05.10.12

‘Basketball Wives’: Tanya Young Reveals the Show’s Dirtiest Secret

As a petition to boycott the reality series gains signatures, a former Basketball Wife reveals why the show is “sheer hell” for women of color.

My knowledge of the inner workings of Basketball Wives stems from my role as one, in the inaugural season of Basketball Wives LA.  Though I was cautioned against participating in the series, my intention was to change the perception that wives of basketball players are flighty, overly emotional, and senselessly dramatic. I wanted to show interesting aspects of my life and also bring attention to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, for which I am a celebrity spokesperson. But as the proverb goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” And working on Basketball Wives was sheer hell.

Within weeks of taping Basketball Wives LA, there was a horrific fight between two cast members while we dined at a swanky Santa Monica restaurant. They argued and eventually fought over who was a “rat” versus a “hoodrat,” who was sleeping with a married man, who was the real bitch, who was fat, and whose teeth were “jacked up.” It was a surreal moment. I was paralyzed by shock and anger. I sat motionless as the women fought over my head and producers worked to break up the melee. However, the cameramen never lost sight of their target: the fight. They captured every moment, from every angle. The footage was the guarantee the producers needed to bait their audience during teasers for the premiere of Basketball Wives LA. As the women pulled out pieces of weave, called each other names, tore each other’s clothing, and struck each other in the face, the producers struck ratings gold—and they knew it.

Basketball Wives Miami, which I have never watched, has been a hit show since its launch in April 2010. The show features more women who have never been married to an NBA player than current or ex-wives, and like Basketball Wives LA, was created to entertain its audience with drama, drama, and more drama. Most of the cast members never worked in television and wanted nothing more than to be a star—no matter what the cost.

It is now evident that the cost can be quite extreme, if not dangerous and possibly deadly. Tami Roman of Basketball Wives Miami suffered a mild heart attack; marital relationships have deteriorated; and long-term friendships have morphed into childish rivalries. More important, these women in designer shoes, carrying expensive bags, with flawless makeup and perfectly weaved hair, have been reduced to water-throwing, filthy-mouthed, table-running, “bitch-slapping” lunatics.

When I received an email a couple of weeks ago asking if I would join a petition boycotting Basketball Wives due to the negative portrayal of women of color, I was too busy juggling my daughters' schedules, working as a “talking head” on television, writing articles about Trayvon Martin, and dealing with my estranged husband’s recent release from prison to respond to the inquiry. In fact, I gave little credence to the effective possibilities of the petition. However, with more than 20,000 names and growing, this petition could be a real problem for the Basketball Wives franchise. Ever since celebrities like Sherri Shepherd, Wendy Williams, and Star Jones have denounced the shows, the ratings have consistently declined.

The show has been produced to look like an embarrassing, demeaning, degrading, violent, and outright ignorant display of our worst selves.

Still, I ask the question: why is everyone now so up in arms about the recent violence on Basketball Wives? The show has been a disgrace and an insult to the intelligence of its viewing audience ever since the producers at Shed Media permitted the “women,” and I use that term loosely, to slug out their differences.  The show has been produced to look like an embarrassing, demeaning, degrading, violent, and outright ignorant display of our worst selves. This type of deplorable behavior didn’t begin in Season 4 of Basketball Wives Miami. In fact, there was fighting in Season 1. Roman, who now blames VH1 and Shed Media for the purposeful negative depiction of women of color, once told Sister2Sister magazine that she “fights on TV to feed her family.”

I oftentimes think that if VH1 and the production company that produces BW would hire at least one African-American woman producer, with a legitimate say in the creative and editing process, there would be a heightened level of awareness and sensitivity to the images of black women they are broadcasting.  Nevertheless, the producers, the director, the cameramen (yes, they too are all men), and the tech personnel can't force any cast member to throw a punch, toss a glass of water, or curse someone out. The women must take responsibility for their actions and the resulting consequences.

I shot Basketball Wives LA for months, including wonderful footage of my involvement with the domestic-violence hotline, an event at my home, a charity event for another cast member, and “normal” dining outings with the women. Yet I was only shown in two episodes. I was not only a threat because I would not belittle myself and simultaneously embarrass my mother, my daughters, and every black women in America, I was also a threat because I told the women that “no television show is worth fighting on and disgracing yourself for.” Despite the fact that legions of fans and supporters wrote to VH1 and on blogs of their desire to see a balanced show, which they felt that I represented, Shed Media decided that a “sophisticated” (their words not mine) woman like me didn’t fit into the new and evolving storylines (“storylines” in the same sentence with Basketball Wives sounds comical). For a time, I wanted to remain a part of Basketball Wives because I felt that my core values and outlook on life represented a larger percentage of the audience than VH1 understood existed. However, that desire waned quickly as I became engrossed in more fulfilling work in media.

I certainly don’t miss the environment I was exposed to while taping Basketball Wives. It was both toxic and controlling. Women were not allowed to communicate after shooting a scene; women were chastised as if they were children; high-ranking executives would childishly ignore cast members on the set; and producers would “ice” cast members from working when they wanted to garner more outrageous conduct from them. Despite the “friendships” portrayed on the screen, some producers purposely planted seeds of discord between the women, and told outright lies, hoping that conflict and drama would ensue. Oftentimes, when I arrived at home, I immediately took a shower because I felt psychologically and emotionally dirty and disgusting from my day on the set.

Basketball Wives is a valuable commodity to Shed Media and VH1. The women of Basketball Wives should start acting like professional businesswomen and less like tightly wound puppets and demand a balanced show. Working on Basketball Wives is a gig, not a career. If the women don't want to lose paychecks due to the mounting boycotts, they had better stop fighting each other and join the raging battle against the network and the production company to eliminate the negative portrayal of women of color on Basketball Wives—before their 15 minutes of fame is up.