An Examination of Racism in Sports

Two recent instances of racism in sports have brought the controversial topic to the forefront of the global conscience. Photo courtesy of thrivesports.com

More than 67 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has singlehandedly brought racism in sports back to the forefront of the national conversation. Yes, there have been other occasions when the American public became embroiled in a debate about race and sports, but in the supposedly “post-racial” 21st century, it is shocking to many that this controversial issue has not yet been to put to rest.

It is often said that sport transcends race. Unlike anything else in the entire world, sports have the ability to connect people of different ethnicities, races, and backgrounds. In a cultural melting pot like New York City, it is not unusual to overhear a person of South American descent arguing with someone of European ancestry about the upcoming World Cup in Brazil. In this unique way, sports provide a connection through generational differences and contrasting cultures that is unrivaled on Earth.

However, there are undercurrents of racism in many major sports, and in certain instances, it seems like we are still living with the intolerance and hatred that was present when Robinson shattered the status quo in baseball, three score and seven years ago.

Just recently, two major events have shocked the sports world out of its supposedly “post-racial” stupor. First, and most widely known, are the comments uttered by Donald Sterling in a private conversation with his “personal assistant,” V. Stiviano. Below is an excerpt of the conversation, courtesy of Deadspin.

 

V: I don’t understand, I don’t see your views. I wasn’t raised the way you were raised.

DS: Well then, if you don’t feel—don’t come to my games. Don’t bring black people, and don’t come.

V: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?

DS: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?

 

Sterling’s comments are appalling at the least, but even more surprising is that Sterling is unrepentant for his views. Currently, he is digging himself into an even deeper hole, saying he should “have paid her [Stiviano] off,” to not share the tapes with TMZ.

Many will argue on Sterling’s behalf, contending that Sterling was recorded in a private conversation, or that Stiviano was getting back at Sterling for bringing a lawsuit against her for embezzlement, but those who use those arguments miss the overarching point. The point is, in this day and age, that people still have these antiquated views, as there are surely more people like Sterling who are not lucky (or unlucky) enough to be heard by the entire world.

Sterling does not seem to care or notice that his team is overwhelmingly African-American, with 13 out of 15 players having at least one African American parent. His frugal 33-year reign as owner of the Clippers has been marred before by racial incidents, but the NBA and former Commissioner David Stern seemed to turn a blind eye to Sterling’s exploits. For example, NBA great Elgin Baylor brought a lawsuit against Sterling alleging age and race discrimination during his 22 years as General Manager of the Clippers. Still, no investigation was made by the NBA.

Sterling’s track record eventually caught up to him, but even before Sterling was ousted from basketball and fined $2.5 million, he was scheduled to accept a life-time achievement award from the Los Angeles Chapter of the NAACP. He made large donations to the organization, but just because the guy has money, does it mean that his previous actions should be ignored?

Bending to the public’s will, the NAACP canceled the award ceremony, but the impact of Sterling’s comments will be felt for a long time. In the first major test of his tenure, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was strong and swift in his punishment of Sterling, but there is no telling what irreparable damage has already been done to the league’s image.

In a brilliant article, fellow writer Matt Tomaszewsky argued that Larry Johnson’s response to Sterling’s comments was even more racially charged than Sterling’s initial remarks. In a tweet, Johnson called for a separate professional league for African Americans, but such a league would only compound the race problem. The answer to racism is not to create more segregation, which is something Robinson, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought hard to eliminate in our country.

Sterling’s views reflect the sentiments of many other people, which is the problem. Everyone, from President Obama to Magic Johnson to LeBron James, has weighed in on Sterling’s comments, but if there are no concerted efforts to fix the problem of racism in American sports, then the problem will persist. Sterling’s comments are not an isolated incident when viewed against the backdrop of the American athletic society, and it is important we address this problem in order to create a better sports culture.

The 2nd event, while lesser known in America, has been circulating social media around the world.

While taking a corner kick for Barcelona, right back Dani Alves was the target of racism by a Villarreal fan, who hurled a banana at him. Alves responded to the racial taunt by picking up the banana, peeling it, and taking a bite before taking the corner kick. His response to the racially charged insult has been lauded as ideal, and many people have come to the support of Alves’ action by taking pictures of themselves eating a banana.

He has said himself that people have to take such an event “with a dose of humor, [because] we aren’t going to change things easily. If you don’t give it importance, they don’t achieve their objective.” In essence, Alves is saying that by responding angrily to a racial taunt, he would be essentially be fueling the fan’s fire, but by disregarding it, he embarrassed the fan and all racists in the world.

At European soccer games, it is common for players of Brazilian and African American descent to be mocked by fans, who throw bananas at players, make monkey sounds in the crowd, or heckle the player constantly. By taking a stand against one fan, Alves has taken a stand against racist fans everywhere.

Though this event will not erase nor necessarily limit the racism at European soccer games, it has brought it to the attention of the global audience, and this racism will now surely be scrutinized when it reoccurs, as it likely will.

The two aforementioned instances above were forms of blatant racism. However, a subtle form of racism pervades all of sport.

For years, American Indians have been in an uproar over the derogatory name of Washington D.C.’s football team, the Redskins. It was not until recently, however, that any concerted effort was made to try to get the team to change the name and logo. Team owner Dan Snyder has emphatically denied any attempt to change the name, citing would-be losses in revenue that would occur by re-branding the team. Many civil rights groups have supported the changing of the name, and a campaign led by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York ended with a boycott of Redskins games by sympathizers to their cause. Numerous government officials have weighed in on the topic, including President Obama and Senator John McCain.

Opponents of the name change see “Redskins” as a term that invokes pictures of bravery, heroism, and fearlessness. They argue that changing the names ruins the culture of a great team in NFL, and cite a 2004 poll of Native Americans where 90% respondents remained unbothered by the use of “Redskins” as the name of a professional sports team (Note: That poll has been largely discredited by later polling done on the same subject).

It is important to assess the moral implications of using such a phrase as the name of a major sports team. Whether or not “Redskins” is used in a positive or negative way, using a stereotypical term of a member of any ethnic group as a team name is unacceptable. In the politically correct world that is 2014, using a racial slur of any other ethnic group the label of a team would not even be considered, yet Washington continues to embrace it. In the nation’s capital, a team has turned the other cheek on what is a dark cloud over American history. Native Americans were pushed off their land, continuously moving west until there was nowhere else to go. “Redskins” does not honor Native American heritage, rather it shows the sloppy use of a demeaning term that was used to brand Native Americans by white settlers. “Redskins” is a racially charged term, and if the actions of Donald Sterling and a Villarreal fan are frowned upon, certainly the use of a derogatory term as a team name in plain sight should be derided by the American public.

In another instance of racism, Philadelphia wide receiver Riley Cooper, who is white, uttered a racial slur in a drunken rant that went viral last offseason. After this incident, NFL considered banning the use of certain epithets on the field. The penalty for saying such slurs would be 15-yard personal foul assessed to the team of the perpetrator. Surprisingly, after the NFL announced their contemplation of such a rule, African American players who had chastised Cooper for using this slur opposed the implementation of the new rule.

What Cooper said was completely wrong and unforgivable, but the double-standard set by the league and its African American players is shocking. Is it possible that there would have been as much of an uproar if Cooper had been African American? Highly doubtful. The word is used in rap songs, and is a part of popular culture, whether we like it or not.

However, it is important to note that Cooper used the term in a hateful way, and directed it at an African American security guard. The word has a hateful past, stemming back hundreds of years. When used by black artists in rap, it can become a term of empowerment, but there is a fine line that must not be crossed in society, and Cooper clearly crossed it.

Racism is also evident in hockey, though it is not usually discussed. Hockey is usually considered a “white” sport, and when current Nashville Predators defenseman Seth Jones (who is bi-racial) entered the NHL draft last year, the questions he faced were unlike that of any incoming draft prospect. He was considered the top prospect in the draft, but was bypassed by the Colorado Avalance, Florida Panthers, and Tampa Bay Lightning before being selected 4th overall by the Predators. It is unclear whether he slid in the draft because of his race, but he has faced an unusual amount of scrutiny in his first season in the league.

As a whole, the NHL is dominated by whites. Out of 690 total players on NHL rosters, only 27 were African-American or African-European. In a country where 12.3% of the population is black, only 3.9% of the NHL’s players are. That disparity exists in part because many African-American role models whom children look up to play sports such as basketball, football, and baseball, but that cannot be the full explanation. No matter the cause of the imbalance, I hope that Jones can serve as an inspiration for other African-American children, and the sport can eventually become more diversified.

To find another instance of subtle racism, it is best to look no further than the NFL, the largest sport in America. Every position comes with a certain stereotype (maybe with the exception of the offensive line), and the way a general manager views the prototypical player at a specific position subconsciously influences the way he drafts his team.

Up until recently, the prototypical quarterback was tall, immobile, and predominantly white. Though there have been a few African-American quarterbacks in the NFL over the past few decades, usually, most quarterbacks were white. Now, however, that inequality gap has been bridged, with teams drafting African American quarterbacks at about the same rate as white quarterbacks. African-American quarterbacks have been quite successful, with the likes of Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick leading their respective teams to the playoffs last season. Also, Bills’ quarterback EJ Manuel and the Jets’ Geno Smith are poised to have very effective seasons.

When it comes to running backs, however, the race issue is a totally different story. Last season, when based on rushing yards, only one white player broke into the top 50, and that was Alex Smith, quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, coming in at #49. The majority of running backs in the league are African-American, and in the upcoming season, the only white running back predicted to start is Toby Gerhart, for the Jacksonville Jaguars. This is not a case of black-on-white racism, since there are a good number of white general managers and coaches in the league. This is a case of racial stereotyping, as white running backs are usually viewed as slow, and are used primarily in the league for blocking purposes. Many fullbacks in the league (or whatever fullbacks are left) are white, which is a testament to that stereotype. Yes, some players have broken the mold (see Danny Woodhead), but no white running back in recent years has been fully successful, like his African-American counterparts.

In this way, racism, or at the least stereotyping based on race, is at play. There are countless other instances of this relatively common occurrence, much too many to possibly name in one article.

In the 21st century, society should be over the issue of race in sports, but evidently, that is not the case. If an owner, player, coach, or fan shows blatant racism in sports, it is important that the fair-minded of the world do our best to educate that person, and if that effort is unsuccessful, ban them from their respective league. Subtle racism, otherwise known as racial stereotyping, is not going away, but coaches and players starting from the youth level all the way through the professional level should make a conscious effort to steadily pull out the weeds of racism that still survive in some places. In this way, we can make our mark on the world, so I urge you, fellow sports fans, to do whatever you can to eliminate this unacceptable behavior from the sports world, and to work towards a world where sports truly do transcend race.

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