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‘Natural athletes’ vs ‘hard workers’

What we talk about when we describe athletes

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On November 4, during a halftime highlights segment on Fox, commentator Terry Bradshaw said that Reggie Bush, a black running back for the Miami Dolphins, was running so fast it looked like he was “chasing a bucket of fried chicken.” In 2009, play-by-play man Gus Johnson described Chris Johnson, a black running back for the Tennessee Titans, as having “getting-away-from-the-cops speed!” Both announcers later gave pseudo apologies – Bradshaw’s comment was apparently an inside joke with another commentator, and Johnson claimed that it was other peoples’ interpretations that made his statement racist, because “people of all races have run from the law.”

So there’s a fair bit of overt racism within sports – what’s new? While much of this overt racism is called out by mainstream media, there’s an undercurrent of subtle racism that goes unchecked. Simply put, players in many sports are put into certain categories based on their race, and the media uses code words to differentiate these players.

‘Athleticism’ is the base word for most of this. Black players are seen as more ‘athletic,’ while non-black athletes are said to succeed with some combination of ‘grittiness’ and ‘awareness.’  These words make the assertion that black athletes are more athletically gifted than their non-black peers, and get by on sheer talent. Non-black players are assumed to make up for their athletic deficiencies through the celebrated practices of hard work and intelligence. It diminishes the achievement of black athletes by not crediting the hard work that all athletes do to become professional athletes. All this adds up to the idea that black athletes have some inherent advantage over non-blacks; and, to even the playing field, these non-blacks work harder. It’s ridiculous to say that the 1 per cent of the population who become professional athletes is racially divided in terms of athleticism, but, lo and behold, this belief is widespread among sports leagues. I’ll focus on the National Football League (NFL) for the purposes of brevity, but it stretches across most professional sports.

In the NFL, some positions have become defined by race. Running backs and wide receivers are ‘black positions’; the white players who succeed at these positions are seen as outliers. Wes Welker, a white wide receiver for the New England Patriots, has been statistically one of the best players in the league; but commentators continually praise his ‘grittiness’ and ‘work ethic’ over his athleticism. Quarterbacks, the most visible players in the NFL, are judged completely differently based on their race. Black quarterbacks are expected to be ‘scramblers,’ running the ball as often as they pass, while white quarterbacks are more often described now as ‘pocket passers,’ big, slow guys who throw the ball only. In this year’s draft, this stereotype was particularly reinforced. The top two picks were both quarterbacks: Andrew Luck, a white quarterback from Stanford University, and Robert Griffin III, a black quarterback from Baylor University. Griffin was labelled as the better running quarterback, even though Luck had averaged more yards per rush during his college career. While it’s true that Griffin’s running ability is a major part of his playing style, this style is grafted onto all black quarterbacks.

Laughably, the media takes these assumed racial roles to heart; black quarterbacks are almost always compared to other black quarterbacks, no matter how different their style of play. Warren Moon, a black quarterback from the eighties and nineties, when conditions for black quarterbacks were even worse, told Yahoo! Sports that “[i]t’s the same old crap – it’s always a comparison of one black to another black.” He further clarified his statements to, saying that “[i]f we’re in a day and age when all quarterbacks are supposed to be equal, why can’t we start comparing quarterback to quarterback, not just black to black and white to white?”

These assumed ‘scrambling’ quarterbacks are still distrusted by many NFL player scouts, as there is some doubt as to whether the assumed scrambler can be a championship quarterback. Due to this assumption, white quarterbacks have been historically favoured in the NFL – their common descriptor being ‘pro-ready’ coming out of college. And it was no surprise that Luck was taken ahead of Griffin in this year’s draft – the white Luck was seen as the ‘safer’ pick. The prevailing notion was that Luck would be the franchise, hall-of-fame, Super Bowl -winning quarterback – Griffin, the more exciting, but ultimately less successful quarterback.

The example of Cam Newton is another good indicator of the problem. Newton, a black quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, has been frequently criticized for pouting and showing too much negative emotion when his team is struggling. Meanwhile, Tom Brady, the white, golden-boy quarterback for the New England Patriots, is either ignored or praised when he is caught angrily yelling at his team on the sidelines. Newton is construed by the media as a pouty diva; Brady, an angry leader of men.

No matter what, players are increasingly pigeonholed into a predefined racial role. The way we judge and define players has been tied to their race – each player now enters with a preconceived narrative set out for them. In professional leagues, where the best athletes in the world come together, there is somehow a belief in tiers of ability based on race. Fans begin to cast roles based on race, and, when someone subverts these roles, they become outliers, something to be studied closely and celebrated when they succeed.

American sports have been racially integrated for decades now, and with that has come a rise in the prominence of black athletes. The media and fans can’t be overtly racist anymore and go unchecked, and thus we have a whole new language of coded words, ones that create an underdog narrative for non-blacks to triumph against a sea of more naturally talented black people. What’s to do about that? Can we derail this media narrative? The only answer is simple: stop buying into it, and call it out when it happens.