body’ and no ‘brains’ as athletes and as scholars. Since athletes are considered ambassadors for their country of origin, how they are received and perceived becomes a concern for many at international levels. It is of particular concern for African athletes who continue to face racism worldwide when competing in various sports. They are often susceptible to taunting, heckling and stereotyping by fans based on their ethnicity.
Some may recall an incident when a basketball fan heckled racist slurs at Mutumbo from the stadium stands. This would have been a more opportune time for him to run around unhinged, feverishly blocking verbal shots and uttering words from his GEICO ad like, ‘no, no, no… not today… not in my house!’In response to the heckling incident, Mutombo actually remarked, “I am not going to take that. He was insulting my race, my family, my integrity. For him to call me a monkey … that should not happen today,”indicating that he is quite aware that racial stereotypes continue to exist today. It is therefore ironic that he was able to take the GEICO commercial script as lighthearted humor thereby perpetuating a popular African stereotype. Players and their agents/managers have control over the image of a celebrity and his decision partner with GEICO in this manner is very problematic for his own representation and that of the continent. Unfortunately for Mutombo, with great fame, comes great responsibility. Asking the GEICO team for a new concept is typically an option for stars of his stature that should have been exercised. In a world where Africans are still battling stereotypes about Africa, it is too soon for our biggest and brightest stars to be dumbing themselves down for sport.